Editorial: Dairy: Finding common cause
It’s no secret that dairy farms in Vermont have been on the decline for the past 50-plus years, but while the dairy industry talks about it, the larger community has been slow to have a frank discussion about how it impacts our schools and towns.
In 1965, Vermont had more than 6,000 dairy farms compared to fewer than 750 today. In 2018, alone, Vermont saw the number of dairy farms decrease 10 percent.
That’s also reflected in Addison County where the number of dairy farms declined from 140 to 96 between 2012 and 2017. Of particular interest is the number of dairy farms with 200 to 499 cattle and calves: statewide the number of farms in that sector dropped from 220 to 133 and in Addison County from 65 to down to just 25 farms. Of those farms with 100 to 199 cattle and calves, the numbers dropped statewide from 305 to 280, but in Addison County it plunged from 39 to 15.
If that trend doesn’t change, the number of dairy farms in Addison County come the next census in 2022 will drop another 30 farms to 66, and by 2027 to 46. In that process, the likely trend is that small farms will be taken over by larger farms, so the number of cows and the quantity of milk is not likely to drop by a lot, if history is a guide, but what will change are the number of dairy farm families living in the county. That could impact our rural schools to a significant degree, as well as rural country stores and other rural amenities.
That’s the threat.
Add in the environmental pressure to reduce phosphorus run-off into our lakes and streams, and reduce methane gases released into the air and it is difficult to paint a financially rosy picture for many of the county’s remaining dairy farms. (And they’re not the only business sector suffering; many smaller retail stores have been on the decline, as well, and it’s even tough for community newspapers. Indeed, many have suggested rural America across the country is facing tough times.)
With dairy, two scenarios offer a more optimistic vision forward, though with drastically different outcomes.
The first is to encourage market forces to prevail. That is, keep government out of the picture and encourage larger farms to take over smaller farms. Under that scenario, government plays a role by mandating that all farms — big and small — be required to comply with environmental concerns sooner than later and with no government subsidies. That’s the conservative way, and it makes sense in the stark manner in which corporate forces work. Large farms, after all, have been able to pave the way to sustainability, while also do an admirable job of reducing their carbon and phosphorus footprints if they are motivated to do so.
The second scenario would be the Canadian or Scandinavian model in which government subsidizes smaller farms for a number of worthy social reasons — primarily because they would keep the farm land productive, preserving the vistas, populating rural Vermont and keeping our small communities alive.
Marie Audet, spokesperson and co-owner of Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport, speaks to some of those ideas in a front-page story in today’s paper. That story highlights her induction into Vermont’s Agricultural Hall of Fame as an innovator, and indeed Blue Spruce Farm has been among the most progressive and innovative dairy operations in the Northeast.
Audet also maintains a laudable sense of responsibility to the environment nothing that “there are practices and technology available that can ensure that farms not only feed us but provide us with the clean water we need and sequester more carbon at the end of the day and clean our air.” The issue is cost. Larger farms, like the Audet’s, have been able to finance such improvements on their own, but if society deems it important that smaller farms survive — but also comply with the state’s and nation’s environmental concerns — government help may be in order.
The challenge for the broader community is not to pick one tactic over the other (government subsidy or letting the market prevail), but to find common cause with the dairy community. “We want to do good and we want to be good neighbors,” Audet said, and we can only imagine that she speaks for the majority of dairy farmers in the county. To be good neighbors in return, those of us in Addison County need to work with them at the local level and then take those ideas to Montpelier with a plan that allows our rural communities and our farmers to build a sustainable future together.
Failing to confront the issue will only lead to continued decline for both.
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