John Roberts: Farmers can make change

JOHN ROBERTS OF Cornwall says that his organization is working with farmers, the state and consumers to solve water and soil quality problems in a way that keeps the dairy sector alive. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

CORNWALL — John Roberts is the first executive director of the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition, a Middlebury nonprofit that works on public policy in the areas of water quality, soil health, and other areas that affect farms and their communities.
The coalition includes about 100 farms in Addison, Chittenden, Rutland and Washington counties and is supported by an array of grants, including a four-year grant from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture’s Clean Water Initiative Program.
Roberts, who is English, was introduced to Vermont in his early 20s through a job at Shelburne Farms, where he eventually worked as the manager from 1974 to 1977. He and his wife then bought a farm in Cornwall, where they milked 195 Brown Swiss cows for decades, and sold breeding stock around the country.
The couple sold the 400-acre farm in 2016, but Roberts has stayed active in the industry. He was an elected delegate on the Agrimark dairy cooperative for nearly 30 years, spent nine years on the board of the Vermont Land Trust and 11 years on the now-defunct Vermont Water Resources Board, has been a longtime member of the Cornwall selectboard, and worked for several years as a water quality specialist for the Agency of Agriculture.
With Roberts’ hiring in June, the 100-member coalition — which includes produce farmers and even a beekeeper — is gearing up to play a role in the coming legislative session and elsewhere. In December, the coalition revamped its website and opened a Facebook page and accounts on Twitter and Instagram.
VTDigger talked with Roberts about the issues facing farmers in the Lake Champlain watershed. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. What led you and others to start this group?
There were about 12 of us, and we could see that there was increasing environmental pressure and concern about what farmers were doing, and what was happening to our waterways, particularly Lake Champlain.
We felt strongly that farmers could do a very good job at changing things. There is no denying that practices needed to be changed. None of our farmers are blindly saying that everything is hunky-dory and that you, the consumer, just don’t understand what we are doing.
The dairy industry still brings around $600 million a year into this state, $5 million to $7 million — depending on the year — from selling milk out of state. Vermont supplies 65 percent of all dairy products in the Boston area. We are very, very important to the New England area.
Yet many of our legislators really don’t understand that. They fall into the trap of complaining about our environmental impact, and I’m not denying in the past that may have had some truth behind it, but farmers have changed dramatically. The flip side of the coin is now they (legislators) are looking to farmers to solve some of our climate and environmental problems.
Our goals are to be a resource for the state and to improve water quality, to try new techniques, to advise and educate with other farmers about new management techniques like cover dropping, cropping, no-till planting, manure injection, improved grazing management, those sorts of things. Yes, there is a lot more to be done, but there has been a significant drop in the level of phosphorus that is potentially running into Lake Champlain.
Around 2012, we had about 5,000 acres of cover cropping in Vermont, and we’re up to around 50,000 acres of cover cropping now. I’d like to see a day when I drive around at this time of year and I do not see a brown field, I do not see a field of cornstalks, I do not see a field that has been freshly plowed. I want to see a cover crop, I want to see green, because the evidence is almost overwhelming that this improves soil, retains nutrients, reduces runoff … there are so many benefits.
Some people say it’s nearly impossible for smaller Vermont dairy farmers to compete successfully against their larger counterparts.
It is possible for conventional dairy to withstand the economic pressures. It is more challenging for a certain size of farm, and it depends on the debt load. Some are making it; some are having difficulty.
Basically, farmers have no control over what their product is sold for — and it has no relationship to what it costs them to produce — so there have been huge incentives to move toward efficiency. The dairy industry has moved in that direction very successfully. When I moved to Vermont in 1974, the average production of a cow in Vermont was between 10,000 and 12,000 pounds of milk a year. That number is more like 25,000 pounds a year now.
The carbon footprint of cows has generally gone down in those last 30, 40 years, and it is still going down.
Q. What are the public policy pressures facing dairy farmers?
We still have farms in Vermont with 1,500 to 3,000 cows on them, and a lot of people in Vermont are horrified by that. They have been told, partly by the media, that this is factory farming. I would sort of suggest that all farming to a degree is factory farming. It became factory farming the moment one farmer started selling his milk to his neighbor and the neighbor stopped having a cow.
But if you really go visit some of these high-level large farms, their modus operandi is the cows have to be comfortable and well taken care of, because that’s the way they produce milk.
We milked 195 cows, and it was very difficult because we weren’t big enough to buy in bulk. But our value-added product was selling breeding stock all over the country. That bridged the gap between the price of the milk we were getting and having the money to invest back into the operation to keep it modern.
We also had the advantage that we did have Brown Swiss cows, which are a minority breed. When we sold to Agrimark, our milk check was on average $1 to $1.50 higher than other people’s because of the butterfat and protein in milk. Agrimark being a cheesemaker, they paid us well for that Brown Swiss milk.
Q. How can the coalition help conventional dairy farmers?
I want to try to expand the relationship between our farmers and the consumers, and make sure that the consumer is fully aware of where their product comes from. Huge numbers of surveys have said both in-state and nationally that consumers want the money they spend on food to go directly to the farmer.
We dairy farmers have struggled for years and years to change the pricing system to make it more reflective of regional cost differences, to make it more responsive, and basically we haven’t made a lot of progress. It’s a national system governed by Congress.
I am going to work with state organizations and others to make sure that we’re not having unnecessary or unproductive regulatory issues, and to make sure funding for fixing water-quality problems is readily available and doesn’t have too many strings attached.
Through the state clean water fund that pays for our operations, we are on the hook to achieve certain water-quality goals. Mismanagement has a role in water-quality problems, but that may be a lack of education. I have suggested to state agencies that we encourage farmers — whether it’s through investments in equipment or whatever — to spread much of their manure more on a year-round basis.
I’m going to encourage my membership to make sure that they are fully understanding, when they make decisions, that they are managing their farm as a business, and ask: “Should I be a beef farmer, or a goat farmer?”
My wife and I when we farmed back in 1996 had a debate about should we give up on cows and go to goats. We didn’t, because back then I was nervous about the fact that, if I were a goat farmer, I was sort of going to be out there on my own, being not only the producer but also the salesperson. I was not confident of my abilities. I wish in some ways I had taken the plunge and done it, because I think my abilities were actually pretty good and still are.
We can’t directly lobby, but I am reaching out to my legislators, and I am hoping to have a chat with (newly elected Lt. Gov.) Molly Gray, for example. I supported her in the election; she’s a farmer’s daughter. I want her to be aware of some of our concerns; there are things that might come up in the Legislature this year that will have a direct impact on farmers.
Q. Are there other organizations like this coalition?
There are two other watershed groups: the Farmer’s Watershed Alliance in Franklin County and the Connecticut River Watershed Farmers Alliance in White River Junction. We work closely with them and we’re about to organize a joint virtual annual meeting for the first time ever. I’m interested in collaboration.

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