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Moats: Though dairy wanes, Vermont agriculture can thrive

2019-03-04

By David Moats as seen in the VtDigger.org: https://vtdigger.org/2019/03/04/moats-though-dairy-wanes-vermont-agricul...

A crisis atmosphere pervades the topic of farming this year among Vermont farmers, policymakers and anyone else who cherishes Vermont’s working landscape. Low milk prices during the past four years have forced dairy farms out of business at an alarming pace, putting the future of the state’s economy and environment at risk.The decline in the number of dairy farms has been precipitous. In 2008 there were 1,091. Now there are 696. Last year 75 farms ceased operations, more than one a week.

Vermont is still a major dairy state. In fact, the state is more dependent on a single commodity than any other state — more than peaches in Georgia or corn in Illinois. And despite the decline in the number of farms, milk production is up. Vermont farms produced 2.6 billion pounds of milk in 2014, valued at $626 million. Most recently, Vermont farms increased production to 2.73 billion pounds, but that higher total yielded only $454 million, showing the damaging effect of continuing low milk prices.

But there is also good news. The stunning growth of smaller farms dedicated to diversified crops, sustainability and organic farming has created a positive counter-narrative to the dismal story of commodity dairy farming.

Here is a remarkable figure, taken from legislative testimony by Paul Costello, executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development: Between 2010 and 2017, 742 new food systems businesses were established in Vermont, adding 6,559 new jobs.

That is a huge number of jobs. These were not just people hoeing rows of carrots. They included everyone handling Vermont-grown food, from yogurt makers and milk processors to restaurants and wineries. It is evident that the role of food in Vermont remains central to the state’s economy.

Costello noted that since 2013 the state’s Working Lands Enterprise Initiative invested in 118 farm and forest enterprises, creating 485 jobs. And he said the Vermont Land Trust has a list of 300 farmers seeking help in getting onto the land. They could be a wiser investment, or at least as wise, as paying people to move to Vermont to work remotely on their computers, as the Scott administration has proposed.

On the whole, nearly 72,000 Vermonters are employed in the farm and forest sector — that’s 28 percent of Vermont’s private sector jobs. And they depend on Vermont’s working landscape.

Wendell Berry, the great essayist and farmer from Kentucky, wrote that agricultural surpluses leading to low prices “are accountable for more destruction of land and people than any other economic ‘factor.’” He has described the decline of farming in his home county and the social decay that followed, leading to addiction, alienation and the loss of community.

Or as Jack Lazor put it recently, “We are victims of our own success.”

Lazor is a pioneering organic farmer who bought his farm in Westfield in 1976 and began one of the first organic dairies in the nation. He started with four Jersey cows. Now he operates Butterworks Farm where he produces about 5,000 quarts of yogurt each week. He understands that overproduction of milk nationally keeps the price to the farmer low, forcing many farmers to adopt industrial farming techniques leading to herds in the thousands of cows and even larger surpluses. Lazor milks about 45 cows in the barn of his Orleans County farm, using the milk mainly for yogurt but also for buttermilk, kefir, cream and cottage cheese.

Those looking for a way for agriculture to survive the prolonged price slump often point to value-added operations like Butterworks or the plethora of cheesemakers in the state who do more with their milk than ship it off to a commodity market where everyone is competing for the bottom of the market.

Lazor is also an advocate of farming practices that build the soil. His cows are now all grass-fed, which requires maintaining healthy pastures, and he uses cover crops in fields where he grows his grains — oats, barley and wheat. Climate scientists see the ability of plants to sequester carbon in the soil as an important means of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and curbing climate change. Soil scientists point out that the roots of living plants help create healthy, nutrient-rich soil with a higher percentage of organic matter.

In fact, paying farmers for what are called “environmental services” is an idea that is gaining attention. Grants to help farmers curb pollution will be essential in addressing the problem of lake pollution. Encouraging farmers to take land out of corn and putting it into grassland is another way to promote a healthier environment.

The Working Lands Coalition is taking on these problems. And yet there are far more requests for grants than there is money available. That’s why it is asking the Legislature to invest $3 million in each of the next five years to build up the Working Lands Enterprise Fund. It would be an economic development initiative with widespread positive consequences for the environment and the state’s rural communities.

Organic farming or other value-added operations are no panacea. Farming is not easy at whatever scale. Jack Lazor has had to be an astute student of farming and its economics. When he shifted to all grass-fed animals a few years ago, it had a major effect on his cash flow, yielding high-quality milk but reducing production. He has had to wrestle with distribution problems and the question that many farmers face: how to pass the farm on to the next generation. He had many flush years that allowed him to buy equipment and build barns, including the towering granary visible beyond the trees from the nearby road. But the Great Recession hit him hard, and even in the organic sector the field is a more crowded field now and there is more competition. Yogurt brands have proliferated since Butterworks began to fill store coolers.

Part of what is at stake during the present crisis is what Chuck Ross calls the “cultural context” of our agricultural communities. Ross was secretary of agriculture during the Shumlin administration and is now director of the University of Vermont Extension Service. At the turn of the 20th century 98 percent of Americans had some connection to farming, he said. Now it is about 2 percent. “People don’t understand at a basic level the generation of their food,” he said.

Some of the farms going out of business today will be gobbled up by larger farms; consolidation has been under way for many years. Smaller, value-added operations will pick up some land. But active farming is likely to cease in many areas, and the rural way of life will fade, and the working landscape will go unattended.

There is much business support for farmers at present, according to Ross, but there is no “no long-term, sure-fire solution.” He points to the need to address choke points in the supply chain and to promote seed money to help people buy equipment and create food hubs. The state’s Farm to Plate program has shown what success looks like, helping direct Vermont-grown products to school cafeterias.

At bottom, the farm economy is suffering the way other segments of the economy are suffering. Vermont farmers forced to compete against the 10,000-cow operations of Idaho or California are in a position similar to that of the retailer on Main Street competing against Walmart for the bottom of the market. In fact, pressure from Walmart to keep milk prices low has hurt dairy farmers, too.

The United States is not likely to adopt a supply-management program soon to curb surpluses, as Canada has done, mainly because the big players benefit from low prices. But as in other segments of the economy, public intervention to help local businesses and communities survive is essential.

Jack Lazor remains an optimist. He would have to be to prosper as he has done through the ups and downs of the past four decades. But he points to a worrisome reality. “The bottom line is people do not want to pay for their food.”

Removed from the cultural context of agriculture, customers don’t know that the low prices they enjoy are bankrupting the farmers who produce their food. Helping people understand that they need to pay to keep the farm economy alive is important. So is providing support to the farmers who keep Vermont’s working landscape working.

Editor’s note: David Moats, an author and journalist who lives in Salisbury, is a regular columnist for VTDigger. He is editorial page editor emeritus of the Rutland Herald, where he won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials on Vermont’s civil union law.