BURLINGTON — In the first visit from the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to Vermont in 20 years, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack last weekend told Vermont’s struggling dairy farmers that changes in their industry are overdue, but that any reforms will need to come from farmers, not Washington.
The visit came at the end of what has been the hardest year in recent memory for Vermont farmers, who have been selling milk below the cost of production and taking out enormous loans to keep their farms in business.
During his Saturday visit, Vilsack addressed dairy farmers at a “dairy town hall” meeting at the Hilton Hotel in Burlington; gave the keynote address at the crowded Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont conference at the University of Vermont; and attended the Saint Albans Cooperative Creamery annual meeting in Saint Albans.
Appearing alongside Vermont’s entire Congressional delegation, Vilsack told farmers at the Hilton town meeting that the actions that have worked in the past to revive previous dairy downturns don’t seem to be sufficient anymore.
“The peaks and valleys of this industry have become very severe, and very frequent,” Vilsack said. “It’s become clear that … the things that we have done in the past (such as dairy price supports) … those are temporary measures. Those are measures that hopefully stem the bleeding. But I think it’s fair to say that the time has come for the industry to come together.”
Vilsack also brought good news for farmers: He spoke at length about the USDA’s efforts to bolster the local foods movement, invest in regional and local food supply chains and processing plants, and help small farmers build up their businesses.
On the dairy front, Vilsack did not voice his own opinions about the proposal for a growth management program to eliminate dairy surpluses, a plan favored by many Vermont farmers who think the system could smooth out the boom and bust cycle of high and low milk prices. Vilsack said that a new national dairy council would be investigating the idea.
“I don’t want to pre-judge or pre-direct their deliberations.” Vilsack said. “I will say this: It is fairly clear there has to be some process in place that creates greater price stability.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said that such a change was “long overdo.”
“The bottom line (is that) the preservation family-based dairy is of enormous consequence, not only to farmers but to economy of the state of Vermont and to our entire way of life,” Sanders said.
LOCAL FARMERS RESPOND
Local farmers who attended the meeting said that Vilsack’s call for consensus among dairy farmers hasn’t fallen on deaf ears. In fact, they said that New England farmers, co-ops and others in the dairy industry have already rallied around common talking points.
Middlebury dairyman Robert Foster read from a prepared statement during the question-and-answer period of the meeting, and dairy farmers argued that the statement — which was signed by representatives from the Agri-Mark milk co-op, Farm Bureau of Vermont, the Holstein Association USA, the Vermont Secretary of Agriculture, Dairy Farmers of America Northeast Council/Dairylea, and four other groups — was the perfect illustration that New England farmers are on the same page.
“Who says we can’t agree?” asked Bridport dairy farmer Marie Audet after the meeting. Audet farms with her family at Blue Spruce Farm, and is active with dairy advocacy group Dairy Farmers Working Together, another supporter of Foster’s statement. “There’s a lot of stuff that we’re agreeing on. That’s a huge step. What we’re looking for as an industry is a fundamental change, not just a Band-aid.”
Foster urged Vilsack and President Barack Obama to build a new milk pricing program that would minimize price volatility, protect gross margins, and provide adequate prices for farms to stay in business.
He also said any program, in order to be effective, would need full participation from dairy farmers, and Foster said action is needed immediately. In his opinion, waiting for the 2012 farm bill would leave dairy farmers in limbo too long.
At the end of his prepared statement, though, Foster went off script, hinting at the desperation felt by many in the dairy industry.
“Personally, in my view, the Northeast dairy farmers, and the support structures — which include the vets, the banks, the machinery dealers, the feed dealers — are quite literally bleeding to death financially right now,” Foster said.
That sense of desperation was absent from many of the other comments at the meeting, though, something Audet chalked up to the nature of farmers.
“Why are farmers so quiet?” she asked. “It’s been the worst year ever, and still there is such quietness about it. We’re not whiners.”
Plus, Audet said that Vermont dairymen are confident that legislators understand how dire the financial situation has become for Vermont dairies. For now, she is focused on keeping up momentum around reform for the dairy industry.
Though one farmer at the Saturday meeting pointed out that farmers have been meeting to hash out the “dairy problem” for years, Audet thinks this time is finally different.
“The feeling (before) was, ‘We’ve just got to get through this downturn and then it will be OK.’ I think there’s a realization that that’s not OK anymore,” Audet said. “There’s no end to this boom and bust cycle.”
Cornwall dairy farmer John Roberts also attended the meeting. Roberts late last month was appointed by the Obama administration as the chair of the Vermont Farm Service Agency State Committee, and had the chance to speak with Vilsack before the town hall meeting. He said he was impressed with the ag chief, who in Roberts’s view was realistic with the farmers who turned out for the meeting.
“Unless dairy farmers across this country can agree, it’s going to be very, very hard for Congress to do anything,” Roberts said, insisting that Congress is where change will eventually have to happen.
Roberts was also hopeful that the new national Dairy Advisory Committee — on which one Vermont farmer from Franklin County is sitting — will make headway in the next few months.
Of all of the ideas being floated by dairy farmers across the country — including growth management plans, a call for the status quo, and the possibility of “risk insurance” to insure against economic downturns — Roberts, like Audet and Foster, thinks a growth management plan is the option that makes sense.
But farmers have to voice strong support for that plan in order for Vilsack and others to come to the table, Roberts said.
“Obviously (Vilsack) didn’t come out and wave his magic wand and say, ‘This is the solution,’” Roberts said. “Like any administration, they are cautious about stepping out on the edge of the springboard without knowing there’s a whole bunch of water in the pool.”
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at email@example.com