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Spotlight on the Vermont Senate race: How would you handle the dairy-farm crisis?

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Posted on September 27, 2018 |
By Addison Independent



ADDISON COUNTY — It has been a very long time since Addison County has seen more than four candidates at one time vying for our two Vermont Senate seats. But this Nov. 6 there will be six candidates on the ballot for the seats representing Addison County, Huntington and Buel’s Gore.

With the unusual number of candidates in the race, we have taken the unusual step of giving each of them room to provide extended, 300-500-word comment on five important issues facing Vermonters today. In today’s issue, and in successive Thursday editions, we will publish their responses to one of the five issues.

The hope is that voters will have a better picture of the candidates and what they could expect of them in office.

The candidates, in alphabetical order, are Marie Audet (Independent), Christopher Bray (Democrat), Peter Briggs (Republican), Archie Flower (Libertarian), Ruth Hardy (Democrat) and Paul Ralston (Independent).

In the coming weeks the candidates will address water quality/Lake Champlain, climate change, education, and health care/affordable housing. Today’s topic is agriculture — an important issue in a county where farming is central to the daily lives of so many of us. We asked them each to respond to the following prompt:

Dairy farms are in crisis with low milk prices, high supply and not enough demand. The number of Vermont dairy farms has declined from around 3,500 in 1980 to fewer than 725 today, and more are going out of business each year. Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts recently wrote an op-ed suggesting Vermont look at better ways to pay Vermont dairy farmers for their milk. But can Vermont create a successful model to change how dairy farmers are paid on its own, or will that have to be solved at the federal issue? Specifically, what measures would you propose if you’re elected to the Senate to help Vermont’s dairy farmers? Please address the decline of dairy farms, how dairy farms are paid, and your solutions.

Marie Audet — Independent

Dairy farmers like me understand that farming is no longer just about the milk. The future of farming is not about the numbers of farms or their size, or type of farm. Today, farming success relies on our ability to balance multiple demands while remaining profitable. We need to make products people want to buy, in a way that is healthy for the animals, our communities, and the environment. Improving and maintaining water quality is our priority. We need to adhere to ever-changing and increasing regulations. We need to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change. And we need to be early adopters, pursuing opportunities for diversifying our revenue and creating value-added products and services.

Milk in the United States is priced on an antiquated federal system beyond farmers’ control, dating back to the Great Depression. Secretary Tebbetts is correct: solutions will take federal action and working with other states. Congressman Peter Welch said it best last week, “Dairy farmers want trade, not aid.” Dairy is part of a global market. The administration’s trade wars are disrupting markets for our whey that we have built over many years. Where we have the most opportunity to strengthen our Vermont farms lies in shifting our approach. When we start from a place that farms are important for our future food security, and they are providing ecosystem benefits for all Vermonters, that farmers want to do good, we can achieve our goals for a sustainable future.

For now, we will continue to see a steady decline in the number of dairy farms. Prolonged periods of depressed milk prices are accelerating the changing face of dairy. Some of our neighbors retire and sell the farm as their retirement. Some farmers, like other businesses are just not in a position to take several years of bad pay price. It takes a toll. The challenges are many, but one thing is for certain: our farms are important. Dairy helps to keep our dollars local, whether it is in our local cheese plants, local agribusinesses, supply stores, banks, insurance companies, and more. In fact, Vermont Dairy creates $2.2 billion in economic activity in our state each year, approximately $385,000,000 in Addison County.

My family has been farming together since 1958. Farming has always been and always will be all-consuming, hard work. Yet, our next generation remains steadfast. They have chosen to remain in our community and are raising their young families here. To ensure that our hope — and the hope of hundreds of other Vermont farmers — is not misplaced, we need our state government to support our innovation instead of implementing punitive measures. Money is better spent on improvements, and diversification. Farmers and their partners like UVM and NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) are moving toward a sustainable future. We need more legislators in Montpelier who understand and best represent our unique perspective and challenges. In my running mate Paul Ralston, I have found a solid partner. We can do better.

Christopher Bray — Democrat

When I joined the Vermont legislature in 2007, I requested a seat on the House Agriculture Committee. In the first weeks of that session, I voted for a $6 million milk price support payment — on top of an earlier $5 million payment. Commodity milk prices then were as low as they are now, and dairy farmers were going out of business at a record pace. The state’s emergency measures were not a sustainable solution.

I responded to this dire situation with H.522, “The Viability of Vermont Agriculture,” the first of many steps I’ve taken to support dairying while expanding what we mean by food and agriculture. Today we also recognize and support local milk, butter, cheeses and ice creams; fruits and vegetables; vineyards and wineries; orchards and cider making; grain and hops production for brewing, distilling and baking; hemp and biomass for energy and fiber; nurseries and greenhouses; honey and maple syrup; beef, chicken, pork and the slaughter and packing facilities to turn them into specialty products; and a thousand more bright spots in our rapidly growing and diversifying food and agricultural economy.

This expansion has been driven by the Farm to Plate bill, which I introduced in 2009. In the last 8 years, we have added over 7,700 new jobs, and over $100 million in increased revenue. Today there are actually more farms in the state than a decade ago.

Some dairy farmers, for reasons that are complex and personal, have chosen not to join these new markets, opting to stay in the federal milk market, which they voted to enter in 2000, and which they can vote to exit.

Because Vermonters deeply care for our farm neighbors and agricultural history, we support farming through over $100 million in annual supports. But Vermont cannot change market fundamentals: a worldwide glut of milk has predictably produced low prices that our state cannot change.

As a former Secretary of the Vermont Milk Commission, I have looked deeply into the business of milk. For decades, with each painful period of low milk prices, we have heard over and over from farmers and coops, “This time it’s different. This time, we are going to change the pricing scheme.”

It has not happened. The problem is that some actors in the dairy world gain even more power with each milk pricing cycle. The commodity market is driven by producing milk cheaper than one’s competitors, and acquiring those who cannot keep up. The result is a shrinking farm population.

Vermont will always produce milk; it will be produced by fewer and larger farms. I will continue to support agriculture, and I will continue to develop our very successful Vermont model: new products, marketed and sold as Vermont products, with our hallmarks of high quality and the non-commodity pricing that comes with having a direct relationship with one’s appreciative and willing customers — customers who value their farmers and producers and who pay fair prices, not those dictated by the federal system.

Peter Briggs — Republican

To combat the low milk price and over supply, I would support a national program, of when the price drops below a break even price (example $18/hundred weight) the percent of milk causing the price to drop (1 percent – 5 percent) would be left at the farm for other uses. This would stabilize the supply and price while totally negating the need for government subsidies.  As the price is set by the federal government and the co-ops are the only handler of milk for the most part, pricing is a federal and co-op problem.

But when it comes to what Vermont can do, the increasing tax burden and regulation burden are costs not only for the farms but for all the businesses that farms do business with. These costs get passed on to the farms that have no control over the pricing of milk and must simply turn the costs into debt or bankruptcy if the price is too low.

As far as increasing markets, I would support the federal effort to negotiate fair trade.

A growing number of small farms are going out due to the cost of complying with government requirements to meet water quality standards. When the government requires pollution control systems that cost more then the value of the farm, the choice is to sell out. It is disappointing that after 30+ years of lake clean up efforts there is still no empirical data to prove any of the efforts being made are doing what the computer models say they will, as a recent Douglas Hoffer audit (May 21,2018 / Rpt. No. 18-03) pointed out. You can read the audit report here.

Archie Flower — Libertarian

“No farms, no food.”

Before I begin my remarks on the state of Vermont’s agriculture and farms, I’d like to thank the Addison Independent for inviting me to write, and to share my thoughts on this and several topics to come. Civic discourse is vital to our republic, and journalism like this provides a necessary forum to engage our neighbors in discussions.

I was born in Middlebury and I’ve lived all my life in Vermont, though never on an active farm. I grew up watching my grandmother tend her garden, very proudly and lovingly connected to the earth, the soil which sustains our communities. Farmers show this kind of love and pride on a much deeper and wider scale — it’s not just their business, it’s their way of life. This past Sunday I had the pleasure to be invited by the Vermont Young Farmers Coalition to tour two farms in Starksboro. These young farmers spoke with passion and vision about how they wanted to make a life out of their chosen field. I believe that Montpelier needs to empower them to do so, mainly by getting out of their way.

I’ve been asked to write about the crisis that dairy farmers face today; and to be clear there is a crisis going on. Dairy farms across our country are going out of business at an alarming rate, and Vermont is not immune. Locally, we see consolidation into bigger farms is changing the nature of the business and the character of our landscape. This ought to be cause for concern for all, not just dairy farmers. “You are what you eat” is a very intimate and personal reality when considered alongside these trends.

My expertise is in information technology, so I can’t speak directly to solutions for farms and farmers. But in studying this issue one thing is very clear to me: the amount of regulation, market interference, market distortions, and over all government control of the agricultural industry is nothing less than breathtaking in scope. It’s all too reminiscent of what the Declaration of Independence says about King George: “He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.”

One of my key planks does offer a solution in the general sense: if elected, I’ll push for an amendment to the Vermont Constitution abolishing property tax and eminent domain. This will give farmers breathing room to be more adaptive to market needs, rather than farming by government fiat. Opening the market up with genuine deregulation (rather than the typical shell game played when that word is used) will allow competition and market forces to grow a new agricultural eco-system, sustainable now and into the future. Farms and the agricultural industry ought to be run by those who know best — farmers — rather than being run by central planning bureaucrats in Montpelier.

Ruth Hardy — Democrat

Many hardworking dairy farmers are struggling, and some are in crisis or near closure. Dairy farms are decreasing in number and those that remain are, on average, becoming larger. Unfortunately, over-supply of milk and low dairy prices are not problems Vermont can solve on its own. Dairy products, like most agricultural products, are subject to national and international markets and economies. A national over-supply of milk and an international trade war have both had detrimental effects on dairy pricing and profits.

However, while Vermont’s small portion of the international market is not big enough to sway national prices, supply, or federal policy, we can work with regional partners on initiatives similar to the Northeast Dairy Compact, which provided higher milk prices for New England dairy farmers. We can support programs that spur agricultural innovation such as the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative, programs that keep land in agricultural production like the Current Use taxation program, and programs that support renewable energy production on farms.

We can also take care of Vermont farmers. Most farms are run by families who struggle with the same issues affecting many Vermont families, including a lack of affordable health care and accessible childcare. Tackling these issues will help farmers, farm workers, and all Vermont workers and businesses.

Farmers also struggle to find workers who will take on the difficult daily work of farming. Advocating for a strong guest worker program and protecting the rights of immigrant farm laborers in Vermont is important to ensure a sufficient labor supply. Additionally, our communities and immigrant farm workers themselves would benefit from better access to resources such as transportation, health care, and healthy foods, as well as fair wages, benefits, and housing, better integrating these valuable newcomers into our tight-knit towns.

Many farmers, particularly dairy and livestock farmers, feel over-regulated and under-supported. While there are resources and funds available to assist farmers, they are not often clear or easily accessible, and regulations can seem arbitrary and punitive. We, as a county and state, farmers and non-farmers, need to discuss issues collaboratively and without blame, finding solutions that can work for all Vermonters.

Finally, while this question was specifically about dairy farming, not all farmers in Addison County are dairy farmers. There are many other types of farmers, including new farmers who are diversifying agriculture with an entrepreneurial and value-added approach. Some of these farmers are helping older farmers transition to retirement by purchasing long-standing dairy farms and converting the land to new crops and enterprises.

Diversification is important for both economic and environmental sustainability. We need a broader, less siloed agricultural policy and economy in Vermont. We should create stronger links between dairy, maple, and artisan food and drink enterprises, and greater integration of tourism, forestry, and agriculture through the promotion of Vermont's working landscape. The overall economy and identity of Vermont needs healthy dairy farms and farmers, so we should all be willing to solve these problems together.

Paul Ralston — Independent

Farming is an important part of Vermont’s economy and our traditional way of life. People farm because they love the land and love their animals. Farming is difficult. Dairy farming has become even more difficult.

Vermont farms need to export their products in order to succeed. U.S. dairies, including Vermont’s, are being hurt by our federally self-inflicted trade war with all our important export markets. Mexico was a big and growing market for our dairy products. We had made important inroads into the Chinese market, where Chinese consumers had become concerned with local dairy contamination. Australia and New Zealand have happily replaced the U.S. there. The U.S. Congress must reassert its traditional role in oversight of trade agreements.

Vermont state government will have little or no impact on macro dairy pricing, barring what no one wants, state taxpayer-funded subsidies.

There are many people around the world that need good nutrition, and Vermont dairy products can help nourish them. Vermont co-ops and value-added producers have brought important dairy-based products to market that are more shelf-stable and can be exported to other markets. Products like a variety of cheeses, dried milk and milk proteins, baby formula ingredients, and nutritional supplements present growing opportunities for Vermont dairy.

Some dairy farmers have converted to organic practices and found new markets. Production in that sector has caught up with demand. A switch to organics is still a calculated financial risk, as the bulk of U.S. consumers have yet to show they are willing to regularly pay the premiums necessary to support organic practices.

Vermont state government still can and must help farmers. When planning our state’s water quality initiatives (see next article), the state must help farmers to contain nutrients on their farm fields and build good soil, thus reducing the cost of fertilizing and reducing nutrient erosion into our waters. These will be cost effective investments, investments in improving technologies and practices. We can help farmers while helping improve the waters of the state. Marie Audet and I believe we can do better.

Look for candidate thoughts on more issues in next Thursday’s Addison Independent. Click here to read more in the series.

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