NEW HAVEN FARMER Derrick Dykstra is one of many young farmers working to have their voices heard on issues that affect the future of farming. He and other farmers under age 30 spoke at a forum hosted by Rep. Peter Welch in Middlebury Tuesday morning.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
By CYRUS LEVESQUE
MIDDLEBURY — When young farm kids want to take up the family business they usually do so with a fair amount of optimism. But when they see the obstacles in their way it can be exasperating.
One case in point is a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that offers low-interest loans to help young farmers start and keep their dairy operations going. But Whiting farmer Kylie Quesnel, 26, said that it’s harder to qualify for those loans if her herd is commingled with a herd belonging to another farmer, such as a parent or other older relative.
“It’s impractical for us to start up on our own,” she said. “It would be nice if that young farmer program really did work for young farmers.”
Quesnel was among a number of farmers who met with Vermont’s Democratic Congressman Peter Welch on Tuesday morning in Middlebury with questions and comments about agricultural policy. Some were concerned about problems facing farmers today, while others were more interested in the fate of the next generation of farmers.
The group who met with Welch on Nov. 27 was about 10 people. Unlike many forums for farmers, more than half the people present were under the age of 30.
The Addison County Young Farmers group was created about two years ago to help about 65 farmers in the county learn their way around the business from the perspective of others in the same position. “We try to learn from each other. Everybody can learn something from somebody,” said Derrick Dykstra, 26, of New Haven, who helped get the group started.
In some cases their concerns were specific to people in their position, like the accessibility of loans and the long-term impact of new technology and whether it gets adopted. Other concerns were universal to the industry, though, like the fate of the federal farm bill now being worked on by both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate in various forms.
Many parts of the bill are still up in the air, but Welch said that the Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) program would be preserved. MILC offers payments to farmers when the wholesale price of milk drops below a predetermined level. The safety net that the program provides has been important to the farmers present, but Welch acknowledged that more would be needed if agriculture is going to really flourish.
“It’s not going to save dairy, it’s just a floor, and a basement floor at that,” he said.
Welch said that one problem with the farm bill is that it includes unnecessary subsidies to commodity crops like corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and rice. Farmers of those crops get billions of dollars in subsidies regardless of sale price, he said. “You’ve got a lot of taxpayer subsidies of crops, the prices of which have never been higher. I don’t think that makes much sense,” he said.
Although those subsidies only make up about 14 percent of the farm bill, Welch argued that he hoped to cut those because they were the ones that could be most easily cut; the bulk of the bill does benefit Vermont farmers in some way. For example, a large chunk of the bill is made up of funding for nutrition programs, which supports efforts like the Farm-to-School program to support schools using food from local farms in their cafeterias.
Some farmers told Welch to consider carefully what could be cut from the farm bill.
“Even though we are a small percentage of the population, we are the backbone of the country,” said Starksboro dairy farmer Jane Clifford, who is the vice president of the Vermont Dairy Industry Association.
The farm bill was supposed to be completed before Oct. 1, the beginning of the federal government’s fiscal year, but Welch told the group that it probably will not be passed until the beginning of 2008 at the earliest. And Welch said it may face a veto from President Bush.
Another concern of those who will likely be farming for decades to come is how the market handles new technology. Quesnel said that milk processors are less and less willing to buy milk produced using recombinant bovine growth hormone, often known by its chemical name, rBST, which some farmers use to increase milk yield.
There is no detectable difference between milk produced using rBST and milk produced without it, Quesnel said, but many customers think of milk produced without artificial hormones as “organic lite,” so the processors prefer it. However, that results in less production and less income for the farmers, according to Quesnel.
“We’re losing efficiency when we’re losing these technologies,” she said. “It’s educating people through fear rather than through truth.”
Immigration reform and the supply of available labor is also a concern of farmers young and old. It’s not just large commercial farms that employ guest workers; Quesnel said that even organic farms with as few as 40 cows sometimes have to rely on them.
The immigration issue, though, is outside the scope of the farm bill. Welch said that comprehensive immigration reform would be needed before farmers and other employers would see meaningful improvements. “We need a different guest worker program that’s streamlined,” he said.
While the young farmers were optimistic about some issues — they are all interested in pursuing a career in farming, after all — Dykstra said that in the long term, it’s hard to predict what will happen, and there’s only so much that the farm bill could accomplish. Referring to the wholesale cost of milk per hundredweight, he said with a laugh, “I’d like to tell him we’d like to see $25 milk for the rest of our lives, but I’m pretty sure that’s not going to happen.”