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Perfect storm for farmers eases a bit with emergency funds

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By CYRUS LEVESQUE

NEW HAVEN — Coming on the heels of what has been described as a “perfect storm” of problems for the Vermont’s dairy industry, the $8.6 million emergency relief program announced at last Thursday’s dairy summit drew praise from local farmers.

 “It will encourage a lot of people to work for nothing if they have to, because they know they are supported,” William Scott, a farmer from Vergennes said at a Farm Bureau meeting at Rep. Harvey Smith’s house last Thursday. About a dozen Addison County farmers attended the monthly meeting and all agreed that just knowing the state government and state residents understood the depth of the crisis meant a lot to them.

Any help is appreciated, said Harvey Smith, president of the Addison County Farm Bureau, who hosted the meeting at his own farm. For most farmers, the aid will only amount to a few thousand dollars of direct aid to counteract an estimated average decline in farm income of $50,000 this year just due to the lower price of milk, plus an equally onerous hit caused by crop damage and higher fuel costs. “It isn’t meant to replace the total amount of the loss,” Smith said.

The total aid package announced Thursday morning by Gov. James Douglas amounted to $8.9 million of aid, almost all of which will go to dairy farmers. Direct grants to dairy farmers based on the amount of milk they produce will total $8.6 million. The package also included a $100,000 cash infusion for the Farm Viability Program, which provides financial counseling and business planning for farmers, and $100,000 for the Buy Local program, an effort to encourage Vermonters to support local farms and agricultural producers.

The aid package also included additional funding for the organic transition program. As farms look for ways to be financially viable, more farms are turning to niche markets, including organic dairy production. The Legislature budgeted $75,000 to facilitate that process during the regular legislative session, and the aid package announced on June 29 added an additional $100,000 to that program.

The dairy industry has been struggling for months. Rising expenses driven by increases in fuel prices (estimated at $20,000 annually for an average dairy farm) and falling income caused by depressed milk prices have made it difficult for Vermont dairy farmers to make ends meet. The extremely wet spring and summer has also ruined crops and spoiled feed for livestock, causing estimated losses statewide of $54 million, or an average of $45,000 per dairy farm.

Jackie Folsom of Cabot Cheese and the Vermont Farm Bureau felt that the aid will take some pressure off farms even though it can’t solve all their problems. “It gives us all some breathing space,” she said.

“It’s mitigating the whole disparity in lost income,” agreed John Rooney of Monument Farms, who also attended the meeting.

The risk of farms going out of business is always a concern, according to Smith. However, after farmers have invested the work and land in planting a crop they are generally committed to seeing it through, so few farmers are likely to give up this early in the year, he said.

Some farmers have had to do so, though. The Demars family in Bridport sold their herd of 295 cows on June 9.

“It was for a bunch of reasons,” said Mary Demars, but the money problems now affecting all farms played a large part. “It wasn’t worth it financially.”

She and her husband have been managing the farm owned by his family for 12 years. “I think everybody’s doing the same thing — dipping into your equity to pay the bills,” she said. “We decided to get out while we still had (equity) and prices for cattle are still high.”

All farmers have had to make some sacrifices this year, according to Smith, but the agricultural community seems to be taking steps in the right direction. The state’s announcement on June 29 had “bits and pieces” for everybody, Smith said. “People from all across the political spectrum have recognized where the agricultural industry is today.”

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