MIDDLEBURY — Addressing a crowd of around 50 farmers Monday night at the Middlebury American Legion, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., offered a few words of support for dairy farmers struggling to make a living: the dairy crisis isn’t a Vermont issue or a New England issue so much as a national one, and lawmakers are paying attention.
Sanders spoke at the Addison County Farm Bureau annual meeting, where members of the organization unanimously supported a new direction in the bureau’s dairy policy by voting in a resolution that supports a “mandatory growth management program that can react quickly to the market demands.”
That position diverges from the current state and national Farm Bureau stances, which do not support supply management plans.
Supply management proposals in the dairy industry would use various methods to limit the amount of milk on the market in order to drive up the price farmers get for their product.
Sanders said the push for supply management in the dairy industry has to come from farmers, but that he’s a supporter for the policy change. He hopes this sort of a system would eliminate some of the volatility in the industry that makes it hard for young farmers in particular to get a foot in the business.
Sanders also updated farmers on the work the Vermont Congressional delegation has done to get short-term emergency aid to farmers in need. Most recently, that included passing an amendment that will dole out $350 million in emergency assistance to dairy farmers.
He defended the use of that federal money, after rattling off a list of other industries the U.S. government supports, including health care and military sectors. If current trends continue, and small family farms continue to disappear, Sanders said that he worries the United States will end up with a handful of “large, giant agro-business corporations” in charge of the country’s food supply.
“I happen to believe that the issue of food security is as important an issue as any other,” Sanders said. “We don’t want to be dependent on a handful of large corporations for our food, we don’t want to be dependent on foreign countries for our food. You know what the American people want? What the American people want increasingly is good quality food. They want the food locally produced. They want it healthy. And they want to know the people who are producing that food, which is you.”
What that means, Sanders said, is that the vast majority of Americans — including those who have never set foot on a farm — want small-scale producers to survive.
But at least one farmer on Monday night urged Sanders and other lawmakers not just to focus their attention on the dairy industry in times of trouble.
Sanders agreed drastic changes need to be made in addition to short-term emergency aid.
“There is something in my view profoundly wrong when eight out of every 10 cents that a consumer pays for a dairy product does not go to the individuals who produce that product,” Sanders said.
Changing the Addison County Farm Bureau’s dairy policy topped the “to do” list at Monday evening’s meeting, and the resolution passed with little discussion, though policies brought up later in the evening sparked more debate. Farmers also discussed supporting possible term limits for dairy cooperative directors — a resolution the bureau eventually passed — and also discussed Vermont’s Current Use program.
Addison County Farm Bureau President Bill Scott will present the new resolutions at a meeting of the Vermont Farm Bureau in November.