As Gov. James Douglas addresses the task of replacing Secretary of Agriculture Steve Kerr the future of farmers throughout the state may hang in the balance. Itâ€™s not that one person will make or break the farm community, but that the direction state policy proceeds during the next few years could either set the path for new growth on Vermont farms or continue the rapid demise of dairy farms Vermont has seen for the past 50 years.
The demise, as most everyone knows, has cut the number of farms in the state by a third in the past decade â€” from 2,265 in 1993 to 1,459 in 2003. Itâ€™s not a new trend. The number of dairy farms in Vermont in 1983 was 3,216; in 1973 it was 3,852; in 1963, there were 7,127, and in 1953, there were 10,637. On average about 8 percent to 10 percent of our dairy farms have been going out of business each year.
The recent cause of farm losses is also without question: The price of milk generally doesnâ€™t meet the cost of production. Vermont, however, canâ€™t control the price of milk; so dairy farmers throughout the Green Mountain State have been relying on a hope and a prayer â€” year after year â€” that milk prices will exceed costs on a cycle thatâ€™s long enough to erase their prior losses. Since the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact was squashed by President George W. Bush and Congress, however, Vermontâ€™s dairy farmers have been on the short end of that cycle â€” and now, six years later, many of them are barely hanging on.
Douglas knows this. And he knows that the decision of who to bring in as the new secretary of agriculture will set the stateâ€™s agriculture policy for the next few years.
Itâ€™s a big decision â€” one that affects thousands of farm families (non-dairy as well as dairy), the stateâ€™s agricultural heritage, and the rural vistas that make Vermont such a treasure.
Itâ€™s also a decision that demands a thoughtful, inclusive and thorough consideration of the potential candidates, not a rushed, behind-the-scenes appointment that speaks more of political favoritism than far-reaching policy.
As important as setting policy for Vermontâ€™s farmers will be the new secretaryâ€™s ability to appease a sometimes fractious farm community. With the split between organic and traditional farming still igniting sparks on various issues, the new secretary will have to be as skilled in diplomacy as he is in political dodge-ball to effectively navigate the struggle between a Democratic Legislature and a Republican governor.
Whatâ€™s clear in todayâ€™s agricultural economy in Vermont is that the current direction is failing dairy farmers, and it isnâ€™t doing much for non-dairy farmers either. The time is right to lead in a new direction. Douglasâ€™ choice of a candidate will determine just how bold Mr. Douglas dares to be when the last marble is on the line. Or will he opt for a more cautious route and watch as farmers dwindle in numbers by keeping to the same milquetoast policies that have failed in the past.
Whichever route Douglas takes, we would hope he outlines a selection process that encourages the best and brightest to apply. We would also hope the public, or at least the farm community, has a chance to learn who the candidates are and weigh in with their thoughts, support and concerns before the selection is made. How refreshing, if potentially awkward, it would be to see an open process in this appointment in which the broader community had a substantive role to play.
That, in itself, would be a bold move by the governor.
Angelo S. Lynn