Vermont dairy farmers testify about their current economic conditions

by Bethany M. Dunbar
MONTPELIER, VT — Dairy farmers told the Vermont Senate Agriculture Committee about their lives and farms at a hearing Friday, April 5.
Legislators heard that the Current Use program is critical, and that a methane digester on every farm would be good.
Current Use taxes farm and forest land at its working value for farming or forestry — as opposed to its fair market value which is usually much higher. In exchange for the savings, landowners are not allowed to develop the land enrolled in the program.
The difference between its value as working land and fair market value is made up by the state, which costs $54.6 million a year. About one-third of Vermont’s land is enrolled in the program.
Most of the farmers who spoke on the subject said they do not want migrant farm workers to get Vermont driver’s licenses before the issue of illegal immigrant farm workers is addressed nationally. On the same day, the Vermont Senate passed a bill that would allow undocumented workers to get driver’s licenses here.
Not many of the farmers testifying on Friday mentioned genetically modified organisms (GMO). But those who did said it won’t matter what the state of Vermont does in the long run because the market does not want GMOs anyway; therefore farmers are not growing genetically modified food products.
The Legislature is considering a bill to require labeling of all food in Vermont to show if it has GMO ingredients. Corporations have been threatening to sue Vermont if it does pass the bill.
Friday’s session was called by Senate Agriculture Chairman Bobby Starr of North Troy, who said he hopes to build a case for changing the federal milk price system. “We don’t have enough milk in Vermont to supply our New England market,” he said. He said the system is meant to make sure people in each region have a good supply of fresh milk to drink. At this point, he said, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island have lost their dairy industries and New Jersey is shipping milk in from Michigan and parts west.
“If we can show them that we do not have enough milk,” he said, the federal order could possibly be changed. “I doubt if there’s anybody in this room that couldn’t make more milk if they were getting paid enough,” Senator Starr said.
The farmers said they are getting more income than they have in the past, but the cost of production is so much higher that things are no better than they were five years ago. Any changes to the pricing system should include wording about cost of product and price margins, not just prices, they said. Prices and costs fluctuate from month to month.
“We are losing more this year than we were in 2009,” said Jennifer Hall, who is a veterinarian and who owns a farm with her husband. She said they do not have a mortgage, but even so, they are not getting a big enough milk check to pay all the bills.
There were 966 dairy farms left in the state of Vermont as of December. In 2009 there were 1,100.
“If you lose our dairy industry, you’ve really lost it all because we’ve lost our infrastructure to keep smaller operations going,” said Senator Starr.
Mark Rodgers of West Glover, who serves on the board of the Agri-Mark dairy farmer coopertive, said he has a 200-cow farm and would love to install a methane digester. But so far, it seems, the technology is not available for his size farm.
He said when you think about how people in India set up methane digesters for one cow with a bucket, sap tubing, and a bunson burner it seems crazy that some kind of methane digestion system is not available for all sizes of farms in Vermont.
Rodgers said he’d like to see some of the money that has been invested into industrial-sized wind towers put into methane digesters instead; a farm can make electricity round the clock. “That’s a lot better than wind blowing 30 percent of the time.”
On the marketing end of dairy farming, Rodgers said he’d like to see the potential of milk recognized as a drink for athletes refueling after a workout. He said he knows of a huge farm with 30,000 cows out west that has signed a deal with Coca-Cola to make such a product.
Rodgers said one thing the state of Vermont could do is help improve the regulatory environment for agriculture. He said Agri-Mark’s facilities in New York have a much easier time accomplishing anything than the cooperative’s processing facility in Cabot, VT — largely because there is a vocal group that has opportunities to drag out permit processes. He described this kind of opposition as CAVE thinking: Citizens Against Virtually Everything.
Reg Chaput of North Troy, VT, and his brother own a farm with 850 milkers. They have a methane digester and bought a truck to haul the farm’s milk themselves to save the trucking costs. They have 22 employees. Chaput said he doesn’t track the price of milk very closely since there’s nothing he can do about it.
“We got lucky with the digester,” he said. It’s making us a profit.”
He added that profit would be gone without the Current Use program.
“I don’t know if we’d be in operation right now without Current Use.”
Marie Audet has a large farm in Bridport with three generations of family working on the farm — 18 people.
“A huge part of our farm is investing in genetics,” she said. The family has 1,500 milkers and the same number of young cattle. She said people don’t always realize how much one farm contributes to the local economy.
“We grossed $10 million last year and we spent it all in Vermont,” she said.
“It’s difficult to be in agriculture, but it’s really quite a pleasure,” said Bill Rowell who grew up in Albany and now farms in Franklin County. “You guys got it right with Current Use. Current Use is essential to agriculture and forestry,” he said.
“Seventy-two percent of our ag dollar comes from dairy,” he said.
He said he is against raw milk being sold at all. He said someone will get sick or die someday and all milk will get the black eye, not just unpasteurized milk.
He said the migrant workers are good people who need to be helped, and he would like to see a worker visitor program where they could come to the U.S. for eight months and work here legally as visitors and then spend time at home. Giving them a Vermont driver’s license will create unintended consequences, he said.
Senator David Zuckerman said he’d heard a number of farmers raise the issue of unintended consequences, and he wondered what those might be.
Rowell answered that farmers are worried that if a worker gets into a car accident and is found to be in this country illegally, the farmer employer could be the one with the liability.
Senator Zuckerman said wouldn’t farmers be liable already?
The senator mentioned that someone had earlier brought up the EB5 program that allows foreign investors to buy their way into the country by spending $500,000 to create jobs.
“People who work hard ought to have the same rights as people who have money,” Zuckerman said.

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