Op - Ed
January 23, 2019

State farmers need to look at new approaches

By Anson Tebbetts

As we enter a new year, many Vermont dairy farmers, as well as farmers nationwide, continue fighting through their economic fog. Trapped in an antiquated federal dairy pricing system, Vermont’s hard-working stewards of the land are at the whim of a highly competitive global structure. Compensation for their milk is out of farmers’ control and unpredictable, while honor and stability are considered the cornerstones of good business.

The state of Vermont, Congressional delegation, consumers and farmers themselves will all need to work together to solve this mammoth problem with international roots.

Vermont needs to look more deeply into other new approaches. We will never dictate what is best for each farm, but in collaboration with farmers, we will offer choices, new ways to manage farm businesses. The Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets will communicate and collaborate. Enter: an important dairy summit, slated for April.

The Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets is convening the Northern Tier Dairy Summit on April 1-2 at Jay Peak Resort. The outcome of the summit is to develop actionable, timely and responsive solutions to the current dairy economic climate.  Now is the time to think independently and creatively about what Vermont, and dairy farmers, can do to help ourselves.

Farmers will lead this effort. The Dairy Summit will address how farmers can develop market-responsive production systems, real-time opportunities for diversification or partnerships for additional income, and planning and building a coalition to strengthen Vermont farms. The Dairy Summit will not work to find ways to change dairy prices through a supply management system at this meeting as this is out of direct control of individual farmers.

The Dairy Summit will not fix larger issues in which we are actively engaged with national partners such as national dairy pricing, milk market orders or over-supply of milk.

David Kohl from Virginia Tech will speak about building a farm business that is resilient to market swings, and Zach Ward from Grasslands Dairy Farm will discuss the export market-based model of running a farm business that originated in New Zealand. Other sessions include payment for ecosystem services, examples of successful farm business transition, grazing as an opportunity, diversification such as growing hemp, grains, or corn, and farmer coalition-building.

While we do this work, the Vermont Milk Commission is trying to help by proposing recommendations for a new dairy price stabilization system. At the same time, provisions in the recently passed federal Farm Bill may offer farmers interim help to buy some time; the USDA Dairy Margin Coverage Program could provide additional income sources, directing much-needed dollars to farmers, and those who provide goods and services to farmers.

As we shift to a new economic paradigm for dairy, all Vermonters can help by buying locally made dairy products or stopping by their farm to say you support the work they do. You can help by buying Vermont products that your neighbor produced. The Vermont label has value. You can trust your local farmer or food producer created their product with care and quality.  Learn to “Know-the-Code” to have a direct positive impact on Vermont dairy farmers.

Farmers are faced with change every day as they struggle to survive. The state of Vermont, and the hundreds of thousands who call this place home, will do all we can to minimize threats to farmers as they move through this difficult time. Let’s buy Vermont-made dairy products, and let’s get to work with stakeholders. Please join us at the summit.

For more information on the Northern Tier Dairy Summit please head online to agriculture.vermont.gov/2019-northern-tier-dairy-summit

If you are interested in free registration and lodging for farmers, please fill in an online survey here: surveymonkey.com/r/MV5YKCD.

Primary contact for the Northern Tier Dairy Summit is Laura Ginsburg, section chief for the Agricultural Development Division of the Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets. She can be reached by phone 802-522-2252 or by email laura.ginsburg@vermont.gov.

Anson Tebbetts is Vermont Agriculture Secretary.

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