ST. ALBANS — The state’s leading politicians were on hand to offer their congratulations as the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery held its 95th annual meeting on Saturday.
Members of the state’s Congressional delegation spoke of the two-year effort to pass a Farm Bill, while Gov. Peter Shumlin touched on the importance of the dairy industry to the state’s economy.
The Farm Bill, said cooperative president Ralph McNall, “came out better for New England than it might have.”
“It’s so good to be here with some good news,” said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt.
“The plan was something you all conceived,” Welch said of a proposed program to stabilize dairy production and prevent the type of extreme swings in prices that forced farmers to borrow against their equity in order to cover operating costs in 2006 and 2009.
Welch said Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, called the plan “Soviet-style agriculture.”
The phrase caused him to “think about Commissar Rowell or Commissar Berthiaume” and scratch his head, said Welch, referring to Highgate farmer Bill Rowell and creamery CEO Leon Berthiaume.
Boehner blocked the implementation of the stabilization program, which would have alerted farmers to reduce production when the supply of milk exceeded the demand, causing a drop in prices.
Welch noted that responding to changing demand by either increasing or decreasing production is the same thing corporations, such as Apple computers, do.
The proposal would have reduced federal spending on dairy support programs, said Welch. “You guys are pretty tight and don’t like to spend money whether it’s your own or taxpayers,” he told farmers.
“The government’s pretty messed up right now, but there’s no reason we can’t hang in there and try to make it work for the people back home,” Welch said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who addressed the meeting via recorded video, said, “The dairy section of the bill was the most bitterly contested.”
Leahy was on the conference committee charged with reconciling the differences between the Senate and House versions of the bill.
“The large milk processors and they ally Speaker Boehner prefer to see the market flooded with cheap milk,” said Leahy. When milk prices dropped in 2009, Dean Foods, the largest milk processor in the country, reported record profits.
The opposition to the stabilization program was “formidable,” Leahy said.
Leahy described the final hours of negotiation over the bill, in which he was able to secure lower insurance premiums for small farms and eliminate incentives for large producers. He was in touch with the cooperative’s leadership throughout the negotiations.
“You spoke loud and clear through your leadership,” said Leahy.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., thanked Welch and Sen. Patrick Leahy for their work on the Farm Bill.
The House had approved $40 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps, over 10 years. The final bill cut $8 billion from the program.
However, Shumlin and the Vermont Legislature have found a way to address the cuts so that no Vermonters will lose benefits, said Sanders.
The new Farm Bill includes a margin insurance program through which farmers can insure all or part of their typical annual production from either a drop in the price of milk or a rise in the cost of feed. Farms with fewer than 200 cows will receive a 25 percent premium reduction for the first two years of the program, explained Sanders. All participants will have to pay a $100 administration fee.
The law also creates a dairy donation program under which the USDA can purchase dairy products when the milk prices if falling to bolster prices. The purchased food will be donated to food banks.
Congress is currently “a highly partisan environment,” said Sanders, ideologically divided on a number of issues including the role of government.
“They said ‘Why is the federal government involved in agriculture?'” said Sanders. “Why should the federal government be involved in protecting small family-based agriculture?”
Sanders then answered that question by saying family-based agriculture is important because consumers want to know where their food comes from and to be assured it is safe.
“For us it’s not just about making milk,” said Shumlin. “It’s about preserving our quality of life.”
Although there are now only 939 dairy farms in the state, Vermont farmers now produce 600 million more pounds of milk annually than we did 40 years ago. In addition, Vermont now has more than 100 milk processing facilities.
“We’re producing 63 percent of all the milk in New England,” said Shumlin.
Criticizing the failure of the current Congress to get much done, Shumlin said, “Instead of drinking good Vermont milk, they seem to be drinking a lot of tea.”
Diane Bothfield, deputy secretary of Agriculture, spoke to farmers about three areas in which they are facing challenges: water quality, farm practices and implementation of a federal food safety law.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is developing new pollution limits for Lake Champlain. New farm regulations will be part of the effort to reduce the flow of phosphorous into Lake Champlain. EPA and state legislators don’t know what works on farms and what doesn’t, said Bothfield.
“Your voice needs to be heard,” she told farmers.
Videos of such farm practices as artificial insemination have raised concerns among consumers about the treatment of farm animals. “Not everybody views your practices in the same way you do,” said Bothfield, urging farmers to explain those practices to the public.
The federal government is currently creating the rules to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act. The new rules could mean changes to pasteurized milk rules, which Bothfield said farmers must work together to prevent.
“Farmers have always pulled together to address these issues,” she said.