ESSEX – The Vermont Dairy Industry Association (VDIA)’s top award – the 2018 Dairy Farm of the Year – came back to Franklin County this year with its presentation to Berkshire’s Aires-Hill Farm, a seven-generation family dairy just south of the Canadian border.

“They consistently strive to produce high-quality milk, they’re fully engaged in community service and they’re also tremendous ambassadors for the dairy industry,” said VDIA board member Tony Kitsos, who announced the award.

That was just one of a handful of honors presented during VDIA’s annual banquet, where Vermont’s dairy and political leadership celebrated what Gov. Phil Scott called “the backbone of Vermont’s heritage and culture.”

“As we all know, dairy is such an important part of our rural economy, our traditions, our sense of community and our brand,” Scott said. “It’s who we actually are.”

Scott, whose address would be the first of the afternoon, extolled the dairy industry’s place in Vermont’s economy, stating that it continued to be the center of the state’s agricultural economy and provided some $2.2. billion to the state economy.

Scott would be joined by Congressman Peter Welch, D – Vt., in presenting Aires-Hill Farm with the placard dubbing the Berkshire farm “2018 Dairy Farm of the Year.” “Congratulations Aires-Hill Farm,” Welch said. “Seven generations with an eighth getting ready – there’s a lot to be said with that.”

Welch took to the podium to provide an update from Washington, D.C., where he said he found the struggles of rural Vermont were shared nationwide with states as faraway as Ohio, Oklahoma and “even Texas.”

“The common themes that bring us together is the common appreciation that most of us have… about the benefits of having our land cultivated, of having farmers as the custodians,” Welch said. “For all our partisanship… a lot of the problems we have are absolutely the same.”

With the recent passage of a Farm Bill, it would be some time before Congress would formally revisit agriculture’s guiding legislation, Welch said. He said, however, now that when Congress does begin the process to pass a new farm bill, Welch would be committed to tailoring that bill toward local farms.

“I’m here as a beneficiary of what you’ve done,” Welch said. “I wish I had more progress to report but I can tell you this, I’ll keep at it.”

Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman followed the Congressman on stage, taking a turn on the mic to, like Scott and Welch, praise the agricultural community’s place in the state’s identity.

“I think about all of you out there – the seventh-generation farmer, tenth-generation farmer – and what we get from our parents, and those values of family, community and hard work ethic,” Zuckerman, himself an organic vegetable farmer, said. “It’s really unlike anywhere else, and it’s here in this room.”

Zuckerman was the first to refer to an ongoing crisis in the dairy industry where the cost of production has continued to exceed the profits of milk production. That crisis, ongoing since 2014, has seen the shuttering of primarily smaller farms nationwide.

“It’s not just a noble profession, you’ve got to pay the bills,” Zuckerman said. “If you can’t even afford to buy the milk you put into the bulk tank… something’s wrong with the system… You deserve a valued economic future like anyone else.”

St. Albans Cooperative Creamery President Harold Howrigan accepts an award celebrating the cooperative’s 100 year anniversary.

Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts asked that farmers continue pushing for the needed changes to stabilize the industry.

He advertised an upcoming summit in Jay Peak, organized by the Agency of Agriculture to help farmers look for alternative sources of revenue and other “actionable items” to stymie the impact of an ongoing dairy crisis.

“We’re going to try and take control of our destiny here in Vermont while working with our delegation at the federal level,” Tebbetts said. “What you do is meaningful and makes a difference to Vermont, and we’re going to work as hard as we can every single day to get you to a better place.”

Among those celebrated were the Cabot Creamery and St. Albans Cooperative Creamery, both sharing a 100th anniversary this year. Both were presented with plaques honoring their history by VDIA’s leadership, with St. Albans Cooperative Creamery president Harold Howrigan accepting the award on the part of the St. Albans creamery.

“When you think about 100 years, you have to think about all the change that takes place on the farm and the marketplace,” Howrigan said. “It’s never been a very lucrative business to be in. As we can all attest, it’s a labor of love, working 365 days a year.”

The John Finley Memorial award, presented earlier that afternoon, was presented to Jed Davis, the Director of Sustainability with the Cabot Creamery Cooperative.

The annual milk quality award was presented to David Houde of the Houde Family Farm in St. Johnsbury. A first-runner-up place was awarded to Wells River’s Walter Morse and Joseph Mahr.

In third place, as the second-runner-up, were Fairfield’s James and Kristie Callan.