ENOSBURGH – This Saturday, it was dairy farmers who had the podium.
In a panel conversation organized by advocacy group Rural Vermont, panelists representing different faces of dairy farming, from conventional farms to their organic counterparts and the migrant workers who might work on everything in between, shared their stories at Enosburgh’s Dairy Center this weekend.
While panelists spoke optimistically about their life in the farm community, there was a lot of anxiety to what panelists discussed, whether it was their worries the next generation wouldn’t take up a family farm or an outright lack of stability as the industry enters its fifth year with milk’s prices sitting below its costs of production.
“We keep on talking about the future,” said Damien Boomhower, a fourth generation farmer who took over his grandparents’ organic farm in Fairfield. “A lot of people say the next generation is lazy, but they’re not lazy. Where is the incentive? What incentive are we giving them to get into dairy? That, what, two out of ten years will be good and that’s just going to pay for the eight bad years?”
The cost of producing milk has outweighed what farmers earned since 2014, when a combination of economic forces led to a dramatic oversupply of dairy products worldwide. Since then, dairy farmers have struggled in a tight economy that’s since spilled into the organic milk market as well.
Boomhower maybe summarized the dire nature of the industry best when he told audience members that some farmers with deep familial ties to their farms sold their herds specifically so their children wouldn’t take over.
“You’re even seeing where the older farmers are selling their farms because their kids want to take it over and they’re like ‘I don’t want this for you,’” he said. “They’re grandparents and parents sold it so they wouldn’t take it over.”
Enosburgh dairy farmer Larry Gervais, the Enosburgh selectboard chair and the Farmers Watershed Alliance’s chair, explained what he saw as the ripples of a struggling dairy economy on its respective communities.
“The best use for this land in Vermont is agriculture, and if you can keep farmers on this land, it’s huge to the communities themselves,” Gervais said. “The businesses that are supporting the farms can’t support themselves, so they have to find jobs, so they move further away from communities to find a job. They still live here, but that core of people in the community to answer the fire calls, the ambulance calls… just aren’t there anymore.
“This is the heartbeat of a community, and it all comes to the farms.”
There was still good news to share.
George van Vlaanderen of Does’ Leap Farm mentioned he actually leapt into farming from an urban life in Manhattan, and that he and his wife had found a sweet spot with the organic goat cheese and sausage produced on their Fairfield farm.
“We learned a lot, we made tons of mistakes and we made no money for at least ten years,” he said. “And we slowly kind of figured it out to the point where we’re in a decent spot… and that’s come through lots of mistakes and experiences.”
Aubrey Schatz from the Family Cow Farmstand in Hinesburg, mused about the fact that, with a herd of 12 cows, she and her husband operated the largest raw milk dairy in the state. With a niche market for raw milk, Schatz said she was very optimistic about their future in the industry.
“I love milking 12 cows, but I would honestly like to milk 50 cows,” she said. “Whether we open a creamery or expand to other products, we have a lot of opportunities.”
Amber Machia, from Highgate’s Redbarn Butter, was similarly optimistic about her cultured butter, buttermilk and cream top whole cream top milk. She highlighted the local connections behind her business. “I’m working in small local stores,” Machia said. “It’s a huge circle. It’s just a few dollars out of your pocket, but it goes all over.”
Migrant Justice, an advocacy group for Vermont’s migrant farmworkers, also attended Saturday’s forum, represented by Marita Canedo. Canedo spoke primarily on the Milk with Dignity Program, which seeks to bring together farmworkers, farmers and buyers in order to improve the standard of living for farmworkers.
Per Canedo, Milk with Dignity had, after several years of negotiating and campaigning, signed Ben & Jerry’s into the program, guaranteeing Ben & Jerry’s would pay a premium for the milk it used to farmers.
With that premium, farmers could then improve conditions for their farmworkers per the program’s standards, thus putting the cost of improving conditions on those “making a profit” in the dairy industry, Canedo said.
One audience member, a farmer from Highgate, said she was worried that people would hear about the Milk with Dignity Program and assume farmers mistreated their farmworkers. “The first thought is that farmers don’t treat their employees well… but that is just not true,” she said.
Canedo clarified that the reality was more nuanced, with “good people and bad people everywhere.”
“I’ve been on farms where people are living on top of a milking parlor, and living without heating,” Canedo, said. “With this program, we’re not putting the blame on farmers.”
With the industry continuing into another year of low prices though, farmers checked their optimism Saturday.
Gervais and Boomhower both reiterated support for nationwide supply management, an avenue supported by Vermont’s Milk Commission, a statewide body tasked with drafting a response to the decline of the dairy industry.
Though increasingly popular among Vermont’s dairy farmers, a national supply management program – which would require federal policy – has proven politically illusive, absent from the latest Farm Bill and dismissed by the sitting U.S. Secretary of Agriculture during a visit to Milton, Vt., last month.
That didn’t seem to deter the farmers’ advocacy, however.
“I can’t stress it enough,” Boomhower said. “We need stability.”
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