Cautious optimism for dairy in 2019

BURLINGTON – The St. Albans Cooperative Creamery celebrated its centennial anniversary during its annual meeting on Saturday, a stroke of good news in what, according to presenters, sounded like a coming year of hesitant optimism and otherwise bad news as the dairy economy enters its fifth year of depressed milk prices.

While a customary report on the dairy industry would provide the meat of Saturday’s meeting, the co-op topped off its meeting with addresses honoring its 100th anniversary.

Gov. Phil Scott took the podium briefly, as did longtime co-op CEO Leon Berthiaume and current president Harold Howrigan, Jr. St. Albans City Mayor and Franklin County Industrial Development Corporation executive director Tim Smith spoke on behalf of both entitites.

“For a century, dairy farmers have been able to rely on a co-op that supports and assists its membership by marketing all the milk and leading its community and its state, and its nation as well, on dairy farm issues,” Scott said. “Dairy is the economic engine for Franklin County, and the St. Albans Co-op is at its core.”

“Once I learned it was the co-op’s 100th birthday, I thought it was important for the City of St. Albans to make sure that we made a big deal out of it,” Smith said. “The co-op is the largest private employer in the city, the largest taxpayer in the city, and not only that it’s a way of life for Franklin County and a way of life for Vermont.”

A celebratory flavor of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream was served, provided in honor of the cooperative’s centennial, as was a complimentary flavor of 14th Star beer for a toast.

Underlying the celebration, however, was the reality of a modern dairy industry troubled by global oversupply in milk and other macroeconomic forces that, according to Saturday’s presenters from both the Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) cooperative and the U.S. Dairy Export Council, as well as the St. Albans Co-op’s own president, were likely to continue troubling the industry into 2019.

Since 2014, a glut in the global supply of dairy products has left farmers paid less than the cost of production for a hundredweight of milk. Milk prices have since held steady, fluctuating by a dollar or so per hundredweight while still remaining below the cost of production.

According to DFA’s Brad Keating, that oversupply is stressed further by evolving consumer demand and tension and realignment in the global trading network, the latter a serious blow to an industry that’s increasingly looked to overseas markets to address its domestic oversupply.

Keating flashed through a handful of headlines as he spoke to farmers, citing articles like “[Federal Reserve] says new NAFTA won’t help dairy farms” and “Cheese gets caught in U.S. – Mexico trade spat.”

“We’re starting to figure out how to deal with geopolitical trading platforms,” Keating said. “So, the President is trying to realign the world, we’re having strife with major trading partners and then what happens is they stop buying our product, which causes a price damage in effect for the U.S.”

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