JAY, Vt. – Hundreds from around New England – including 150 dairy farmers – gathered at Jay Peak Monday afternoon to usher in the opening of the Northern Tier Dairy Summit, a two-day conference for those with stakes in the dairy industry convened to discuss building a future for an industry struggling with five years of depressed milk prices.
The summit, hosted by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture and attended by everyone from industry experts and lenders to farmers themselves, convened yesterday with opening remarks from state officials.
“This summit is about farmers and farming and the future of our state,” said Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts. “More than 150 farmers have joined us here, and they represent many more back in their communities.”
The summit, continuing with breakout sessions today, was organized under the shadow of a dairy industry struggling with five years of a global oversupply in milk, resulting in U.S. prices for milk sitting below the cost of production.
That oversupply has led to a crash in the dairy industry, with farms of all sizes closing nationwide.
The Agency of Agriculture organized the Jay Peak summit to discuss ways primarily to work around that dramatic oversupply, as tackling it directly would likely require nationwide action.
“This event is designed to be the first step and starting point for working toward timely, actionable and relevant responses to the current state of the dairy industry,” Tebbetts said. “What we know is that there are a lot of issues out there farmers are dealing with, but there are many more we can control.
“I encourage you to step outside of the box and think about all of the possibilities.”
The Agency supported the summit through grant funding from the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative and the Northern Borders Regional Commission (NRBC), the latter, a federal commission supported through the Farm Bill, earmarking those funds as an emergency grant.
Deputy Secretary of Commerce Ted Brady, who serves as an alternate for Gov. Phil Scott on NRBC’s board, summarized the emergency behind this week’s summit as something akin to a region-wide factory closure impacting all four states supported by the NBRC.
“We have this small pot of money for emergency funding, which is meant to address things like plant closures,” Brady told the audience yesterday. “Well the four states came together and said ‘we have a crisis akin to a plant closure across our entire region,’ and that’s our dairy sector.”
Brady underscored the spillover impacts of a collapsing dairy economy in rural states like Vermont, where dairy often serves as a cornerstone in some of the state’s most rural communities.
“We’re an organization that comprises the economic development department, the tourism and marketing department and the housing and community development department,” Brady said. “I’m here representing that agency today because the ag sector – the dairy sector – is the Agency of Commerce and Community development.
“By that, I mean that, without dairy, all three of those things collapse in the state of Vermont.”
Brady’s comments were recently supported by the report of the Vermont Milk Commission, which identified that the loss of dairy farms also eroded tangential businesses, such as equipment dealerships and veterinarian services.
The Milk Commission’s report linked the loss of dairy as a possible source to the overall economic decline in some regions of Vermont.
Dairy has also been cited as a cornerstone in Vermont’s tourism sector – a $3 billion industry in 2017, per a University of Vermont report – and in the state’s attempts to attract new residents, providing an image of Vermont state officials state serves as “the Vermont brand.”
That brand runs deeper than marketing, however, according to Brady. “When we look at that cliché to say that dairy is the backbone of our rural economy, I want to go deeper than that,” Brady said.
He referred to an ongoing marketing effort currently being undertaken by the Agency of Commerce, which Brady said often sees him asking focus groups to describe what they see when they “close their eyes and think ‘Vermont.’”
“Inevitably, in every crowd, whether you’re in Boston, New York, Montpelier or Brattleboro, somebody in the crowd yells out ‘cow,’” Brady said. “It’s so deeply ingrained in our brand and what we are as a state, that people literally see it when you close your eyes and say ‘Vermont.’”
Scott appeared later in the afternoon.
“As we know, Vermont is very much a dairy state,” the governor said. “With your success comes our success collectively. The dedication and pride you put into your work is good for the Vermont brand, our working landscape and our economy as well.”
While much of his time was spent defending his budget plan, Scott spoke highly of this week’s summit and of the dairy industry at large, acknowledging its role in both Vermont’s identity and in its economy.
“I truly believe we can have a more prosperous and more affordable Vermont, but to do so we all have to pull in the same direction,” Scott said. “I think this is a great step in your industry… seeing so many of you in this room to do just that as well, to pull in the same direction.
“I know the legislators here, and myself, are listening, and we want to do everything we can to make sure you succeed, because you’re an important part of Vermont’s tradition, its culture. It’s just part of our DNA.”
Following statements from state officials, yesterday’s conversation segued into presentations from two ends of the dairy industry’s business spectrum: a hyper-localized dairy in Greensboro specializing in artisan cheeses and a hyper-globalized, 22,500 cow operation centered in New Zealand and Missouri.
The Messenger will report on these presentations in a later edition.
The summit continues with more focused breakout sessions today.
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