A farmer’s life isn’t an easy one: With long hours, back-breaking work and dependence on weather conditions beyond their control, farmers need to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.
But for dairy farmers in Vermont, preparation is no longer enough to keep the milk, and money, flowing.
“We know there are a lot of dairy farmers that are struggling,” said Kirsten Bower, finance director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association in Vermont.
NOFA education coordinator Kyla Beddard said there’s been an increase in requests from dairy farmers for help from NOFA’s Farmer Emergency Fund over the past few years.
In anticipation of even more requests this year, NOFA Vermont is gearing up for what they say may be a difficult year for dairy farmers. It has launched a donation-based fundraiser to gather $50,000 as a safety net for the almost 200 certified-organic dairy farms and NOFA membership dairies in Vermont.
“Organic dairy producers have seen a significant pay price drop in milk over the past few years,” Beddard said. “The organic milk market has entered a situation: There is an oversupply of milk. Right now it’s skim milk. There is a demand for whole-fat products; people are using more butter.”
Stoneyfield Farms, Horizon Organic, Organic Valley and Upstate Niagara are the four milk buyers in Vermont, and over a year ago, they all stopped signing on new farms or taking on any new organic dairy farms.
This eliminated the incentive to transition to organic, Beddard said.
“With that oversupply, production is greater than demand,” she said. “The demand didn’t grow as quickly as anticipated.”
The hope is that the oversupply will even out this year, but Beddard said she’s heard buyers won’t sign any new contracts until 2020.
“Some farmers have seen a $10-per-hundreweight (100 pounds of milk) drop in the pay price,” she said. “Which means that some farms operate close to or below cost of production.”
The Farmer Emergency Fund, which was started in 1997 after a farmer received insurance money from a catastrophe on his farm helped jump-start the pool to help other farmers, knowing he could have used the money in his time of need.
“It’s helped farmers with a lot of different emergencies,” Bower said. “Fires, windstorms, and flooding, which impacts the feed for animals. We’ve given out grants up to $5,000, but this year the funding is down.”
Bower said after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, locals were inspired to donate money to help farmers who had suffered losses, but the level of donations has slowed significantly since then.
“We were able to raise $222,000 back in 2011,” Bower said. “Over the years, we’ve given over $370,000 in loans and grants.”
The fund is a constantly open pool of outside donations issuing grants and zero-interest loans to organic farmers in need, she said.
“As long as we have money and people need us, we try to continue to be able to provide this,” Bower said. “The cost to maintain a dairy farm is high. The farmers don’t have the money to feed the cows and pay the bills.”
Joanne Eugair, owner and operator of Morning Meadows Farm in Pittsford, said she was a NOFA member five years ago but left after a surplus in the organic milk market made the certifications not financially feasible.
Eugair said her 30-year family operation is surviving because her small herd of 35 Ayrshire cattle helps keeps cost down and debt at bay.
“We’re not rich,” Eugair said, “but we can pay our bills.”
Eugair is just one of the dairy farmers who have had to augment their practices and sacrifice their certifications to keep the family farm going in a world where cheap milk from California is threatening Vermont’s market, Beddard said.
“We’re trying to do whatever we can for our producers,” Beddard said. “In Vermont, the landscape is so comprised of dairies, we need to focus on it. But this is a national issue.”
By: Katelyn Barcellos
Source: Rutland Herald