In 2020 the Vermont Legislature passed a bill requiring the Department of Financial Regulation to submit an evaluation of the long term sustainability of dairy farming in the state. The department was required to submit recommendations to the state for revising dairy pricing and any market regulations that could improve the viability of dairy farming. In response to those recommendations the Legislature then formed the Task Force, which is charged with developing the legislation to implement the recommendations. The panel has been taking testimony from different sectors of the industry. The most recent meeting focused on milk purchasers. Task force chair Robert Starr, a North Troy Democratic state Senator, said the price to farmers is a key problem.
“We’re trying to revitalize it so everybody can make a living and none have to leave us,” Starr said. “I mean we only got 500 and a few farms left.”
Task Force member state Representative John O’Brien, a Tunbridge Democrat, asked Ben & Jerry’s Sourcing Manager Cheryl Pinto about differences in dairy pricing they see in other countries.
“And I just wondered how farms outside of this country, the dairy farms, are doing?” O’Brien asked. “Do they seem more stable? Are they ahead of us in some areas? Are they behind us? I’d just love to hear more about that.”
“Currently we’re working with more farmers in Vermont than necessarily the dairy that comes into our ice cream because they’ve expanded the programming here, if that makes sense,” Pinto responded. “But in Europe we’re working with Dutch farmers, German farmers, British farmers and now Belgian farmers as well. Just in general the Dutch farmers are smaller farms. They do much more grazing. They get so much support from the state. The regulations are very different. And so there’s a lot more financial resources and support for the farmers there.”
Agri-Mark Vice President Catherine DeRonde tried to explain to task force members that the federal milk order pricing system Is based on what raw milk is worth.
“No one buys raw milk right?” DeRonde said. “So we have this disconnect between the supplier and the consumer. So to try to fill that gap what the Federal Order Pricing tries to do is say okay well consumers don’t buy raw milk. What do they buy and let’s use those market prices to back into what the value of raw milk is and what we should pay our farmers. Through a series of frankly tedious equations relates those commodity prices and what components of milk are in those commodity prices back to raw milk essentially. You know that’s how we pay our farmers.”
At the same time the legislative task force is looking to revitalize the dairy industry, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture is holding forums on behalf of the Governor’s Commission on the Future of Vermont Agriculture. A recent conversation focused on young farmers and their visions for agriculture’s future. Ashlyn Bristle, who owns Rebop Farm in Brattleboro, says financial and regulatory support for farmers is crucial.
“I want to see a support of regulatory pathways for young farmers,” Bristle said. “I think that’s part of what drew me here. I think it’s a part of the success of my story. I want to see lots of thoughts about what of kinds of people we want to see on farms. The same applies for racial justice for getting more BIPOC people onto lands and farming here. There have to be those pathways that allow people that don’t have access to capital or large amounts of capital to move onto lands in our state.”