Editor’s note: This op-ed is by James H. Maroney Jr. of Leicester, an art dealer and former organic farmer.
I have read the Action Plan for Vermont’s Working Landscape and I submit the following observations:
The report is utopian and long on normative economics, which expresses value judgments about economic fairness or what the economy ought to be like or what goals of public policy ought to be. Words like “should,” “must,” “ought” and “need to” proliferate. The report is short on positive economics, which expresses economic reality.
I agree with many of the statements about the declined state of the farm economy. But there is here no objective analysis of exactly what factors brought Vermont agriculture to its current desperate state, which if the situation is so dire, is at odds with the many mythic encomiums about how Vermont agriculture is strong and vital to our economy.
The Vermont Working Landscape Premises (p. 9) appear colloquial, or to have been derived without supporting evidence. The land for example is not “healthy,” yet the report mentions pollution but once (p. 17). The declaration that “Vermonters do not tolerate the degradation of natural assets” is at odds with the facts: Lake Champlain has been polluted for decades and is getting worse. The Clean Water Act (33 U.S.C. §1251 et seq. (1972)) states quite clearly that Congress’ intention was to “eliminate” the discharge of pollutants into the waters of the United States. Yet Vermont’s Accepted Agricultural Practices statute, upon which Vermont’s compliance with the CWA is based, states that “Accepted Agricultural Practices are intended to reduce, not eliminate, pollutants associated with non-point sources such as sediments, nutrients and agricultural chemicals that can enter surface water, groundwater and State Significant Wetlands that would degrade water quality.” The AAP was, in other words, written to imply compliance but still permit conventional dairy to continue to house unlimited thousands of cows in one place and to apply to riparian land the substances that pollute the lake (artificial fertilizers and herbicides). These are the substances that drive production, but the plan does not deduce that overproduction is the ROOT CAUSE of the low milk prices, farm attrition and rural economic decay the Vermont Working Landscape plan intends to redress.
The plan does not mention the distinction between conventional farming, the introduction of which was coincident with the decline of farming and arguably bears responsibility for the sad condition in which farming in Vermont finds itself, and organic, which does not permit these substances and does not pollute the lake. It does not envision that organic might arguably distinguish Vermont food products in the market and give them a durable competitive advantage. The plan twice uses the term “sustainable” without providing any definition for the concept, nor why becoming “sustainable” would give the Vermont brand a semblance of meaning.
When 97 percent of Vermonters told the Survey on the Future of Vermont that they support agriculture, they were responding to a question incorrectly framed. Had the survey asked them if they presently buy or would in future buy exclusively Vermont food products, even at double the price to support local agriculture, I daresay they would have heard a very different answer. The plan states that “Vermonters support agriculture” and a few pages later “Vermonters spend most of their food dollars for groceries processed from far away” but offers no suggestions for what must be done to reconcile the contradiction. The plan proposes no value proposition to describe how Vermont farmers can compete against food grown out of state and shipped here at half price. The Vermont Working Landscape Council does not construct that business model, so it is unclear why farmers should base their investment decisions upon its feasibility.
The plan states that Vermont’s Current Use program helps the Vermont farm economy and is essential to the future of farming here. I disagree. Current Use is a subsidy that was intended to lower costs on the farm so that farms can compete. But empirically, the program has done nothing to stanch the disappearance of Vermont farms which have dwindled from 11,200 in 1940 to barely 980 today, an attrition of 93 percent. Meanwhile, milk production on conventional U.S. dairy farms has quadrupled during that same period. In Vermont, conventional dairy farmers have converted the money not spent on [property, sales and income] taxes to new capacity (new barns, more land, more cows) with which to make more milk, thereby driving up production, lowering prices and driving farm attrition and lake pollution. The Current Use program is powerless to influence the surplus of milk made in other states or the value of that milk in eastern milk markets. The program cannot achieve its intended effect, but it can and does encourage milk production.
Both the Foundation for the Future and the USDA Dairy Industry Advisory Committee have issued plans calling for supply control with margin protection, both of which will continue the trend of shifting production from small farms to large. They will drive down milk prices over which our farmers have no control. Our congressional delegation inexplicably supports these plans, which are analogous to clear cutting.
Lastly, I am incredulous that in these times the Working Landscape Partnership could possibly contemplate, let alone suggest, that its program should be funded by raising the sales tax.