There are fewer conventional dairy farms than ever in Vermont, but those that remain have a big impact on the state’s economy, according to a new report.
One hundred years ago, Vermont had more cows than people. That’s no longer true: In 2012, the state had roughly 134,000 dairy cows and about 626,000 people.
That one in five ratio belies just how important dairying is in Vermont, according to an economic assessment conducted by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets and the Agency of Commerce and Community Development.
Each one of those cows generates $12,500 in economic activity, and overall value of dairy farming to the Vermont economy is $2.2 billion.
The annual sale of dairy products — cheese, milk, butter, yogurt and ice cream — adds up to $1.3 billion.
The report, “Milk Matters,” was paid for by the Vermont Dairy Promotion Council, which is funded through an assessment on the price of milk.
Sixty-three percent of all milk produced in New England comes from Vermont, and dairy represents 70 percent of all agricultural sales in the state. Between 6,000 and 7,000 jobs are tied to the dairy industry in Vermont.
Other sectors of the agricultural economy, such as vegetable farming, poultry and resale of livestock don’t begin to compete with scale of dairy’s economic impact. Vegetable farming represents 2.7 percent of agricultural products sold, while dairy is 65 percent.
Vermont’s farming landscape is a dairy farming landscape and the state’s “physical beauty” drives tourism and recreational sports like hunting, snowmobiling and skiing, state officials say. About 13.5 million tourists visit Vermont every year.
But the state’s farms have disappeared over time, thanks in large part to the fluctuation in milk prices and the high cost of producing feed in Vermont’s cold climate.
Five years ago, there were 1,025 dairy farms. That number has dwindled to 868 in all. Eighty-two percent of farms are small, that is to say they have 200 or fewer cows, according to the report. Only 2.8 percent, or 25 farms in Vermont, have herds of 700 or more. Mid-size farms that have 200 to 699 cows make up 15 percent of the total.
And 67 percent of Vermont’s farms are located in three counties, Franklin, Addison and Orleans, according to the report.
Volatile milk prices make farming an uncertain business, and state officials say that factor will continue to put the viability of Vermont farms at risk. The state will be enforcing water quality rules to protect Lake Champlain and there is a worry that changing agricultural practices could have an impact on farms. The average age of the Vermont farmer is 55 years old, and transitioning farms to the next generation is another challenge that could result in more farms disappearing.