Commentary

Michael Colby & Will Allen: Sweatshop dairy

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Will Allen and Michael Colby, who are co-founders, along with Kate Duesterberg, of Regeneration Vermont, a new nonprofit educational and advocacy organization that is working to halt the catastrophic consequences of Vermont’s adoption of degenerative, toxic and climate-threatening agricultural techniques.

Vermont agriculture exists in what seems to be two parallel universes, one in our minds and the other in reality. When people are asked to think about or imagine Vermont farming, they’ll inevitably mention grass and pastures and grazing cows, all with a perfect blue sky and just the right puffy clouds. It’s a well-marketed image, and comes attached to flavors like Cherry Garcia and slogans like “farmer owned.”

But the reality is much different. Because a vast majority of Vermont’s agriculture – more than 70 percent — is all about commodity-driven, nonorganic dairy production, where GMO crops dominate, cows are on concrete, gorged and fully dosed with an array of pharmaceuticals, fields are bathed in toxic pesticides, and our waterways are declared impaired as a result of the nitrogen and phosphorus-rich farm runoff.

Nope, these aren’t the quaint little family farms of yesteryear, the ones still dancing in your head when you imagine Vermont agriculture. It’s not that these farms don’t exist, it’s that they’re getting pinched out by the dominant industrial model, a model that is coddled by Vermont’s political and regulatory elite and subservient to Vermont’s two giant nonorganic-dairy corporations: Ben & Jerry’s and Cabot Creamery.

The success of these two dairy giants was built on two things: the backs of Vermont’s dairy farmers and some effective marketing based on an image of Vermont farming being rather pure and bucolic. The Yankee pride dictated the farmers’ wry smiles, even though they’ve been in a near-constant state of economic brinksmanship for generations, seeing so many of their family members and neighbors go under. But the myth declared that all was well in New England farm country, and so we all joined in.

It’s all folded nicely within the branding, the stories and images of the Ben & Jerry’s cows and the lush, rolling fields for Cabot’s bovines. And it’s always wrapped with a ribbon of support for the farmer, because everyone supports the farmer, right? Except, that is, when it comes time to providing them with a fair price.

The harsh reality is that Vermont’s dairy farmers are mired in yet another period of economic peril. It’s been said so often — “these are tough times for dairy farmers” – that it barely registers anymore. Besides, there are fewer and fewer dairy farmers to care about in Vermont. In 50 years, Vermont lost more than 11,000 dairy farms, with only 800 or so remaining today. We’ve been loving them to death.

There’s been nothing subtle about the economic decline in commodity dairying since the chemically intensive, confinement methods began to take hold in the 1950s. Farm families were culled from the ranks as consolidation and growth became the norm. You had to, as the saying went, either get big or get out. It’s been pure economic Darwinism, pitting farmer against farmer in a fight for survival and a rush to produce more and more milk to make up for the low commodity pricing.

If Vermont farmed like we think it farms, we wouldn’t be facing the economic and ecological catastrophes caused by the way we’re actually farming: industrially, commodity driven (read: lowest price, lowest quality), chemically intensive, and economically crippling.

 

With that as its history, it’s hard to imagine that things are getting even worse for today’s dairy farmers. But consider this: The average-sized dairy farm in Vermont today (around 125 cows) that sells its milk to the conventional, commodity market is losing more than $100,000 a year. And this is the market that Ben & Jerry’s and Cabot Creamery have chosen to force their farmers through, knowing that the farmers who provide them with their essential ingredients – milk! – are getting paid less than it costs them to produce it.

Currently, Vermont’s nonorganic dairy farmers are getting about $14 a hundredweight, which translates to 11.6 gallons of milk. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data on cost of production, it now costs a Vermont dairy farmer more than $22 to produce that same milk. So, at current pricing levels, it’s costing a farmer around $8 to sell each 11.6 gallons of milk they produce. Thus, they are literally paying to sell their milk.

Down on the farm, it’s economic exploitation. If sweatshop laws were in play for Vermont’s dairy economy, the kingpins and benefactors of the exploitation, Ben & Jerry’s and Cabot Creamery, would be summarily convicted. They are choosing to economically strangle their suppliers, the farmers, by paying only the lowest of commodity prices. And, worse, they are refusing to take the lead in transitioning their farmers – representing 80 percent of Vermont’s dairy farms – toward the obvious organic, regenerative solution.

Up in the corporate boardrooms, however, it’s economic glee. Cabot Creamery’s corporate owner, Agri-Mark, has been reporting revenues touching the billion-dollar mark for the last several years, representing a steady growth in profit. “Our Cabot brand continued to grow in sales and profits,” reports a recent Agri-Mark press release, promising “to continue our record of innovative marketing and profitability.”

Likewise, Ben & Jerry’s is experiencing record growth, nearing the $600 million a year in revenues level, according to the most recent annual report published by Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s corporate owner. It cites Ben & Jerry’s and its other “purpose-driven brands” for “delivering stronger and faster growth,” which “accounted for half of Unilever’s growth in 2014.” And this from a corporation that owns dozens of brands, 14 of which – Dove, Hellmann’s and Lipton, for example – have sales of more than a billion dollars each. Yes, each. And Ben & Jerry’s, according to its parent corporation, is outperforming them.

So it’s not all bad in the land of milk, cheese and ice cream. Unless, that is, you’re down on the farm.

Sadly, there’s nothing new about the story of corporate exploitation of the rural worker. The treatment of the modern dairy farmer is just its latest chapter, from a book that includes the great roundup of rural workers for the migration to the urban sweatshops and factories, where they toiled in harsh conditions for little pay while great wealth was amassed by the owners and corporate overseers. At least, as today’s dairy farmer could opine, the sweatshop workers were paid for their work.

It doesn’t have to be this way. And with the images of healthy cows on green pastures still dancing in our heads, we know exactly how it should be. If Vermont farmed like we think it farms, we wouldn’t be facing the economic and ecological catastrophes caused by the way we’re actually farming: industrially, commodity driven (read: lowest price, lowest quality), chemically intensive, and economically crippling.

We can fix this. More than 200 Vermont dairy farmers have already made the fix, by transitioning to organic production, often times reducing their herds, returning the cows to grazing and a grass-based diet, sequestering carbon with cover crops and grasses, and making a decent income. While this is the darkest hour for industrial dairying, with prices below the cost of production and the ecological spotlight becoming increasingly focused on its damaging methods, the promise of the solution — organic, regenerative agriculture – has never been brighter.

Since late last year, Regeneration Vermont has been engaging with Vermont’s dairy stakeholders — dairy farmers, grazing experts, financial planners, dairy buyers and processors, leaders of our iconic brands, and regulators and politicians. The former secretary of agriculture, Roger Allbee, recently summarized the sobering sentiment amongst the reasonable: Dairying as we know it is over.

Right now, we’re deep in discussions with Ben & Jerry’s about creating a path toward a fundamental change in the way they source their dairy. Sweatshop dairying doesn’t quite fit the image they’ve been banking on, and, to their credit, they’re seeking to do something about it. Regeneration Vermont is pushing them to go fully authentic, embarking on a path to a complete transition to organic/regenerative farming. We understand that it will take time, and that’s why we want to start now, and begin to signal to Vermont’s struggling dairy farmers that there’s a viable option.

Imagine if Vermont started to farm the way people think we farm. It would free us from the failing industrial models that have put us into the ditch of sweatshop dairies, cows on concrete, and water too polluted to swim in. To the contrary, a regenerative/organic future could make Vermont’s farming image a reality, one that would provide a high-quality product, a fair price to farmers and farmworkers, better conditions for cows, and a way to address climate change through better soil management. And we’d be doing what Vermont does best: leading, not following.


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  • Dave Bellini

    A farms are a business. They can choose to go organic or not. The supply of milk exceeds demand. That’s not a crises. It’s overproduction.

    • Don Dalton

      Wait a minute– supply exceeds demand? Then why are Cabot and Ben & Jerry’s so profitable if they have too much supply of milk and so little demand for milk products?

      • Milk is their “raw material.” The price of milk is currently at an historic low. Meanwhile Ben & Jerry’s and Cabot have not lowered the prices of their products, so of course they are very profitable — all at the expense of farmers.

  • The Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets has failed to lead on this issue. Lame duck Secretary Chuck Ross proudly touts the “benefits” of conventional dairy in his commentaries, op-eds, and in slick promotional literature. His puff pieces overlook the fact that conventional Vermont milk, far from being an “economic driver” is in fact an enormous detriment to the economy and the ecology of the state. Milk prices are at historic lows and the product is frequently dumped because processors can’t find buyers. Confinement barns are costly to farmers and inhumane to cattle. Liquid manure is a major cause of water pollution. The only real economic answer is widespread conversion to certified organic practices. And combined with regenerative methods and holistic grazing management, much of the pollution problem can be solved. Where is the leadership at the Agency? Will the next Secretary encourage regenerative ag, or will it be business as usual?

  • Thank you for the excellent commentary – I appreciate the acknowledgement of the integrity of farmers and their economic desperation and contrasting it with the exploitative influence of special interests and their vast profits (the role of policy and the VT and national political classes has not been included here – but is equally damning). I do however consider it important to note that organic and regenerative are not equivalents: Organic farms can be regenerative, but not predominantly. In terms of dairy and animal based ag there certainly are significant gains organic makes ecologically and economically – however, we have also seen the cooption of organic by the national board and corporate influence, and its ecological integrity is often not at a level that could be considered regenerative in terms of carbon sequestration, reliance on imported annual grains, and production demands which compromise the health and longevity of cattle and the nutritional integrity of the product.

  • Tom Pelham

    It’s unfortunate that Senators Sanders and Leahy did not (or could not) follow through on this anti-trust effort which they initiated in 2009.

    http://vtdigger.org/2009/09/20/antitrust-division-to-probe-complaints-about-dean-foods%E2%80%99-alleged-monopolistic-practices/

    Dean Foods contributed generously back then to both sides of the aisle.

    • The majority of the milk in this country is produced by farmers that belong to dairy cooperatives. That being the case, an agreement among the coops to withhold milk until the mega-processors like Dean Foods, Hood, Danone and others are willing to pay what it is really worth, would soon remedy the situation. Yes, there would be lawsuits, restraining orders, and actions brought by industry-influenced USDA. Are the farmers of Vermont and indeed of this nation so intimidated by the threat of legal action that they are willing to go out of business? Civil disobedience is a powerful tool that has worked for civil rights and the anti-war movement. How about it, farmers? What do you actually have to lose? You are a great deal more powerful than you think you are.

  • Glad to see that Cabot/Agrimark and Ben and Jerry’s are finally being recognized as villains by the main stream press when it comes to Vermont’s dairy industry. Milk is their main manufacturing input and the cheaper the better. They obviously don’t care about the dairy farmers who produce it. Maybe the mainstream press will take the next leap in logic and come to the realization that the real business of the VAAFM and Chuck Ross is to maintain a steady supply of cheap milk for the region’s milk processors and dairy manufacturers.

    I beg to differ with the main premise of the article however. The solution is not to have all dairy farms go organic. Organic milk is as successful as it is because the Organic Milk Industry has established its own supply management program. Agrimark and the other large dairy coops and the USDA have vigorously fought all attempts to establish a supply management program for commodity milk in the US. They want to keep the price of milk cheap.

  • Julia Russell

    Excellent article! I was shocked to learn about Ben and Jerry’s corporation before people, animals and environment stance. But then I remembered, they’ve been bought out, haven’t they? Anyway, it’s motivated me to send them an email telling them we see they’re wearing no clothes and I won’t buy their product until they support healthy, organic, regenerative farmers by paying them a fair price that enables them to thrive and continue their good husbandry.

  • Kevin Lawrence

    Vermont industrial dairy has been getting a pass on water pollution at every level, and that must change. The losses per hundred weight are paralleled with the losses to our soils and waterways.