Editor’s note: This commentary is by Will Allen, the co-founder of Cedar Circle Farm in Thetford and Regeneration Vermont, collaborating with Kate Duesterberg and Michael Colby to promote regenerative farming systems as a solution to environmental and economic problems in Vermont.
I am puzzled by the actions of the current Vermont secretary of agriculture, Chuck Ross. In meetings last month, Ross emphasized repeatedly, when asked about controlling water pollution, that we need to be “All in.” I presume this referred to the idea of spreading the blame for the state’s water pollution to all the point-source polluters, as well as the responsibility for its remediation.
While the secretary wants to shift the blame to municipalities and development projects, contract researchers have determined that agriculture, especially confined dairy, is responsible for a majority of the water pollution in Vermont’s public waters. So, while we definitely need to be “all in” with respect to water pollution, agriculture needs to be really “all in,” because they are the major polluter.
My puzzlement intensified when I read that Ross met with St. Albans Co-op and other corporate dairy insiders last week to entertain proposals to weaken the required agricultural practices on dairies that regulate their water pollution. What happened to “All in”?
When I read Secretary Ross’ recent commentary in VTDigger, I felt like I was in some fantasy parallel universe, or he was. Instead of outlining a vision for the future of Vermont agriculture, here was the secretary, in his final months of this term, exhorting all of us to believe that Vermont’s dairy farms were growing more efficient and more sustainable.
For Ross to put a happy face on conventional dairy takes real creativity when the milk has so little value that farmers are dumping it in their lagoons and spreading it on their farmland. Dairy farmers are being attacked by Migrant Justice for flagrant labor abuses. Pesticide and fertilizer use has soared and the conventional dairy farmers are responsible for 79 percent of the water pollution in northern Lake Champlain and half of the water pollution in the rest of the state’s rivers, lakes and ponds. It’s time for change, not propping up the same system that got us in trouble on so many fronts.
Instead of bragging about Vermont dairy producing 63 percent of New England’s milk, a creative, forward-thinking secretary should be asking why our off-balance agriculture system produces so much milk while 95 percent of our non-milk food comes from out of state.
The only happy faces in the Vermont dairy industry are Ben & Jerry’s, Cabot Cheese, Dean Foods, and a few other conventional milk users. They are happy because they are making huge profits at the same time that milk prices to farmers are hovering in the $13 to $15 range for 100 pounds of milk (11.6 gallons). The farmers are not happy since they are hemorrhaging money — lots of money — since it costs about $22 to produce that 100 pounds of milk. Both St. Albans Co-op, which supplies Ben & Jerry’s, and Agri-Mark, which supplies Cabot, have been losing an increasing number of farmers to bankruptcy because of too much conventional milk and low prices; all this, while their corporate profits soar.
One would assume that the secretary of agriculture might read the Wall Street Journal, USDA reports, and future milk price trends published by Farm Credit. Considering his recent comments, however, maybe not! The WSJ just recently reported that U.S. farmers dumped more than 30 million gallons of milk last year and have already dumped more than 43 million gallons by the end of September this year. The USDA added new feed margin funds for milk producers and bought 40 million additional pounds of cheese last month to prop up the dairy industry. Farm Credit predicted that milk prices are going to stay at these historically low levels for at least the next five to six years, and that there is a worldwide glut of conventional milk. With reports such as these becoming increasingly common and with the increase in local farm bankruptcies, why is Secretary Ross still playing the role of cheerleader for conventional Vermont dairy? Who does this help? The corporate boardrooms, not the farms and farmers.
Instead of bragging about Vermont dairy producing 63 percent of New England’s milk, a creative, forward-thinking secretary should be asking why our off-balance agriculture system produces so much milk while 95 percent of our non-milk food comes from out of state. Instead of propping up our too-big-to-fail CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) dairies, the state, the universities and the USDA need to spend money and resources on increasing the number of our regenerative organic vegetable, fruit, grain and meat farms, and help the increasing number of dairy farms that want to switch to organic.
Secretary Ross wants us to think that other states are envious of our farm system. More than likely, they are only envious of our Vermont brand — which conveniently hides the industrial nature of Vermont dairy while promoting the bucolic imagery of cows grazing on endless pasture. Certainly, other states are not envious of our off-balanced food and farm system or the excessive greenhouse gasses that such a distorted long distance dependent agriculture emits.
Ross rightly salutes the successes of the farm to school program and the awards won by Vermont cheesemakers. While the state agencies finally adopted and even supported some of these efforts, these programs were initiated by grassroots activists and innovative cheese makers, not the Agency of Agriculture. Don’t get me wrong, there is much to be saluted in Vermont, but there is much to improve as well.
We are not going to address this current crisis in Vermont agriculture by sticking our heads in the sand, or pretending that conventional dairy is a healthy industry right now, or that getting almost all our food from somewhere else is sustainable. We are asking Secretary Ross to change the dialogue from blindly praising dairy to addressing its real problems and real solutions. Discussions about how to begin the changeover in Vermont agriculture with a variety of stakeholders is taking place now in spite of resistance and hostility from the Agency of Agriculture.
Former Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Roger Allbee has figured out that change is on the horizon and we need to approach this sea change creatively. We hope that Secretary Ross doesn’t wait until he leaves office to finally realize that the current Vermont dairy model is bankrupting farmers, abusing labor and cows, polluting public waters, while mostly enriching Cabot, Ben & Jerry’s, and Dean Foods.