Will Allen: All in? Or deep dairy denial?

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.

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  • Tim Hogeboom

    Cow manure getting into Vermont’s streams, rivers and lakes is a DISASTER. One gram of that manure has roughly 60 million E. coli bacteria and an unknown number of disease causing viruses, bacteria and protozoa. But here’s something else that you may not be aware of: the blue green algae blooms that result from manure getting into our waters generate neurotoxins that generate ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Parkinsons and Alzheimers. Researchers recently found clusters of these diseases near several lakes and also uncovered evidence that victims had breathed in the toxins, that they were airborne. *** We didn’t know all this twenty years ago, but now that the science is clear our farming practices have to change. Please don’t take my word for it, go to Wikipedia and search the word CYANOTOXIN.

  • (The writer is an organic livestock farmer and poultry processor in Berlin, practicing holistic regenerative methods that both increase soil fertility and sequester atmospheric carbon.)
    It is so sad to read this commentary and once again to realize that the bucolic image of contented cows grazing on good Vermont grass is, for the most part, a public relations sham. The bulk of our conventional milk is produced by cows in confinement, never eating grass except as fermented hay, never experiencing sunlight, never having the opportunity to move freely as a herd. Ironic that holistic farming practices exist that have the potential to cure the earth of carbon pollution, but are never mentioned, much less promoted in the slick “puff pieces” that the Agency of Agriculture publishes at taxpayer expense. Chuck Ross has failed to lead and we can only hope that his successor will take a more enlightened approach to dairy farming in our state. Governor Scott, please take notice.

  • Tom Pelham

    This failure to follow through on anti-trust action in 2009 was a missed opportunity by Vermont’s delegation.

    With a Dean Foods PAC playing both sides of the aisle, likely another example of dysfunctional government at the nation’s Capitol that serves the powerful and so angers many Americans, as we’ve just witnessed:

    • George Boomhower

      This past summer, the water south of St Albans Bay and in the bay itself, was so routinely clear it was almost pristine, compared to several previous years. I was able to enjoy swims almost at will without concerns
      of Blue Green Algae or other forms of scum. At one point I spotted something white on the bottom, at about a depth of five feet, it was my foot. It’s been awhile. The only thing that changed, as I see it, was a real lessening of mountain snow runoff and possibly fewer heavy spring rains. The high spring runoff, of course, brings with it a whole bunch of excess manure and phosphorous that has migrated from the raw corn fields to the ditches, streams and rivers and into the bay. The St Albans waste water treatment plants were putting their normal residue into the bay, their out flows are very close to the bays north end. Yet the state wants to put the St Albans waste water treatment plants’ effects on par with the corn growing farms around the bay. Not even close.

    • Roger Allbee

      Good this discussion is taking place. While we have many hard working dairy farmers and their families in Vermont, the conventional dairy pricing model is broken and has been for some time.We see the statements of the need for financial assistance more often. Relying on Washington for the solution or changes in the demand in international markets is not an economic solution either. With fewer buyers of milk there again is a need to aggressively look at anti-trust issues too as we tried to do in past with resistance from dairy industry leaders in Vermont and elsewhere.Vermont has the opportunity to break out of this nonfunctional economic model but it will take bold action, a transition period for many, and an ability to bring all parties together. It will not be easy of course as it never is but without bold change, the Vermont dairy sector as we know it will be part of history that many in years ahead will equate to what happened with the merino sheep industry in the 1800’s.

      • The problem is the chronic over supply of conventional commodity milk. That is not an accident. The USDA and dairy coops have been trying to industrialize the dairy industry and lower production costs for generations. They have resisted all attempts to implement farmer led supply management initiatives as they have in Canada. The only reason the price of organic milk is stable is because the organic milk industry has developed its own supply management system. If all of Vermont’s farmers transitioned to organic we’d likely see a chronic oversupply of organic milk and prices would fall. Maybe some people would like to see that happen. The problem conventional dairy farmers are facing is oversupply and that is a man made problem and it is not an accident. Cabot and Ben and Jerry’s are loving it. The would also love cheap organic milk.

  • Stephanie Kaplan

    I wonder if Roger Allbee would be willing to come back as Ag Secretary under the new Scott administration.

    • That would be a great move. However, Governor-elect Scott so far has been very quiet about who he will appoint as his department heads.

  • Marie Parker

    I am not a farmer, but know a few. They all complain about the price they are paid for milk. At times they struggle to put up enough hay to make it through the winter. I ask them if they would switch to organic, or exchange half the herd to beef cows. It is something they are not interested in doing. They feel the cost and hassle to go organic is something they cant handle with the money they are currently getting for milk (plus the subsidies they get). If I can’t pay my bills with my current work situation, something needs to change. I think traditional dairy farmers need to shift their thinking or get out of the business. Sorry, its not the same world as when we were young.

  • Kevin Lawrence

    This article is not just about milk production. Will Allen’s concept of diversifying and deepening our local food supplies must be seriously heeded. California vegetables will not sustain us when fuel prices reach their true price in the near future. Building up our local food production now could build up our resiliency and our soils.