Commentary

Jake Claro: A rebuttal to James Maroney’s commentary

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Jake Claro, of Barre, who is the Farm to Plate director at the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund. 

James Maroney’s recent commentary in VTDigger contains a number of factual errors, misattributed quotes, and mischaracterizations pertaining to the recently released Vermont Agriculture and Food System Plan. Typically, we would be content with discreetly submitting corrections to errors without inserting ourselves into the commentary, but when the central claims of a piece rest upon a succession of incorrect statements it’s important for informed public discourse to provide readers with a thorough correction. As detailed below, it almost seems as if Maroney is criticizing an entirely different document than the report he claims he’s responding to.

The very first sentence of his piece contains a factual error. Maroney states that the: “Agency of Natural Resources and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets have just published their latest Farm to Plate Food System Plan.”

To be clear, the plan is the product of a partnership between Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets and the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund in fulfillment of Act 83 – it is not a product of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.

From there, Maroney claims that the plan says:

·        “the number of dairy farms [in Vermont] has decreased by 91% over the past nine decades … The downside of dairy’s dominant role in Vermont’s food systems is that when dairy suffers the entire food system economy of the state suffers too.”

·        “The primary challenge facing the dairy industry is the lack of price stability … Most Vermont dairy farmers believe a fundamental restructuring [of the price mechanism] is required to better cover the real costs of production and to minimize price volatility.”

·        “Unlike the federal system or the conventional cooperatives, organic cooperatives exercise supply control management … In 2009 the New England net average cost of production for a conventional dairy farms was $16.19/cwt but the price paid in Middlebury was $12.41 … Milk prices declined sharply in 2009 as a result of oversupply and a decrease in domestic and international demand for dairy products … but [as a result of supply control] Vermont organic milk producers had an estimated average cost of production of $25 but still received a price of $27.75.”

None of these “quotes” are actually in the 2020 plan. They are pulled from the Executive Summary of the 2011 Farm to Plate Strategic Plan.

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From these misattributed quotes he goes on to say that: “The plan fails to acknowledge that Vermont hasn’t the competency to control supply …”

This too is incorrect as the dairy section of the newly released plan states, “Because prices are impacted by national milk production deficits or surpluses, any type of supply management system will need mandatory national buy-in in order to be effective at raising and steadying milk prices,” and, “As one of the FMMO states, Vermont’s ability to enact pricing change is limited and must be an add-on to the base milk price.” Rather than rely on Maroney’s portrayal of the dairy section of the plan, I would encourage everyone to read through the dairy section themselves to see that it takes a balanced view of the industry while outlining opportunities for revitalization and diversification. 

Maroney’s piece overall is a narrow interpretation of the 2020 plan as a whole, creating an image for the reader that the plan is solely focused on dairy, when in fact it covers 23 areas of the food system – from products like apples, cheese, goats, grass-fed beef, maple, produce, to markets like groceries and schools, to issues such as climate change, water quality, succession, access to capital and many more.

His misunderstanding is further revealed by his comment that the plan: “goes on to suggest that the state should commission a study to “recommend methods for improving the marketing of Vermont agricultural products, assist in the diversification of agricultural products produced on a farm …”  What Maroney is quoting is not a recommendation of the plan, but rather the guiding legislative language provided by Act 83 – the legislation that prompted the creation of the plan. This language is included in the beginning of the report so that readers understand the genesis of the plan and the guidance provided by the Legislature.

Maroney’s personal desire to convert “Vermont’s entire industry to organic” in three years relies on an unrealistic view of how the organic market works, an unrealistic view of how behavioral change works, and feeds into the false notion that going organic is a turn-key transition to make. Additionally, his insistence on an overnight and complete shift to organic production gives no consideration or acknowledgement for how that supply would be absorbed by the market or affect organic prices. He’s essentially advocating for a strategy that would drive organic prices down and be detrimental to the viability of those transitioning and to those already in the industry.

There’s a reason the number of organic dairy farms in Vermont has consistently oscillated between approximately 190 and 200 farms since 2010 – milk supply is now closer to demand and organic co-ops are carefully managing growth to keep prices viable for their producers. This is not to say that growth opportunities don’t exist for organic dairy and that we can’t help stimulate greater demand, they do and we can, but rather Maroney’s suggested solution is at odds with the factors that make the organic market viable over the long term. Maroney wants you to believe that both oversupply is the cause of low conventional dairy prices but that sudden oversupply in the organic market will have no negative impact on organic dairy prices. The reality is, the dairy industry is not and will never be a monolith. Vermont dairy’s viability will require a diversity of different types of production serving different markets – whether that be conventional, organic, non-GMO, grass-fed, regenerative, etc. The 2020 plan lays out concrete recommendations for achieving this diversity in dairy as well as other agricultural industries.

Lastly, Maroney earlier in his piece sardonically criticizes the suggestion that the problems faced by our farms can be addressed through, “education or by enlisting in this or that new Vermont program,” and goes on to, in a similar manner, criticize the previous strategic plan’s advice as “useless.” Aside from stating that these remarks are rude to the 130+ contributing authors of the plan that offered their time and knowledge to these 23 briefs – that yes, included the expertise and input of farmers on what their respective industries need – I would also point out that it’s disingenuous to suggest that these programs and investments don’t matter. I would ask Maroney, and all readers, the following question: How would you transition an entire industry from one system of production to another in three years, without investment in technical assistance, processing infrastructure, marketing resources, market development, programmatic support, and new policies?

What our agricultural industry and food system in Vermont needs is not just a lump sum of money or a dictum to change or else, but coordinated human capacity, sensible regulations, accessible knowledge, and long-term commitment and support from both the public and private sectors. The plan, in understanding the need to transition large parts of our agricultural system away from the vulnerabilities of commodity systems and towards differentiated and value added production, recommends in a thorough and sensible manner the need for additional coordinated annual investments of at least $22.7 million per year for high quality business assistance, marketing support, product research and development, grant programs, regulatory capacity, farmer-to-farmer educational opportunities, infrastructure investments, regional market development, and workforce development.

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