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The economic crisis brought on by the new coronavirus is taking a toll on Vermont’s farms, forcing some dairies to dump milk as demand has dried up, even as other agricultural operations have seen online sales and farmstand traffic skyrocket.
Despite a high demand for food and produce, the outbreak of Covid-19 in Vermont has changed the landscape for the state’s farming industry and local food providers, particularly damaging the already fragile dairy economy.
“In short, it’s not pretty,” said Anson Tebbetts, secretary of the Agency of Agriculture, as he briefed Senate lawmakers April 2 on the state of agriculture in Vermont.
“From the farm to the fork, we have some sobering issues that we’re going to have to deal with over the next few weeks and months,” he said.
Tebbetts added that the worst months for dairy producers will likely be between April and August, as the consumption of milk continues to fall, and with it compensation for dairy farmers.
Milk prices in the Northeast took a hit in March as the economy and life as usual ground to a halt — falling 10% in the last 14 days of the month. Prices tumbled to $15.80 per hundredweight, far below the region’s cost of production.
Across the country, farmers have already been told to begin dumping milk, and though it is not yet widespread in Vermont, it is occurring.
Dairy Farmers for America, of which the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery and its 350 members is a subsidiary, confirmed Friday that “certain” farms in Vermont have been told to dump milk since the outbreak of Covid-19.
“This is not something across the board,” said a spokesperson for DFA. “Nobody ever wants to ask somebody to dump their milk.”
In response to the falling milk prices and in an effort to deliver direct support to Vermont’s dairy farmers, Tebbetts drafted a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue asking the department to set a milk floor price of $19.50 per hundredweight for the next four months.
As of Thursday, both New Hampshire and Connecticut had signed on to the letter, but Tebbetts is attempting to drum up more support among New England states before sending the letter to Perdue Monday.
On April 1, Agri-Mark Cabot dairy cooperative circulated a letter asking for similar relief measures.
“It is critical that dairy farmers have a stabilized source of revenue to allow for their operations to continue at a time when they are the most critical to our nation,” the letter read.
“This is a matter of national food security,” it continues. “The need for financially strong and diverse dairy production and manufacturing sectors is more important than ever.”
While milk is beginning to be dumped, Vermont’s cheesemakers, crippled by the closure of restaurants and farmers markets, are also facing the harsh reality of business during the time of Covid-19.
Cheese producers that distribute to restaurants, specialty stores and events, have experienced revenue losses of more than 80% with some operations reporting tens of thousands of dollars in losses. Others have lost upwards of $100,000 in just two weeks, according to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture.
Tebbetts said that projections for the next 6-8 weeks indicate “catastrophic losses” for cheesemakers across the state, with some losing $500,000 in revenue and others expected to go out of business if they are not given relief.
On March 31, Jasper Hill Farm, the popular artisan cheesemaker in Greensboro, posted on Facebook that it had decided to move its Ayrshire cows — with some going to neighbors and others to another farm — in an attempt to cut costs.
“All of a sudden we have too much milk for our market. And we are burning through too much cash to survive if this lasts more than a few months,” the farm wrote.
However, while many farms in Vermont have faced mounting challenges and economic hardship, others, with more direct lines with consumers, have been able to adapt.
Many local farms across the state have seen the number of people signing up for CSAs increase as farmstand sales have also gone up since early March.
“There are a few bright spots,” Tebbetts said. “If you can get directly to your consumer without any person to person contact — mail order, curbside pickup — that seems to be the best model.”
Christa Alexander, who manages Jericho Settlers Farm with her husband, said recent spikes in CSA and farmstand sales has made up for the farm’s lost revenue from restaurant sales.
In mid-March, after Gov. Phil Scott announced a state of emergency and as schools began to be ordered shut, Alexander’s farmstand sales were six times more than the previous week. Alexander, who has a year-round CSA, said that over the past 10 days spring membership has doubled.
“We are alright for now,” said Alexander. “Our next question is what will this look like three to four months from now.”
Alexander added that many people seem to be grateful to have her and other farms that they can rely on for food in their communities.
As many consumers are turning to local options, Tebbetts is working on deals with Hannaford and other supermarkets to get more of Vermont’s produce on the shelves of larger chains.
“We’ve got food, good food, it’s just a matter of getting it to consumers in a timely efficient manner and that’s what we are trying to focus on,” Tebbetts said in an interview.