Slayton: Vermont’s dairy farm crisis

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(HOST) Federal milk support prices are falling. Vermont dairy farmers are now receiving about the same price for their milk that they got 30 years ago – even though their expenses have risen dramatically. Commentator Tom Slayton looks at what that may mean for Vermont’s countryside and culture.

(SLAYTON) All but overlooked in the turmoil surrounding the current financial crisis on Wall Street is a very real financial crisis facing Vermont’s dairy farms. Put most bluntly, dairy farmers in Vermont are not being paid enough for their milk. As a result, more and more dairy farms are failing – going out of business.

Depending on how you count, Vermont has about 1,000 dairy farms left. And eleven of those family farms went out of business in January. Many more are expected to be lost as winter becomes spring because of disastrously low federal commodity prices for milk.

Every failed farm is, of course, a personal tragedy for the family that owns it. But the crisis is broader than that. Although the total number of farms is growing, conventional dairying still dominates the farm scene here. Some 80 percent of Vermont agriculture is dairy farming. What happens to dairying affects all of Vermont because the Vermont landscape that everyone loves is a farmed landscape. The loss of dairy farms in Vermont will put both our countryside and our culture at risk.

I talked this week with Beth Kennett at Liberty Hill Farm in Rochester. Her family milks about 100 cows, so they’re an average sized dairy farm. Beth also opens the farm to guests, operating it as a small country inn, to help augment their dairying income. Even so, she said, the current drop in milk prices threatens to drive them and many other Vermont farms out of business.

Remember that dairy farmers cannot set the price of their milk. They have to accept the federally set commodity price, which is based, not on the economic realities of New England, commodity price is set nationally, but on international supply and demand. Right now, that price is dropping like a stone.

That means, according to Beth Kennett, that farmers milking 100 cows will likely lose more than $95,000 in annual gross income this year.

It costs the farmer about $1.50 to produce a gallon of milk, and until recently they were receiving about $1.50 per gallon, maybe a little more. But now they’re receiving only $1.20 for that gallon of milk – that means they are losing money on every gallon of milk they produce.

You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that no business can operate for long with those kinds of numbers.

"Farmers have great empathy for other Americans facing economic hardship and unemployment," Kennett wrote recently. "However – there is something even worse than being unemployed. That is working day and night, hours on end, and receiving nothing for your labor."

So, in the midst of the worst financial crisis in recent memory, let us not forget the farmers who feed us. Our leaders – state and federal government alike – need to come to the aid of Vermont’s dairy farmers now – or by summer time it will be too late for many of them, and Vermont may be changed forever.

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