Dairy Farmers Await Organic Milk Hauling Service in Southern Vermont

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(Host) For some Vermont dairy farmers, “going organic” is a way to earn a better premium on a smaller amount of milk. Consumers seem increasingly willing to pay for organic dairy products. Organic milk haulers are making pickups at nearly 80 certified organic farms north of White River Junction.

But in southern Vermont, farmers are still waiting, as VPR’s Susan Keese reports.

(Sounds from milking parlor.)

(Keese) Mary Ellen Franklin steps outside the milking parlor on her family’s farm near the Massachusetts border. She shouts across the yard, where her three sons are playing.

(Franklin) “It’s time to milk!”

(Keese) It’s 13-year old Neil’s turn to help with milking. The cows are black and white mixed breeds and sweet-faced caramel-colored Jerseys.

(Franklin) “And all the calves we had this spring, the cows were bred to New Zealand Freisian bulls – a smaller frame cow that does really well on grass.”

(Keese) Grass – forage and hay – are crops this hill farm grows easily. But until they started moving towards sustainable organic farming, the Franklins were spending lots of money on fertilizers and weed killers. They were renting fields to grow the corn their ultra-productive Holsteins required.

Later, between chores, Franklin says the race to produce ever more never paid off for her family.

(Franklin) “For the longest time I thought it wasn’t rocket science that the more milk we made, and the more milk everyone else made, the less we got paid for the milk.”

(Keese) Now they’re working with fewer cows that fertilize the fields themselves as they graze.

(Franklin) “And if we were to get an organic price for our milk, it would all jibe.”

(Keese) But the Franklins are still selling to a conventional hauler for considerably less than organic prices. That’s because no organic milk truck travels this far south.

Currently two organic dairy coops are active in the state. Both are growing and eager to add new farms.

(Tim Griffin) “There’s just a time-distance situation at this time where we just can not afford to go down there for one producer, for instance, because it’s arguably a four-hour round trip.”

(Keese) Tim Griffin is the regional coordinator for Organic Valley, the milk coop the Franklins hope to join. The Wisconsin-based company serves organic dairies in north and central Vermont.

Griffin says the coop wants to open up new territory in the southern part of the state. But it’s going to take more farms than the Franklins’ before it makes economic sense. So Franklin and her husband David have set about convincing other farms to take the plunge.

(Franklin) “We started putting the information in farmers’ hands, we left some in mailboxes and milkrooms. We wanted people to know that we were taking this step and that it could be done.”

(Keese) The transition to organic takes time: fields have to go three years without pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Animals must be off antibiotics for a year.

In an effort to help, the Northeast Organic Farmers Association has been working with other farms in the area. Five or six are beginning the switch this year – maybe enough to justify an organic milk run eventually.

That’s a long wait for the Franklins. They’re almost ready now to be certified organic. But they believe it will mean a more secure future for small family farms – if everyone works together to make it happen.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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