Farmers organize to leverage higher milk prices

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(Host) Dairy farmers in northern Vermont have formed a new organization that they hope will bargain for higher prices. About 100 farmers met Wednesday) in Derby. They say they eventually want to control about one-third of the state’s milk supply.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Irasburg farmer Mark Lawson didn’t need to explain the crisis in the farm economy to the 116 people gathered at the Derby Elks Club. Farm prices are stuck at levels from three decades ago. Many in the industry say they’re just barely holding on. Lawson told the crowd it’s time to try something new:

(Lawson) “As a farmer of several generations, and same with a lot of you here, I think we all decided it’s time for a change. We’ve gone through generations and generations of trying to fix the problem and never actually fixing the problem.”

(Dillon) The idea behind the new group, Dairy Farmers of Vermont, is simple collective bargaining. As of Wednesday, the group has signed up people who together produce about 195 million pounds. They hope to represent about 1 billion pounds of milk, which is one-third of the state’s annual production. The farmers plan to use that market clout to gain higher prices.

Desperate dairy farmers in the past have threatened to dump milk or withhold their product to pressure dairy processors. But Craftsbury farmer Willy Ryan says what’s different this time is that this group involves well-known, successful dairy producers:

(Ryan) “I signed the card. I took a bunch of cards out to a bunch of farmers. Of course most of you guys know I was Farm Bureau ‘Farm Family of the Year,’ so now I’m so much smarter now than I was last month. So they say, why did you sign this thing, what’s the positive? My issue to them was – is the fact that there’s some noise being made by people with substance. And that’s the key. Farmers here with substance are making noise.”

(Dillon) The new organization is getting help from political activist Anthony Pollina, who ran last year for lieutenant governor as a Progressive Party candidate. Pollina says the next step is to form a bargaining committee to work with dairy co-ops on higher prices. But Holland farmer Keith Gray warned that the effort could actually undermine the co-ops:

(Gray) “What I’m saying is, you need to work with them not against. Boy, it’ll collapse if you don’t.”,/i>

(Dillon) Dairy Farmers of Vermont is strongest now in the Northeast Kingdom. Members say they’ll also organize in the state’s other major dairy regions.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Derby.

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