Vermont farmers struggle for survival

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(Host) Dairy farmers in Vermont are struggling to survive as they face an unprecedented drop in milk prices.

State officials have asked Washington for emergency relief. They hope that the Obama Administration will buy time for farmers before more structural changes are made in the federal farm support system.

VPR’s John Dillon has this report:

(Dillon) John Roberts is used to the rain, the hard work and the long hours. On this day, he’s had to play midwife to a laboring heifer.

(Roberts)  "And the calf’s head came out but then just one leg. So we had to go fish for the other leg. … Luckily everything worked out and the calf was alive and stayed alive and is pretty vigorous."

(Dillon) That’s all part of the job on a dairy farm. What Roberts and other farmers weren’t prepared for was an unprecedented drop in milk prices. Milk checks have been cut almost in half since last year. Yet farmers’ costs have continued to climb.

(Roberts) "You don’t want to be hysterical about it. But the fact of the matter is, we are not paying our bills. You are just not paying bills. You are making choices about who gets paid. My grain company – I have to talk to them every time I want to order a load of grain. They want to make sure they’re going to get paid."

(Dillon) Roberts came to Vermont from England 35 years ago and has been farming ever since. His registered Brown Swiss cows are the very image of contented bovines. And the high protein milk they produce – perfect for making Cabot cheese – earns a premium.

But even with the protein premium, Roberts is now paid about $12 for 100 pounds of milk that he figures costs about $18 dollars to make.

(Roberts) "You try and stretch everything. A barrel of tit dip maybe lasted a month. Well, let’s try and get it to last an extra week longer."

Hear skid steer.. 

(Dillon) His skid steer – a bulldozer like machine that he uses to clean his barn – is due for replacement, but he’ll make it last. He’s also feeding less grain to some of his cows. How long he can stay in business with a negative cash flow?

(Roberts) "I don’t want to face these questions. I mean, obviously, there’s a point where you can’t go on."

(Dillon) While Roberts struggles to cut costs, the Douglas Administration and Vermont’s congressional delegation are trying to get emergency help. Agriculture Secretary Roger Allbee has been a frequent flier to Washington, and was there again on Wednesday for a meeting at the U-S Department of Agriculture.

(Allbee) "And the message is that something has to be done very quickly. We are going to implore the secretary to do something – either increase the price support or increase the MILC pay program immediately – something that gets the price up so that farmers have some hope to carry through on this situation."

(Dillon) Vermont now has 1,046 dairy farms, down from almost 1,300 in 2005. Since the spring, the state has lost about six dairy farms a month.

Hear milking machine….

(Dillon) In Roberts’ milking parlor, each cow gives an average of 60 pounds. But right now, there’s too much milk on the market. A small surplus can trigger a freefall in prices. So when the worldwide recession hit, and the export market fell, prices paid to farmers plummeted.

Roberts says one bit of good news is that farmers are now talking seriously about a supply management system. The idea is that each farmer is assigned how much milk to produce and is guaranteed a set price for that production. The system would allow farmers to reduce output as demand changes.

(Roberts) "And supply management, if you can make 4 million pounds of milk more efficiently with 20 less cows – you’ve reduced your cost of production."

(Dillon) But changing the pricing structure in that way requires congressional approval.

So Roberts also has plans as well to tap a more lucrative market by setting up a butter and soft cheese operation on the farm.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Cornwall.

(Host) The Vermont Milk Commission meets Thursday to look at what the state can do to boost farmer income.

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