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Vermont organic dairy farmers make passionate appeal to lawmakers, ask for $9.2 million to stay afloat

a photo of a door with bubble-glass in the window, with the words agriculture & forestry printed on the glass
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Vermont's House and Senate committees on agriculture held a joint hearing on Thursday, Jan. 26 to address the organic dairy crisis. Farmers said they need help now, and asked for $9.2 million in one-time emergency payments.

In an emotional legislative hearing this week, organic dairy farmers made passionate pleas to Vermont lawmakers. They said without some financial relief — and soon — they may lose their livelihood.

Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch spoke with colleague Elodie Reed, who has been following this issue. Their conversation below has been edited for clarity.

Mary Williams Engisch: So what exactly are Vermont organic dairy farmers asking the Vermont Legislature to do?

Elodie Reed: They’re asking for a one-time appropriation of $9.2 million dollars to be included in the Budget Adjustment Act, which is a bill that makes updates to the current year’s budget. Those dollars would fund one-time emergency payments to Vermont organic dairy farmers based on the amount of milk they produced in 2022.

Tell us a little more about why organic dairy farmers are making this request now?

Because of larger economic forces in the past year, things like inflation, the war in Ukraine, supply chain issues, as well as drought, the cost of producing organic milk is much higher than the price farmers get paid for producing it. And there’s very little farmers can do to make up that gap.

Maddie Kempner is the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont’s policy director. She’s been with that organization for seven years, and she says she’s never seen things this bad.

“This is by far the most dire straits that our organic dairy producers have seen," Kempner said. "We lost 11 producers in 2021, another 18 in 2022. We are looking at potentially losing another 30 just in the first half of this year, if something doesn’t give.”

One more organic dairy farm went out of business this week, Kempner said, and there are now 139 left in Vermont. And they’re asking the Legislature for money basically as a last resort, as a way to pay the bills and essentially not go bankrupt while the industry works on some longer-term solutions.

A screenshot of a powerpoint slide showing a graph with three lines representing organic milk pay price, total cash expenses per hundredweight of milk and total cost per hundred weight of milk. The line for pay price goes down slightly over time while the cash price and total cost per hundredweight of milk lines go up over time.
Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont
In this presentation slide from the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, a graph shows the stagnant pay price for organic milk versus the increasing cost of production for that milk.

And what about the federal government? Can it help?

Currently there’s no federal safety net program for organic dairy farmers like there is for conventional farmers when margins are low like this. Organic farmers can sign up for the conventional program, but it’s based on conventional milk prices. And this year, conventional milk margins have been good, so the program has paid out very little money.

Advocates want to include a safety net program specifically for organic dairy farmers in the 2023 Farm Bill, which determines the country’s federal agriculture and food policy.

In the meantime, though, advocates tried lobbying Congress to give emergency relief to organic dairy farmers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture did announce this week a new $100 million program to help organic dairy farmers with their marketing costs, but it’s not clear how exactly the program will work, or when it will roll out.

What about the state Agency of Agriculture? What is it doing in response?

Anson Tebbetts, the Vermont Secretary of Agriculture, came on Vermont Edition earlier this week, and he said the solution to the organic dairy crisis needs to be multi-pronged.

“It's going to take, you know, likely a quick response from USDA to get their program up and running and get some cash to farmers," Tebbetts said. "And then the discussions at the Statehouse ... and then to see what comes out of that, and what, what might be available to help all our dairy farmers in Vermont. Keep in mind, we only have about 540 dairy farmers in Vermont, and they're all, they're all precious, and they're all fragile.”

The discussions Tebbetts is referencing at the Vermont Statehouse, he’s talking about a joint hearing with the House and Senate agriculture committees that took place this week.

And you listened in on that hearing. What did some of these organic dairy farmers have to say?

Seven farmers from all different corners of the state had a pretty unified message: this situation is unprecedented, and they need help now. Some also made clear that up to this point, they haven’t felt support from the state.

Pete Miller from Vernon: "We have consistently over the last number of years been either the most or one of the most efficient organic dairies in the state. And when my brother and I were talking this last September about quitting, because we've dumped a bunch of our retirement money back in just to pay the bills, that really, that really shook me at the foundation, and I realized that every other organic farmer in the state must be in serious trouble."

Marcy Guillette from Derby: "I am a fourth generation dairy farmer. ... And I have spent a lot of time out in the industry, working at different places, and doing different things, only to come back to my dream. So here I am. And I will try to not get too emotional …Right now I rent a farm from my parents. I don't know who or how I could write a business plan to even think about purchasing it, with the current situation."

Ross Thurber from West Brattleboro: "You as policymakers have to consider how your work will shape our rural state and how it will look now and in the future. Are we interested in creating green jobs that can effectively sequester carbon and produce food? With all due respect to our Secretary of Agriculture, we need to push back against the notion that all farms are fragile. … In a family system, you love all your children. But when one is in need you devote resources towards them. Why is the agency afraid to advocate? Who is Secretary Tebbetts afraid of offending?"

More from Vermont Edition: Vermont's organic dairy farms are at a breaking point. Will help come?

So what happens next?

After hearing testimony from farmers and advocates, the House Agriculture, Food Resiliency and Forestry Committee voted unanimously to recommend this $9.2 million one-time appropriation for organic dairy farmers. If approved, it would come out of the Agency of Agriculture’s portion of the state budget.

For now, this recommendation advances to the House Committee on Appropriations.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Elodie is a reporter and producer for Vermont Public. She previously worked as a multimedia journalist at the Concord Monitor, the St. Albans Messenger and the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, and she's freelanced for The Atlantic, the Christian Science Monitor, the Berkshire Eagle and the Bennington Banner. In 2019, she earned her MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Southern New Hampshire University.
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