Vt. lawmakers cut organic dairy aid from budget bill, but say help could come by spring
The Legislature has removed a $9.2 million appropriation in emergency aid for organic dairy farmers from legislation updating this year's budget.
But lawmakers, the Agency of Agriculture and Northeast Organic Farmers Association of Vermont all say that they're working to get help to farmers.
Farmers and their advocates requested the funds earlier this winter. They testified before House and Senate lawmakers that because of inflation, drought, the war in Ukraine and supply chain issues, the cost of producing organic milk is much higher than what they are being paid.
They said without financial relief soon, they could lose their livelihoods.
More from Vermont Public: Vermont organic dairy farmers make passionate appeal to lawmakers, ask for $9.2 million to stay afloat
The House approved the Budget Adjustment Act (BAA) with that appropriation, directing the Agency of Agriculture to set up a disbursement plan based on the amount of milk organic dairy farmers produced in 2022.
But once the BAA reached the Senate, the Scott administration told lawmakers that the Agency of Agriculture and other market players — like conventional dairy farmers — hadn't had a chance to weigh in on the issue.
The administration suggested moving the conversation to the 2024 budget process.
The version of the BAA approved by the Senate no longer includes the help for organic dairy farmers.
But in a recent committee hearing between House and Senate lawmakers, Diane Lanpher, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said help for organic dairy farmers would be taken up during this legislative session.
"We understand that there is a great deal of agreement to continue to have this conversation in 24 as to whether or not there is a way forward, and a plan that I believe is in the works," Lanpher said.
That plan, according to Senate Agriculture committee Chair Bobby Starr, is currently to move a separate bill through the Legislature with funds available to organic dairy farmers as early as this spring.
"And have it take effect upon passage, so that our farmers, you know, they they're gonna need some money when spring time comes around, you know, get ready to till the soil and buy the fuel and, and seeds to do their work with," Starr said.
He noted that lawmakers are also examining longer-term solutions to the crisis, including investigating why companies and cooperatives can't pay more to organic dairy farmers for their milk, and how a federal risk management program currently designed for conventional dairy farmers could also meet the needs of organic dairy farmers.
Laura Ginsburg, who oversees dairy development and innovation for Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture, says the agency is preparing to roll out a program that makes whatever funds the Legislature approves easy to access for organic dairy farmers.
"We know that planting season's coming up, the busy season's coming up," she said. "And there's a lot of farms that are, you know, in a tough spot trying to make a decision about what their future looks like."
According to the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT), 135 organic dairies remain in Vermont, down from 198 a decade ago. Ginsburg said Vermont is one of the states with the highest number of organic dairy farms per capita, and those farms are important for the resilience of all agriculture here.
"Our organic sector in Vermont and regionally is on the smaller end of of even small farms, and that's important for rural communities for keeping equipment and feed dealers and business keeping vets in business," she said. "It also allows us to tap into a different regional marketplace, and that is just absolutely critical for the success of our dairy sector as a whole, to have that diversity of markets and consumers buying products that come from Vermont."
More from Vermont Public: Northeast organic dairy farmers are in crisis. More people buying local could help
In January, organic farmers from across the state made their case for why their operations were worth helping — they keep land open in their communities, their practices combat climate change through things like carbon sequestration and they produce local food.
Since then, NOFA-VT policy director Maddie Kempner said the direction of the conversation in both the Legislature and with the Agency of Agriculture has been heartening.
"I think it went from folks not really understanding that this crisis was even happening out there in the landscape necessarily, to, you know, having heard from enough farmers directly, who are being impacted by this, that they really do seem to grasp generally the situation," Kempner said.
She added: "It has been really eye-opening to see the support in the Legislature, from the Legislature, and from the agency, that they really do value these farms, and they want to see them sustainable, you know, not just in the in the next six months or a year, but for the long-term."
In the near-term, Kempner said the hope is that funds from the state, plus a yet-to-be-rolled-out $100 million program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help with marketing costs, can get the state's organic dairy farmers through for now.
Vermont Public's Peter Hirschfeld contributed reporting to this story.
Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.