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Vermont organic dairy farmers can now apply for funding relief from 'extreme market challenges'

A photo of four black and white cows, one in the foreground, three grouped together in the background, standing in long green grass with gentle green hills rising up in the background.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Organic dairy farmers who shipped or processed milk in 2022 are eligible for relief funds from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture.

Beginning today, Vermont organic dairy farmers can apply for relief funding from what the Agency of Agriculture calls "extreme market challenges."

This year's budget — which Gov. Phil Scott vetoed before the Vermont Legislature approved it in an override vote— set aside $6.9 million in one-time payments.

Vermont farmers who processed or shipped organic milk in 2022 will receive $5 for every 100 pounds of milk they produced that year. They must be "in good standing" with the state agriculture agency to be eligible. Applications are due by Oct. 20, 2023.

Laura Ginsburg, who oversees dairy development and innovation for the agriculture agency, says these grants are not competitive.

"We're not going to run out of money, because the Legislature put enough money for everybody to be fully paid," she said. "So it's better off if the farmers who will apply take a bit of time to get themselves organized and ready so that they submit a complete and correct application the first time, and then we can really get the payment to them a lot faster."

Ginsburg said payments will range between roughly $5,000 and $200,000. She noted Vermont is the only state in the nation to set up this kind of relief payment program for organic dairy farmers.

"When you think about 25% or 30% of the [dairy] industry being impacted in this way, that's a pretty substantial number of farms and economic impact to the state and to the Northeast organic dairy sector as a whole," Ginsburg said. "Vermont's a major player there. And there's there's real reasons to keep these farms in business."

"When you think about 25% or 30% of the [dairy] industry being impacted in this way, that's a pretty substantial number of farms and economic impact to the state and to the Northeast organic dairy sector as a whole."
Laura Ginsburg, Vermont Agency of Agriculture

State lawmakers included the funding in the budget billfollowing testimony from organic dairy farmers who said they were in danger of losing their livelihoods due to forces beyond their control: inflation, the war in Ukraine, supply chain issues, and drought.

The Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont says organic dairy farmers have been in "an impossible economic situation due to spiking costs of productionover the past year" without a matching increase in the price they're paid for milk.

According to data from the Agency of Agriculture, Vermont has lost more than 40 certified organic dairy farms since 2020.

Among those hanging on is fourth generation farmer Marcy Guillette, who milks around 75 cows in Derby. The 47-year-old is renting the farm from her parents, and hopes to buy it someday.

For now, though, she says she'll use the newly available state funds to pay her bills.

"That money will be spent locally," Guillette said. "I've got my local soap guy, I've got my hoof trimmer, the guy that spreads manure."

For Abbie Corse and her family's organic dairy in Whitingham, which milks 54 cows, the funds should help with repairing equipment, like the hay bagging machine that's as old as she is.

"I'm 40 this year, it's 40 years old, it broke — it broke in a very big way," she said with a laugh. "The bagger broke, the baler broke, the bale wagon broke."

But beyond equipment repairs, Corse said this relief program represents an important shift in how Vermont prioritizes small-scale dairy farming, which has shrunk over time.

"Do we want to ensure that there is small farming that can happen in the state, organic or otherwise?" she said. "I hope that that's the way in which we decide to move forward, is by thinking more about food system, and how different sizes of farms and different types of farms fit into that, and, you know, how we build... maintain a resilient food production landscape."

Corse added that she was deeply grateful for the relief funds from the Legislature, and for the collaboration between NOFA-VT and state agriculture officials that made it happen.

Lilac Ridge Farm's Ross Thurber says he plans to demonstrate his thanks by investing in the future for the 40-milking-cow West Brattleboro farm. For instance, Lilac Ridge recently started a collaboration with Miller Farm in Vernon to make chocolate and maple organic creemees. That kind of direct-to-consumer product could help insulate the farm from future dips in the organic dairy market, Thurber says.

"Instead of going to the Legislature, I'd rather have people come and buy really good organic creemees at our farm," he said.

Peter Miller, Thurber's collaborator, milks about 200 cows. He says at the moment, programs like Vermont's government relief funding are helpful for catching up — he had to take money out of retirement to make ends meet.

But for long-term viability of small-scale organic dairy, Miller says he wishes more data about the cost of producing that milk would inform the prices farmers get paid — even if that means customers are paying more at the store.

"What I would like to see and eager to see would be more of the, you know, direct from the customer back to the retailer back to the processor back to the farmer, that the customer would get a fair price with all the markups between, but that it would go back to the farmer," Miller said.

Ginsburg with the state agriculture agency says Vermont does make an effort to encourage residents to consume more local dairy products in order to support better pay prices for farmers.

"The more that consumers are choosing products that come from here, the more impactful those processors will be in increasing their farmers' pay prices," Ginsburg said.

More from Vermont Public: Northeast organic dairy farmers are in crisis. More people buying local could help

At the federal level, advocates have also been lobbying for an organic dairy risk management program as part of the 2023 Farm Bill. This would send payments to farmers when the difference between cost of feed and milk price falls below a certain number.

There's currently such a program for conventional dairy farmers, but because that market is different, it doesn't always serve organic dairy farmers.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also recently started accepting applications for its $104 million Organic Dairy Marketing Assistance Program.

The USDA is offering one-time payments based on organic dairy farms' 2022 marketing costs. Those applications are due by July 26.

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

Updated: July 7, 2023 at 11:49 AM EDT
This story has been updated to replace a previous quote that cited incorrect information about the proportion of organic dairy farms among small scale dairies.
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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