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Nadworny: ReDesigning Dairy

I love cows. When I was a little kid, I’d jump up and down in the car and yell “Cows!” every time we drove by one, which was all the time. And I still think the true smell of Vermont in the spring and summer is the heady aroma of hay – mixed with manure.

But for all that, I think it’s time to redesign the Vermont dairy industry.

That’s because the dairy industry is a major polluter of Lake Champlain and other Vermont waterways. According to one estimate, cleaning up just Lake Champlain will cost more than $150M over the next 10 years. In fact, right now the Legislature is considering an expenditure of $8M to start the cleanup.

Trouble is, we’d be spending money without addressing the root cause of the problem.

And it’s a problem we can’t just blame on the farmers. We Vermonters want dairy farms dotting our state to keep the landscape open and provide us with endless opportunities to indulge in cow and nature viewing. We’ve crafted legislation to subsidize farmers by reducing property taxes through the Current Use policy.

We did this for the same reason we banned billboards: we didn’t want our beautiful agricultural landscape turned into subdivisions with fields full of row houses.

It’s tough to make a living as a dairy farmer without using chemicals and pesticides to increase farm profitability and reduce labor costs. But that still isn’t enough, so through federal milk pricing subsidies, we further protect New England dairy farmers.

And now, on top of all these taxpayer funded subsidies, we also face paying to clean up the mess dairy farming leaves behind.

$150M over 10 years.

It’s time we seriously considered ways to design a more sustainable dairy system for our state.

One idea I’ve heard discussed recently is to provide incentives to convert our Vermont farms to organic. From a milk price standpoint, it makes a lot of sense. While regular milk prices are falling once again, organic farmers are finding it hard to keep up with demand.

It would take both hard work and a lot of money to make that happen. But we’re already spending lots of money on dairy in what seems like a Faustian bargain at best. There must be a better way to design a system that keeps farmers on the land, keeps our state open and filled with cows, and keeps our lakes and waterways clean and human friendly.

Rich Nadworny is a designer who resides in Burlington and Stockholm.
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