Few are known more for their strong work ethic, self-reliance and ingenuity than the American farmer, and, more specifically, the Vermont farmer. Apart from providing jobs within our community, the dairy farm landscape attracts many of our tourists and helps provide over one-third of our state’s income, or a projected $2.2 billion of the $6.1 billion budget for 2019. The support of dairy cooperatives has helped to revitalize many town economies by building the food systems that the consumer demands. The farm-to-table movement and the growth in our artisan cheese market owe much credit to the farmer.
Yet, over the last several years, milk prices have declined to levels often below production costs, a problem which has been spurred by global oversupply and worsened by tariffs imposed by major trading partners. Approximately 45 years ago, there were 3,250 Vermont dairy farms; today, there remain only about 750 farms. Many dairy farms have been forced to consolidate, with larger and more efficient operations squeezing out smaller competitors. Even as countless farmers shutter their barns, supply continues to outstrip demand. And, American consumers are drinking less milk and switching to alternatives like almond and soy-based products.
Another major source of our farmers’ frustration is government regulation. In order to comply with EPA mandates to reduce pollution in the state’s 23,000 miles of rivers and streams, 800 lakes and ponds, and 300,000 acres of wetlands, Vermont lawmakers have recently imposed new wastewater regulations. Farmers are regulated on how to store manure, how to restrict livestock from waterways, and how to prevent erosion and control runoff. Farmers are often forced to pay for these water-quality improvements out of their own pockets.
Another contentious issue stems from the modified feed and antibiotics used on larger farms to enhance milk production in sedentary cows. Agricultural activists argue that the resulting waste is an environmental disposal problem, and accuse farmers of mistreating their animals. One solution is to market organic and grass-fed milking operations. But, while a quarter of Vermont dairies have gone organic, even that market has recently declined, with supply outstripping demand.
Then there is the phosphorus problem. State land covered by forests and agriculture is 73 percent and 18 percent, respectively. Yet, 20 percent of total phosphorus annually is attributed to forest, while approximately twice that is attributed to agriculture. Total phosphorus is a simple bookkeeping method and does not tell us the chemical forms that end up in our lake. There is insoluble, inorganic phosphate (combined with calcium, magnesium and manganese ions, these are rocks) and there is soluble, organic phosphorus contained in biomolecules. The former provides nutrients for plant life, while the latter provides nutrients for blue-green algae, triggering algae blooms. One complication: farmyard manure is classified as organic, yet 60 to 80 percent of the phosphorus it contains is inorganic. Those in Montpelier blame this pollution on the farmer and have placed a red target on their backs like the red phosphorus in road flares. And what better demographic than a declining one?
Finally, many members of our legislature today are offering our farmers a carrot in the form of cannabis farming. Cannabis oil has become the new cure for all that ails you, from myopia to cancer. A major concern for our farmers after replanting their fields is that they may have entered an already glutted market.
Dan Monger lives in New Haven.