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Dairy crisis

06/26/03 12:00AM By Vern Grubinger
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(Host) Commentator Vern Grubinger reflects on the crisis in dairy farming in Vermont.


(Grubinger) Dairy farmers are facing tough times, in Vermont and across the country. The price they're getting for their milk is low. So low that it doesn't cover their costs of production.

How would you feel if you lost money every day you went to work? It's no wonder that many farmers decide to stop doing what they love to do, what they've done all their lives. As one farmer said, "When I started out 25 years ago a shovel cost $13, now it's $50. But the price of milk hasn't changed much."

Of course, that's not the whole story. In the early 1970s Vermont had 4,000 dairy farms with an average of 50 cows that each produced 10,000 pounds of milk a year. Today, the average cow produces twice as much, and the average farm has twice as many cows. Since consumption of milk isn't rising, it's no wonder we're down to 1400 dairy farms.

And although Vermont makes almost three billion pounds of milk a year, that's less than 2% of the national total. A lot of other states are good at making milk, too.

Meanwhile, many local processors and distributors have been bought up or gone under. It's called consolidation, and the dairy industry has plenty of company in that, from automobiles to poultry to department stores.

So who cares if our dairy farms disappear? There's plenty of milk in the supermarket. Get over it. Well, there's one little hitch. Dairy farms provide Vermont with a lot more than milk. They're key to our remarkable landscape. They provide places to snowmobile, hunt and hike. And they're a bulwark against sprawl, helping to maintain our small towns and village settlement pattern.

All this brings in billions of dollars, both in tourism and economic development as entrepreneurs and corporations seek out Vermont for its quality of life.

So what can we do? Among the experts, the farmers, and the politicians you hear some very different ideas. And many of them are right. We need to hedge our bets against milk prices that rise and fall by promoting dairy farms of all types. Small farms that add value to their milk by bottling it or making cheese. Organic farms that get a higher price for milk by meeting strict stewardship standards. Grass-based farms that avoid the expense of growing corn. And yes, large farms that can reduce their costs of production.

Large farms have to be situated where communities want them, and they have to be thoughtfully regulated to assure they protect our natural resources. Organic farms have to be careful not to grow too fast, flooding the market and lowering prices, putting them in the same boat as conventional farms. And organic farms need protection from genetically engineered crops on other farms that could threaten their organic certification.

Farms that make value added products like cheese need the support of state agencies and the University to assure they make the highest quality. And they need consumers to recognize and buy these products at a premium. One size doesn't fit all. So let's celebrate diversity in dairy farming.

With an ear to the ground, this is Vern Grubinger.

Vern Grubinger is the director of the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.
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