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04/25/07 12:00AM By Ron Krupp
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(HOST) It's time for farmers to buy seed and fertilizer for spring planting, but this year, with milk prices so low and grain and fuel prices so high, commentator Ron Krupp says that many farmers may instead decide to call it quits.

(KRUPP) Farmers in general, and dairy farmers in particular, are becoming an endangered species in Vermont. Dairy farming is a complicated and ever-changing business but one thing that's stayed the same for twenty-five years is the low milk-price paid to the farmer.

It's not easy to understand or explain the various dynamics and players involved in this drama, but unfortunately, this rural way of life is declining. And so is the supporting infrastructure like the local farm machinery dealer and the seed and grain company. With the loss of each dairy farm, Vermont loses another piece of its community and history.

The reality is that this could be the last generation for many of the state's dairy farms. Many family farms have been unable to compete in the unpredictable milk market. Vermont's two billion dollar dairy industry was especially hit hard hit in 2006 due to severe rain damage to corn and hay crops, coupled with low milk prices and high fuel, fertilizer and feed costs. In 2006, one hundred and nine dairy farms went out of business, a loss of about nine percent, which - according to agriculture secretary Roger Albee - is double the normal attrition rate of four to five percent. There are now less than 1200 dairy farms left in the state.

There's a little good news. There's been an upsurge in the number of organic dairy farmers. In March of 2007, there were one hundred and thirty-three certified organic dairy farms in Vermont, with approximately eighty-three more farms set to finish their transition by the end of 2007. This means that twenty percent of all dairy farms in Vermont will soon be organic.

Another recent positive development is the creation of the Vermont Milk Company - a new venture by a small group of dairy farmers and their financial supporters in Hardwick. The company is producing value-added dairy products like cheese curds, yogurt and ice cream.

There's also been an increase in the number of small-farm artisan cheese-makers. Producing artisan cheese on the farm has allowed many small producers to hold onto the land, diversify their products, or begin farming anew. Vermont has more artisan cheese-makers per capita than any other state.

Finally, there's been an increase in the production of value-added cheese products at the larger dairy processing plants - like the new, patented yogurt based cream cheese from Franklin Foods in northwestern Vermont. These new initiatives will help slow the decline of dairy farming, but by themselves they can't completely reverse the trend. Until milk prices rise, the family farm in Vermont will continue its slow decline.

Ron Krupp is a gardener and author who lives near Lake Champlain on Shelburne Bay.

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