If the Scott administration is serious about supporting Vermont’s organic farmers, the governor should convene a working group, including entrepreneurs and forward-thinking individuals, including organic farmers, outside the influence of big dairy, to take a hard look at a locally-controlled organic dairy plant, either state financed or a public-private partnership.
The decision by Horizon Organic to abandon Vermont farmers is the latest proof that big dairy corporations don’t care about or even need Vermont farmers. Horizon is part of the multinational conglomerate Danone.
Vermonters — citizens and policymakers — have watched consolidation in the dairy industry bring us to a point where our conventional farmers are at the mercy of two processors who control their markets and prices. The most we’ve done is track the number of farms lost.
Organic farmers now face the same fate: no outlets for their milk, large farms, mostly in the west, use regulatory loopholes to lower costs while undermining the very meaning of organic, and Horizon says it’s cheaper to truck milk to Boston from big Midwest dairies than from Vermont farms.
We have done a lot to support conventional dairy; largely to help them survive while milk prices are below costs of production. We’re essentially subsidizing processors until they decide they no longer need Vermont milk. Let’s not make the same mistake for organic as we’ve done with conventional dairy farmers.
A recent report from Vermont Department of Financial Regulation confirmed what we have long known to be true. The milk pricing system is not improving the situation of farmers or helping small farmers stay in business. Noting, farmers generally don’t even know the price they will get for their milk until after it is sold.
It’s time to finally face reality. The system is the problem. We cannot fix it, but we can get out from under it. To do that we must invest in infrastructure. If there is one thing Vermonters are good at, it’s building a brand. We can create a Vermont brand of organic milk and dairy products — in a plant owned and controlled by Vermonters — serving markets from local schools to urban grocers in Boston and New York.
I’ve worked with dairy farmers for years, organizing resistance to growing consolidation, negotiating with processors, proposing and supporting public policies, even an experiment with local processing. I know it’s complicated. But I know it’s possible and probably our only hope of keeping Vermont dairy alive.
There is enormous local support, and strong regional demand for Vermont food products. And there is no better time. We have millions, in fact billions, of federal dollars and a big state budget surplus to invest in our future.
Consider just one recent example where Vermont awarded a Texas tech company $6 million in tax breaks (using our tax dollars) to open an office in Vermont, even though the company CEO said they would have moved here with or without the subsidy. That $6 million could go a long way to building a facility to meet the needs of the Horizon farmers.
If we can invest in tech companies, if we are going to keep paying people to move to Vermont, if we care about our future, food security and environment, we can and should invest in our organic farmers. Time is running out.