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All is steady on the farm amid high demand

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VERNON — Two Vernon dairy farmers, Art Miller and Jeff Dunklee, both get some of their news about the effect the new coronavirus is having on Vermont by looking at the dairy case.

Demand for dairy products has skyrocketed, but both farmers — and state agriculture officials — said there should be no problems with the milk supply.

In Miller's case, the organic milk from his 180 registered Holsteins goes directly to Stonyfield Yogurt in Derry, N.H.

"The cows know nothing about the coronavirus," said Miller, who has been under contract with Stonyfield for the past two years.

Both farmers, who employ six and 10 workers, said the health and safety of their employees is paramount.

"We don't shake hands," Miller said, and farming is by nature 'socially distant,' he said, with each farmer on a tractor or doing their job.

"As far as the cows? They don't read the newspaper," he said joking.

Both Vernon farmers said the coronavirus outbreak had meant there are no visitors to their farmers - whether fertilizer salesmen or equipment salespeople, or consultants.

"No salesmen, no consultants. Basically everything is being done online or on the phone," said Dunklee.

Miller said the farm's employees are taking as many steps as they can, including social distancing — keeping at least 6 feet away from each other.

Dunklee said the farm is taking care of its employees and its cows in that order.

"With cows, they don't know anything about a virus, they just show up and are fed," he said. "They take care of us producing milk."

Miller's big worry is trade with Canada, since the organic grain he feeds his cows comes from Canada, by way of Morrison's Custom Feeds in Barnet. He says his family grows as much feed as it can locally - hay and corn silage - but grain is an important component of a milking cow's diet.

Dunklee said his grain comes from a Vermont firm right on the Canadian border - Poulin Feed of Newport, Vt., and he said there was no indication there would be any interruption in the delivery of grain.

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Last week, while the American-Canadian border was closed to residents, trade continued. Scott Waterman, a spokesman for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, said the state has been reassured by federal authorities that Canadian trade would continue.

Waterman said the state agriculture agency won't know if the price of milk paid to the farmer is up until the federal milk market releases March's payment amounts. He said if smaller dairy co-ops and organic markets are increasing payments to farmers, that is that company's decision.

"Price fluctuations in the store do not reflect prices paid to the farmer," he said.

He said the agency last week confirmed with the state's dairy plants and and processors that "everything in Vermont is operating normally."

Dunklee said he found the strong demand for milk and other dairy products gratifying and a nice surprise in an otherwise scary outlook.

"Milk is one of the healthiest and one of the most nutritious things you can drink. I'm really proud of what I do, and how essential it is," said Dunklee, whose farm crew milks about 650 cows, with 400 replacement heifers on the farm.

Dunklee said he recently visited the dairy aisle at the local Price Chopper (actually Market 32) and was astonished at the empty shelves.

"I went to Price Chopper last night and there was hardly any butter left," Dunklee said, incredulous. At the same time, there wasn't any of the most sought-after consumer commodity, toilet paper.

"I guess at this point there's minimal impact. We're taking steps to insure the safety of our employees but longer term, the price of milk, most commodities has dropped," he said, noting that he has not been able to make money for the past couple of years.

He compared the economic hard times to the recession in 2008-2009.

Miller said that despite the heavy spike in demand, his milk check won't go up. "Stonyfield gives us a steady contract," he said.

"Personally I concerned about people working in the leisure and hospitality businesses, the waitresses that live paycheck to paycheck. I've got a job, but I'm sympathetic to people who are being impacted by no fault of their own," he said.

"We'll get through it," said Dunklee.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802 556-2147.


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