Report recommends dairy task force
BRATTLEBORO — Two men who have been immersed in all things milk for decades think they might have a solution for what ails Vermont's dairy industry.
"At this stage in Vermont, we have a hodgepodge of programs that aren't really connected and there's not structural or strategic capability to sustain the dairy industry," said Roger Allbee, of Townshend. Allbee is a former Vermont Secretary of Agriculture, and Daniel Smith is an attorney who helped craft the legislation that created the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact. The Compact, which expired in 2001, allowed the six states of New England to set a minimum price for the products of its dairy farmers.
Allbee thinks that could happen again, but maybe only for milk sold and used to produce dairy products just here in Vermont. But for that to happen, he said, Vermont needs to create a new regulatory structure, similar to the Vermont Utilities Commission, that can bring together all the strands of the Vermont dairy industry and set prices as well.
"Right now, there is a milk commission," said Allbee. "It needs to be revised."
Much of the work is already being done by the Vermont Milk Commission but it doesn't have regulatory authority to implement the work, he said.
Today, Allbee and Smith are presenting a 30-page report to a joint meeting of the House and Senate agriculture committees in Montpelier. That report details their findings and calls for an Administrative and Legislative Blue Ribbon, Dairy Industry Revitalization Task Force, to implement the Report's recommendations.
Allbee said a utility commission dedicated to the dairy industry could study how to develop a pricing system that gets producers the milk they need while sustaining small family farms in the state.
"Farms are going out of business," he said. "And dairy farms are important as working lands and for tourism. However, there has not been any strategy to develop a plan to save them."
Allbee acknowledged the many good initiatives, organizations and grant programs that have been doing their best to come to the rescue of the dairy industry. He also recognized the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and the Vermont Economic Development Agency with helping to address the situation.
If Vermont brought all those pieces together along with the other elements of dairy farming under the umbrella of a utilities commission, a strategic plan that serves all interests could be developed.
Other elements include reducing runoff from farms that has been taking its toll on Lake Champlain and reducing the carbon footprint of milk being shipped out of or into Vermont.
Most importantly, said Allbee, is setting a minimum price so Vermont farmers aren't overwhelmed by "a tide of internationalism," said Allbee.
"What we are seeing is a great deal of consolidations nationally," he said. "And the system is tied into international markets."
Family farms in Vermont can't compete against conglomerates that can set prices lower than the cost of producing milk in the Green Mountain State, said Allbee.
"You have to be the lowest cost producer in the world," he said. "That's hard for Vermont to do. Commodity pricing works against the interests of our dairy sector."
Price stabilization could also benefit companies, such as Ben & Jerry's, Cabot and Agrimark, by getting them the product they need to also sustain and grow their businesses by relying on Vermont milk.
The report is based on a three-year study conducted by Allbee and Smith, Esq.
"The Vermont dairy industry has evolved into a multi-sector, diverse and high value industry, which now includes both a substantial new in-state processing and manufacturing sector along with the historic raw milk production sector," states the report.
Establishment of regulatory power, combined with more strategic economic development, states the report, can restore rational producer pricing and overall milk supply, and thereby also achieve remediation of harmful farming practices with reduced public funding.
Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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