Supporting Farmers and Farm Workers

The Addison Independent is running a series of questions, inviting the Senate candidates to answer them with brief responses. The first set of responses was published on September 27, with the following prompt and my reply:

Dairy farms are in crisis with low milk prices, high supply and not enough demand. The number of Vermont dairy farms have declined from 4,000 in 1990 to about 750 today, and more are going out of business each year. Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts recently wrote an op-ed suggesting Vermont is looking at better ways to pay Vermont dairy farmers for their milk. But can Vermont create a successful model to change how dairy farmers are paid on its own, or will that have to be solved at the federal issue? Specifically, what measures would you propose if you’re elected to the Senate to help Vermont’s dairy farmers? Please address the decline of dairy farms, how dairy farms are paid, and your solutions.

Many hardworking dairy farmers are struggling, and some are in crisis or near closure. Dairy farms are decreasing in number and those that remain are, on average, becoming larger. Unfortunately, over-supply of milk and low dairy prices are not problems Vermont can solve on its own. Dairy products, like most agricultural products, are subject to national and international markets and economies. A national over-supply of milk and an international trade war have both had detrimental effects on dairy pricing and profits.

However, while Vermont’s small portion of the international market is not big enough to sway national prices, supply, or federal policy, we can work with regional partners on initiatives similar to the Northeast Dairy Compact which provided higher milk prices for New England dairy farmers. We can support programs that spur agricultural innovation such as the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative, programs that keep land in agricultural production like the Current Use taxation program, and programs that support renewable energy production on farms.

We can also take care of Vermont farmers. Most farms are run by families who struggle with the same issues affecting many Vermont families, including a lack of affordable health care and accessible childcare. Tackling these issues will help farmers, farm workers, and all Vermont workers and businesses.

Farmers also struggle to find workers who will take on the difficult daily work of farming. Advocating for a strong guest worker program and protecting the rights of immigrant farm laborers in Vermont is important to ensure a sufficient labor supply. Additionally, our communities and immigrant farm workers themselves would benefit from better access to resources such as transportation, health care, and healthy foods, as well as fair wages, benefits, and housing, better integrating these valuable newcomers into our tight-knit towns.

Many farmers, particularly dairy and livestock farmers, feel over-regulated and under-supported. While there are resources and funds available to assist farmers, they are not often clear or easily accessible, and regulations can seem arbitrary and punitive. We, as a county and state, farmers and non-farmers, need to discuss issues collaboratively and without blame, finding solutions that can work for all Vermonters.

Finally, while this question was specifically about dairy farming, not all farmers in Addison County are dairy farmers.There are many other types of farmers, including new farmers who are diversifying agriculture with an entrepreneurial and value-added approach. Some of these farmers are helping older farmers transition to retirement by purchasing long-standing dairy farms and converting the land to new crops and enterprises.

Diversification is important for both economic and environmental sustainability. We need a broader, less siloed agricultural policy and economy in Vermont. We should create stronger links between dairy, maple, and artisan food and drink enterprises, and greater integration of tourism, forestry, and agriculture through the promotion of Vermont’s working landscape. The overall economy and identity of Vermont needs healthy dairy farms and farmers, so we should all be willing to solve these problems together.

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