Inside South Royalton Market on a recent Friday, Ivy Mix and Nico Bardin did some shopping: cheese, Tylenol, lettuce, oat milk and a small container of chocolate milk from Strafford Organic Creamery.
Mix said she likes buying from Strafford because it’s a small business and she knows her money goes right back to the farm.
“How much was it, $4.89 for, what is it, 16 ounces – a liter – of chocolate milk, which I think is worth it. But not everyone can, willy-nilly, spend nearly $5 on a chocolate milk thing,” she said.
Mix grew up in Tunbridge. She’s now 36 and owns a restaurant and cocktail bar in Brooklyn, but since the pandemic, she says she’s been visiting Vermont more often. And she sees changes in her hometown.
“When I was growing up, this area was just all dairy, like all dairy,” Mix said. “And over time, all the farms closed. And it’s sad.
Ten years ago, Vermont had nearly 1,200 conventional and organic dairy farms. The latest data shows that almost 40% have since stopped shipping milk.
During the same period, the number of small and medium-sized farms decreased significantly, while the number of large dairy farms with more than 700 cows doubled.
Vermont officials have identified this trend as a problem. The governor charged a commission to propose an action plan to ensure “a reliable source and network of healthy and sustainable local foods”.
And one legislative working group considers a narrower question: How are state leaders revitalizing Vermont’s dairy industry? Among the many suggested solutions: place a surcharge, perhaps 5 or 10 cents, on products labeled as milk.
A VPR-Vermont PBS Poll conducted in early January found that 74% of respondents said they were willing to pay between 5% and more than 20% extra for dairy products in order to support the industry.
Full Part January 2, 2022 VPR-Vermont PBS Poll Results
The poll, however, did not ask who, or what, that extra money would go to.
For its part, the legislative working group wants extra liquid milk to help market Vermont dairy products out of state.
But that’s not what 85-year-old St. Albans resident Jerry Morong, one of the respondents to the VPR-Vermont PBS poll, would do.
“Well, if the price went to the farmer, I wouldn’t – I wouldn’t mind paying more at the market,” Morong said. “If it just goes to the middleman and so on, then I’m not ready. I’m ready to support the farmer.
The fact is that in today’s world there are people in between. That’s because there are a lot of steps to get milk from a cow, in a barn, to your dining room table where you serve grated cheddar cheese on taco night.
In Vermont, most dairy farms accomplish this by belonging to a cooperative. Cooperatives help pool and sell farmers’ milk. Increasingly, cooperatives also transport milk to processing plants, process it into butter, bottled milk, yogurt, cheese or ice cream, and then market the products themselves. These are all labors that require time and expense, and cooperatives effectively remove this burden from the farmer.
But dairy cooperatives also have overheads. As they get bigger and perform more of these tasks, they need money to invest. And in the short term, it reduces farmers’ profits.
“Overall, our industrialized food system is broken,” said Molly Anderson, who heads the food studies program at Middlebury College. “It doesn’t work for anyone except the biggest crop and livestock producers, and the big companies that buy these products.”
Anderson has some hope for Vermont, due to its size, lack of a strong farm lobby — even dairy farmers, she says, have to fight to be heard — and interest from Vermonters. to buy local food.
“Vermonters need to support the diversification of agriculture, buy far more local produce of all kinds, and support the preservation of farmland — but farmland that will be dedicated to growing diverse produce. Not just raising dairy cows, or beef cows for that matter,” she said.
“Well, if the price went to the farmer, I wouldn’t — I wouldn’t mind paying more at the market.” If it’s just for the middleman and so on, then I’m not ready. I am ready to support the farmer.
Jerry Morong, 85, St. Albans resident and VPR-Vermont PBS survey respondent
So if our survey respondent, Jerry Morong, wants his money to go directly for dairy producers, he can buy the products directly from their. And other local products too, Anderson argues, to create a stronger food system overall.
Another option to directly support dairy farmers: get behind the approximately 1,500 migrant farm workers which provide a large part of the workforce of the industryand more likely than not, are those who milk and tend the cows.
Lupita Gómez, a 27-year-old Addison County resident, worked on dairy farms in Vermont for a few years before becoming an organizer for the advocacy group Migrant Justice.
In a bilingual Spanish and English interview facilitated by a translator, Gómez said she would like people to know more about where their dairy products come from.
“Well, for us, for the migrant community, who really support the industry in Vermont…one is that they learn who brings milk and food to the table,” she said. “And another thing is that they support the Milk With Dignity program.”
Milk with dignity works with companies like Ben and Jerry’s to ensure farm workers get better wages, housing and working conditions. One of the ways a company participates is by paying an additional premium to farm owners and workers.
Since its launch in 2017, the program has expanded to protect more than 250 agricultural workers in Vermont and New York.
“Which not only means another accreditation, but ensures that people’s labor rights are respected,” Gómez said.
She added that you can talk about local food, organic food, more expensive food – but none of these qualities mean dairy workers have fair working conditions.
María Aguirre translated this story.
Do you have questions, comments or advice? Send us a message or tweet digital producer Elodie Reed @elodie_reed.
From January 3-9, the VPR-Vermont PBS 2022 poll polled hundreds of Vermonters on their views on climate change, broadband, dairy and more. Check out the second part of the results here. The first part of the results was published in January.