As more organic dairy farmers are forced out of business by an economic crisis facing them, Vermont advocates and farmers are seeking a one-time state appropriation of $9.2 million to help existing organic dairies survive.
The money would be used to pay the now 139 organic dairy farms in Vermont retroactive payments of $5 per hundred pounds of milk on all the organic milk produced in the state in 2022, Maddie Kempner, policy director for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, told a joint meeting of the Vermont state Senate and House agriculture committees on Thursday.
“Multiple factors have converged in recent months to create an impossible economic situation for organic dairy farms,” she said. “The combination of inflation, supply chain disruptions in the feed supply due to the conflict in Ukraine and a persistent drought have caused the price of feed, fuel and labor to increase sharply starting in late 2021. At the same time, the pay price organic farmers are receiving has stagnated at 8 to 10 dollars per hundredweight below the cost of production.”
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Vermont had 169 certified organic dairies at the end of 2020. As of Wednesday, the number had dropped to 139, and the state is expected to lose 25 to 30 more in the coming months “without swift and substantial intervention,” she said.
The Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont gets calls daily from farmers who have stopped making payments on their loans so they have cash to keep operating; already put their cows or entire farms up for sale; or have been cut off from grain sales because they can’t pay the cost, Kempner said.
A half dozen farmers also told lawmakers about what they have been going through.
“This money, honestly, I’ve got neighbors to pay. Like the guy who spreads my manure, my hoof trimmer, just those things,” said a tearful Marcy Guillette, a fourth-generation organic dairy farmer in Derby. “That’s all this is.”
She rents the farm from her parents but said she doesn’t know how she could write a business plan to purchase the farm with the current situation.
For Lilac Ridge Farm in Brattleboro, the retroactive payment would be roughly $20,000, owner Ross Thurber said.
“What would that do? That would help catch us up on payments that we have deferred or are slowly paying, and essentially bring us to a zero,” he said.
On the federal level, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced the finalization of two federal rules that are expected to level the playing field in the organic dairy industry, Kempner said. It has also announced some relief for organic dairy farmers but the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont doesn’t expect it will be enough or available in time to keep the struggling dairies in business, she said.