A dairy farmer’s view on Vermont’s milk surplus

Bernie Guillemette of Guillemette Farm in Shelburne. Photo by Lynn Monty
Bernie Guillemette of Guillemette Farm in Shelburne. Photo by Lynn Monty

By Lettie Stratton

A surplus of milk in not only Vermont but across the country is driving down milk prices and causing some farmers and dairy cooperatives to dump their excess milk. Farmers and co-ops are salvaging excess cream and dumping skim milk, but the huge supply of cream is even too much for buyers right now, according to the Dairy Farmers of America.

“Everything east of Mississippi is in a surplus situation,” said Bernie Guillemette of Guillemette Farm in Shelburne.

Guillemette’s family has been farming the same piece of land for 67 years and says fluctuations in price, supply, and demand are nothing new for farmers to deal with. “Prices plummeted at the beginning of the year,” he said. “I think it’s safe to say all farms are affected. My milk isn’t being dumped. My milk is Boston-bound. But whether your milk is getting thrown out or not, there’s a market adjustment so everyone pays a price.”

Guillemette is also on the board of the Dairy Farmers of America which connects more than 14,000 dairy producers in 48 states.

Part of the oversupply problem, surprisingly, seems to be efficiency. “We’re losing farmers but we’re not losing production,” Guillemette said. “We seem to make more milk with fewer cows. We’ve become so efficient.”

Prices are low, down 33 percent from last year according to the Dairy Farmers of America. When kids are out of school, milk sales decline, Guillemette said. “Exports have also softened up,” he said. “It’s pretty frustrating. I was actually getting more for my milk per hundredweight thirty years ago. It was a dollar better than it is now. It’s more than crazy.”

Guillemette says unity and cooperation are key to solving this surplus problem. The problem lies in getting everyone on board. “I’d much rather see supply being controlled to keep production where it ought to be,” he said. “If there were to be any plan, it’d have to be controlled by the co-ops. It can’t be voluntary. When co-ops have an oversupply, they would have to tell members they need to cut back. All co-ops would have to be unified.”

But Guillemette doesn’t think this cooperation could be easily achieved. “I’ve milked cows all my life,” he said. “There’s no unity in this business. The thing I find as a co-op member and dairy farmer, even last year when prices were much better, is that there were barns being built and cows being added when there wasn’t a home for all the milk we already had.”

Innovation and pre-production research into what customers want could also help dairy farmers succeed, Guillemette said. Despite the hardships facing dairy farmers in times of oversupply, Guillemette sticks to his beliefs about working together to solve the problem. “There are some farmers thinking of survival of the fittest,” he said. “But my neighbors are my friends—not competitors.”