Farmers, money, cows and water quality — Sen. Christopher Pearson

For years farmers have been punished by low milk prices. That hurts everyone because farmers are central to Vermont’s economy and our way of life. We need local food. We need our lands in production. In other words, we need farmers to earn a fair price for milk.

It’s also essential to recognize conventional dairy has contributed significantly to our degraded water quality, as much as 50 percent of the problem. I don’t blame farmers; they’ve been trapped in a rigged commodity market. But there is no question modern conventional dairy is polluting our water.

A few years back, to get out of a losing lawsuit about water quality, Vermont committed to the Federal Environmental Protection Agency to spend as much as $2 billion over the next 20 years. That’s what the EPA believes is needed to clean up our water. I think we need to explore smarter, more cost-effective solutions than the bureaucrats in Washington have considered.

And before we ask Vermonters to contribute any more to cleaning up our water, we need to have faith our investment will work. We deserve to know beaches won’t keep closing, lakefront property values won’t tank, and tourists will keep visiting our beautiful lakes.

Which brings me to cows.

At the end of World War II – the heyday of Vermont dairy – we had more than 11,000 farms milking about 275,000 cows. They produced 1.5 billion pounds of milk a year.

Today, we have only 800 dairy farms with just 135,000 cows. But we import over 40,000 tons of fertilizer and about the same amount of supplements/feed, which wasn’t the case in the 1940s. With those additives, Vermont now produces 2.5 billion pounds of milk a year even though we only have half the number of cows. This is unsustainable.

There are three main problems: 1) The economics of conventional dairy aren’t working for farmers. 2) Vermonters are already paying millions of dollars to prop up Vermont agriculture through current use and other programs. 3) Our water systems can’t handle the phosphorous runoff.

If agriculture is 50 percent of the problem then it should get 50 percent of the clean-up money. Let’s make smart investments and gear our agricultural sector so it’s profitable and supports clean water.

As Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts knows, organic is a much more sustainable path. His family’s farm converted years ago and we need virtually all our dairy farms to follow their lead. Former Secretary of Agriculture Roger Albee reached the same conclusion in a September op-ed pointing out organic milk fetches about three times the price of conventional.

The transition to organic is costly and prevents many from taking the leap. We should put our water quality money into helping farmers transition. If we soften the up-front and operational costs during the transition, farmers would not have to make impossible economic choices after years and years of brutal milk prices.

At the same time, we must partner with major consumers such as Ben & Jerry’s and Cabot to be sure there is a market for the expanded production of organic milk. Earlier this year, our famous ice cream maker announced they were launching organic flavors. We need them to do more. Our value-added producers must approach milk as they do chocolate, nuts and coffee – investing in fair-trade goods. In the milk business, that means organic.

Organic delivers farmers a fair price. Organic means fewer cows and less milk produced but at higher prices. And, organic means a drastic reduction of the phosphorous that ends up in our waterways.
We cannot be Vermont without our farmers. And we cannot clean up our water without changing the way we produce milk.

With careful direction of clean-water resources, and a robust partnership with farmers and our marquee businesses, we can get there. The time is right. Our kids deserve it. Our farmers deserve it. Our economy depends on it, and so does Vermont’s way of life.

Sen. Christopher Pearson, P/D-Burlington, represents Chittenden County and serves on the Senate Natural Resource and Energy Committee.

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