by Bethany M. Dunbar, October 30, 2009
Congratulations to Diane Bothfeld who was just named Deputy Secretary of Agriculture for Vermont.
Ms. Bothfeld is an enthusiastic and capable advocate for dairy farmers and agriculture in general. Before she worked for the state as dairy policy administrator she worked at St. Albans Cooperative Creamery. I remember seeing her at annual meetings back in those days.
Diane Bothfeld grew up on a farm in Cabot, right in the heart of dairy country, got a bachelor’s and master’s in science at the University of Vermont and has been involved with the Campaign to End Childhood Hunger and the Northeast Organic Farming Association.
Most recently, Ms. Bothfeld has been working on fair trade for Vermont dairy farmers — a concept that is most commonly reserved for dealing with third-world countries but is strangely applicable in the United States in this case.
The concept is simple — a brand and logo “Keep Local Farms” shows consumers that some of the money that they are spending is going directly to farmers. People who care about farmers even more, and want to take further direct action, have an opportunity to donate to the fund through the Keep Local Farms web site. The money will be distributed to farmers twice a year. The web site also has lots of great facts and statistics about dairy farming.
Speaking with a local farmer recently, he said he likes the idea but said really consumers should not have to donate to anything. The price paid in the stores is enough — it’s just that too much of it goes to the middlemen.
Posted below is my story about the Keep Local Farms program, plus an editorial I did recently.
There is a lot going on right now including a federal lawsuit against some of the middlemen. I will post a story on that soon.
Lately I’ve been thinking about one of those annual meetings of the St. Albans Co-op I covered when Gary Hanman of Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) came to Vermont. One of these days I’m going to dig that story out and post it. His comments back then might be kind of interesting to read now that he has been named in the lawsuit against DFA and others. The suit claims the processors have been manipulating the milk price to keep the price low for farmers.
I am covering the suit for the Chronicle and New England Country Folks magazine, so please be sure to read those too.
I’m finding that this blog is getting a lot of readers who are interested in the dairy crisis story. I intend to make it a regular subject. We have to keep these farms going in any way we can.
My very first blog got a great response from Gloria Bruce of Northeast Kingdom Travel and Tourism Association who recommended following up with a story about agri-tourism, which is in the works. Thanks, Gloria, for the ideas and information! Her organization will host a meeting on this important subject in Newport on November 18.
Thanks for your comments and e-mails. Please keep them coming!
Keep Local Farms
by Bethany M. Dunbar, the Chronicle, September 16, 2009
A program called Keep Local Farms — launched Monday— is already raising cash for dairy farmers.
An enthusiastic Diane Bothfeld said Tuesday she hopes Keep Local Farms will raise $1.8-million for direct payments to farmers within the first six months. If so, that would mean $1,000 for each farm in New England.
“I’m sounding real confident,” she said after explaining how the program will work.
The concept is to apply the formula of fair trade, and establish a mechanism to send some extra funds directly from consumers to farmers.
It’s a concept Ms. Bothfeld and others at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture have been working on for years. She and others have done research about how much consumers would be prepared to help, if they knew the farmers were actually getting the money.
Funds will come into the program three ways. People can donate directly through the Keep Local Farms web site (KeepLocalFarms.org). Consumers can support businesses that advertise they are part of the program. Businesses and institutions that post a sign with the Keep Local Farms logo will be paying extra for milk, at a level to be negotiated, and all of that extra money will go directly into a fund for farmers.
The first example is going to be the University of Vermont, which will be on board in October. Each pint of milk that a student at UVM buys will cost an extra 10 cents, and that money will go into the fund.
“We’re working with hospitals too,” she said. “You don’t get to take a piece out of it. The whole amount has to be passed through.”
The third way for money to come into the fund is by co-branding with processors. For example, an agreement might be reached with Booth Brothers to put 30 to 60 cents a gallon extra into the fund. Then the company would be allowed to put the Keep Local Farms logo on its bottles of milk. Potentially, the brand could be applied to cheese and other dairy products as well.
Ms. Bothfeld said research of consumers in New England has shown that people would pay 30 to 60 cents more per gallon if they knew the money was going directly to farmers. She said they started the research in 2007 and went back to check if it was still accurate during the current economic downturn, and it still is.
One of the areas researched was the definition of local. Researchers found that Vermonters consider Vermont local, while people in Boston feel Vermont and New Hampshire are local.
“We’re all in this together,” said Ms. Bothfeld.
Part of the reason for Ms. Bothfeld’s enthusiasm on Tuesday was the fact that the program was just launched Monday, and the next morning the organizers checked the web site and found they had donations of $600 already — in one day.
Farmers can join individually, or dairy cooperatives can join in bulk. Cooperatives that have already joined include Agri-Mark, St. Albans Cooperative Creamery, Dairy Farmers of America and Dairylea.
The board that will take funds in and distribute them is the New England Family Dairy Farm Cooperative. It was formed in 2005 and is run by a 12-member board of directors — farmers from each of the New England states. Currently, 1,000 of New England’s 1,800 dairy farms belong to the cooperative. The rest are being recruited, according to a fact sheet distributed at the Keep Local Farms press conference.
Payments to farmers will be made twice a year, once at spring planting time and once at fall harvest. Information on the total dollars distributed and the average amount returned per dairy farmer will be posted on the Keep Local Farms web site.
The fact sheet says that New England has lost over 100 dairy farms in the last two years, and thousands were lost before that.
“With the current price downturn, we are in a crisis situation where we may lose the ability to maintain a viable dairy industry in New England.”
The fact sheet notes that farmers are currently receiving about 97 cents per gallon of milk, although the cost to produce a gallon is about $1.80.
According to information posted on the web site, in 2006, milk prices reached a 25-year record low of $1.14. In February of 2009 the price dropped even further, down to about $1.
“Since the 1950s, the dairy farmers’ share of the retail/consumer dollar has declined from about 50 percent to about 30 percent today. Of the milk you purchase at the supermarket, only about 30 percent of the price gets back to farmers,” says the site, which also has short profiles of a handful of member dairy farmers, some lovely photographs, charts, facts, and pages for frequently asked questions that have not yet been asked.
Consumers are urged to join at a level they can afford. Joining comes along with a bumper sticker, T-shirt or insulated grocery bag depending on the level of support.
Editorial, the Chronicle, September 22, 2009
Here are some interesting numbers coming out of a hearing on dairy prices in St. Albans Saturday:
Dean Foods made first-quarter profits of $76.2-million, and its chief executive officer has personally made $116.38-million over a five-year period.
Dean Foods is the conglomerate that controls 70 percent of the milk sold in New England.
Meanwhile, dairy farmers are losing money at a rapid clip. One typical farmer testified that he is losing $4,500 a month.
Bob Wellington of Agri-Mark testified that every cow on a pasture in Vermont generates economic activity of more than $13,000.
An agricultural economist from the University of Vermont testified that if the current dairy crisis continues, 150 dairy farms might go out of business in the coming year. (There are only about 1,100 left)
There is so much wrong with this picture that it’s hard to know even where to start. Vermont needs to keep those cows, and we need to keep those farmers — as many as we can.
If Vermont farmers could even reliably and consistently make 50 percent of what milk is sold for in the stores, many — if not most of them — could stay afloat. But the farm price for milk is closer to 30 percent of the retail price, thanks to an antiquated federal system that allows Dean Foods to monopolize the market.
The hearing mentioned above was the Senate Judiciary Committee. U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy brought the hearing to St. Albans. U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders hopes to continue a probe of Dean Foods that was dropped in 2006 because, he says, it was unpopular with the Bush administration.
A full investigation could go a long ways to bring out the truth of where the money is going in the dairy industry and why.
If we are in some semblance of a free market, then competition needs to be able to function.
If not, let’s have a supply management system like the one proposed by Dairy Farmers Working Together.
This business of being stuck in the middle is just not working for farmers, milk consumers, tractor salesmen, grain dealers, nor for the Vermont tourism economy that needs those open fields to prosper.
It really doesn’t seem to be working for anyone but the CEO of Dean Foods.
We should note that we (the Chronicle) did not attend the hearing in St. Albans. But we were able to watch videos of the hearing and get these statistics from a new Vermont web site called vtdigger.org. The brand new nonprofit news site is edited by Anne Galloway of East Hardwick, an accomplished journalist and an old friend. It’s worth a look. — B.M.D.