MONTPELIER – The Vermont Legislature is continuing to hear testimony in various committees from industries and groups that have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Wednesday, dairy farmers had their turn, speaking with the House Committee on Agriculture and Forestry.
At this point in 2020, Vermont dairy farmers were anticipating a big year, but the pandemic derailed what was forecasted to be a time for the industry to rebound. Brian Carpenter, a board member of the Vermont Dairy Producers Alliance, detailed the industry’s gradual decline.
“In the past decade, our dairy farm numbers have dropped by 38 percent, while the dairy cow numbers in Vermont have only dropped by ten percent,” Carpenter said.
He emphasized that the pandemic hasn’t been the beginning of tough times for the dairy industry, but it has worsened the decade-long drop. He added that suggestions for saving the industry, like going organic, haven’t panned out as promised.
“The wisdom of that idea seems to be proven misinformed as organic pricing falls suit with drops in pricing that limits producers,” Carpenter said. “Of note, the 203 organic dairies we had in 2016 has now dropped to 187 as opposed to growing.”
With the pandemic came a concerted effort to help the industry.
It received $22 million through State and Federal aid programs throughout 20-0, and that money likely prevented even more farms from closing.
“I was able to get in on the first round of PPP, and I’m not going to lie, I think that saved our farm,” said Stephanie Pope. ‘We were able to pay our employees and that was very important to us.”
Pope is a third-generation dairy farmer at North Wind Acres Farm in Addison County.
Rep. Thomas Bock (D-Windsor) asked her a question that many people with family farms have probably asked themselves.
“I’m just curious if any family farmers want to look into the crystal ball, are they encouraging their children to continue dairy farming in the next 10 plus years?”
“If we didn’t encourage the next generation and we weren’t optimistic, I don’t think we would be dairy farmers,” Pope said. “We have to stay optimistic. We need to feed people, that’s what we do.”
Last week, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture launched the Northeast Dairy Business Innovation Center, which will help fund technical assistance, contacts and grants for dairy farmers.
The center has received $6.5 million from the USDA and that’s expected to grow in 2021.