Vermont dairy industry struggles as federal aid to farmers has yet to materialize

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BURLINGTON, Vt. – Vermont’s congressional delegation is urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to do more for dairy farmers as concern continues to spreading within the industry.

Since the CARES Act was signed into law on March 27, Vermont’s dairy farmers have yet to receive any of the $23.5 billion authorized in the bill for assistance to farmers.

“A lot of big money has been written in D.C., and not all of it is showing up where it was intended to go,” said Bill Rowell, chairman of the Vermont Dairy Producers Alliance Board. “I don’t think Vermont farmers have gotten much of it.”

Rowell made the comments during a VDPA E-Meeting with dairy farmers and Rep. Peter Welch.

Welch, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Sen. Patrick Leahy wrote a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue on Wednesday requesting compensation for farmers amid a lengthy stretch of low milk prices and wasted product.

“While we appreciate the recent Farmers to Families Food Box contracts awarded for Vermont, we urge you to act immediately to use all available programs to support the struggling dairy industry,” Sanders, Leahy and Welch wrote. “Including the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) to provide direct relief to farmers in need.”

The three lawmakers also want an emergency hearing to establish a price floor for milk. Rowell said that effort could be considered the most important.

“That would do a lot to support the effort,” Rowell said. “If a farmer doesn’t have enough money to put the lights on, there’s no way they can pay the vendors.”

Just months ago when COVID-19 and the ensuing safety measures weren’t impacting the industry, some dairy farmers had ambitious plans for the future.

Chanin Hill owns a large dairy farm in Bristol, and had planned to build two new barns and a new manure pit. At the time, projected milk prices were looking positive.

“We lined up all our contractors and the money starts doing out the door, and then on March 17, things kind of just hit the rails,” Hill said. “We had to stop. We had to look at what was happening, not just with our product, but with milk prices starting to dive.”

Hill had secured a bank loan for the project.

“Now, money that I took as a loan to build something, without any intervention, I’m going to live on that money all summer,” Hill said.

As Congress works through additional relief efforts, the overwhelming feeling is one of uncertainty among dairy farmers.

“One thing you could move forward to is a direct payment, but how long would that last?,” asked Darlene Reynolds of Alburgh. “It would be nice to know how long this is happening. Sometimes they talk about opening things up, but of course if we have another string, that’s going to be a determination of where things go from there, so that’s a little scary.”

Leahy, Sanders and Welch described it as an ‘existential crisis’ for Vermont dairy farms already struggling with low prices.

“Dairy farms are the backbone of Vermont’s rural economy and offer critical nutrition and high-quality products to individuals across the country,” wrote Leahy, Sanders and Welch. “Our dairy farmers face unprecedented challenges and have received little of the support that Congress has provided.

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