MONTPELIER – A new report shows the number of dairy farms in Vermont have decreased by 84 percent since 1969, while the state spent more than $285 million on programs and policies to support the industry from 2010 to 2019.
The Dairy Spending Investigative Report was released by the state auditor’s office and doesn’t include any recommendations for the industry, instead providing data for legislators and other state leaders to consider as they mull the future of dairy farming in Vermont.
“When you look at the bottom line, it’s hard to get past the fact that many farmers are struggling and that many are getting out of the business,” said Steven Collier, General Counsel with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. “Some are transitioning, which is wonderful, but dairy is roughly 70 percent of the economic value of agriculture in Vermont.”
The $285 million directed toward the industry this past decade includes agricultural tax expenditures, farmland conservation incentives, grants and service offerings to support dairy farm businesses, and grants for addressing the environmental impacts of dairy farming.
State Auditor Doug Hoffer said the report poses a critical question for the future of the industry.
“Here’s where we spend these fairy large sums of money, are we satisfied that we’re getting what we wanted from those expenditures?” Hoffer said. “It’s a bigger question, but one that needs to be asked.”
In addition, the report details a changing workforce: With shortages of domestic workers willing to work on dairy farms, they have increasingly relied on lower-wage migrant workers, many of whom have voiced concerns about poor working and living conditions. Half of all Vermont dairy farm producers were 55 or older in 2017.
“That’s perfectly fine when there’s another generation ready to step in, but we’re very concerned that’s not the case,” Collier said.
Collier and the Agency of Agriculture believe it’s crucial to recruit younger workers if the industry is to continue its current production, particularly those living in rural areas.
The discussion on how to do that is one that the Agency is eager to have, and will surely be debated within the recently-formed Commission on the Future of Vermont Agriculture. It was formed by Governor Phil Scott as this report came together, and will study and strategize how best to grow agriculture in the Green Mountain State.
The Commission’s charge will focus on ensuring the viability and adaptability of Vermont’s agriculture and food system by delivering recommendations to the Governor for more cross-sector collaboration, increased production and promotion, reduced barriers to entry and increased diversity within the sector. The commission will also study how to make progress on environmental issues.
The report notes the importance of dairy farming not only for Vermont’s economy, but for the state’s history and identity.
“When you look at Vermont, when you’re evaluating what are we as a state, it’s hard not to put that red barn and the Holstein cow as part of that,” Collier said. “Without dairy in Vermont, Vermont is going to look very, very different.”
Hoffer pointed out some possible silver linings in the report, including the growth of organic dairy and increased milk production despite fewer farms.
The 12-member Commission on the Future of Vermont Agriculture is slated to deliver a report to Governor Scott in November 2021.