From Milk Prices To Armyworms, Vermont Farmers Discuss Challenges

Jul 3, 2017

When Anson Tebbetts became Vermont's agriculture secretary earlier this year, he conducted a statewide listening tour to hear from farmers about the challenges they have been facing.

Tebbetts was familiar with the office, having served as deputy agriculture secretary under former Gov. Jim Douglas. He also grew up on a dairy farm.

From the decline in the state's dairy farms to concerns about federal immigration policy, Tebbetts talked about these issues and also what's being done to help farmers.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity. Listen to the conversation above.

VPR: What were some of the top concerns you heard from farmers during the listening tour?

Tebbetts: "Our farmers, of course, are under a lot of stress right now. We all know it's been very, very rainy and it may be an inconvenience for a lot of us, but for our folks that make their living off the land, it's been a really challenging time. And I think that will have a lasting impact. That was one thing we heard, so I think the weather is always on the top of the list.

"And we also heard a lot about education. We are hearing more from our farmers and more from the public, they're getting farther and farther away from where their food is produced. And I think that's one thing we heard is we need to do a little bit better job across the state about [agriculture] literacy and [agriculture] education."

How much do farmers ask you about things that may not seem on the surface to be obvious problems? Perhaps things like climate change, invasive species or diseases affecting crops the general public may not have heard about?

"They're engaged with that, as well. And you know, we talk about climate change. Over the coming weeks, I think you'll see a pilot program we're going to launch. It's really going to focus on investing in our soils, environmental stewardship, and it will be based on a program that really looks at our healthy soils and what can be done on our farms to make it better for all and those farms may be models for other farms as we try to grow that program.

"And invasive species, that's another thing. You know, we had a case with army worms. I think it's under control now, but army worms were marching through parts of Vermont and that was very destructive to some of our crops."

"Our farmers, of course, are under a lot of stress right now. We all know it's been very, very rainy and it may be an inconvenience for a lot of us, but for our folks that make their living off the land, it's been a really challenging time." – Vermont's Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts

Dairy has some serious challenges – both in terms of prices paid to farmers and the shortage of labor. Vermont right now has about 800 working dairy farms, which is down from more than 1,000 in 2009 and from approximately 3,000 back in the early 1980s. Is this kind of downward spiral reversible?

"Our number of farms, you know, we don't have as many as we had. We're still producing about the same amount of milk. We have too much milk across the country, and our farmers and New Hampshire and New York are all on a national system ... It's just too much milk out there, and that's driving the price down to our farmers." 

Can the state do anything about that?

"What we're trying to do is we're trying to control some of the inputs, so we have no new fees and we also took a break on implementing new regulations. So we're trying to control expenses for them and that will at least help them a little bit so they're not adding more to their bills." 

There is also an issue surrounding the contributions from migrant workers on Vermont's dairy farms, some of whom are in the country illegally. Are you working on a contingency plan to make sure the cows get milked if migrant workers do get deported, as has been a priority under President Donald Trump's administration so far? 

"That's been on our radar, and I would have to say there's been tremendous anxiety in our farming community about this and also for our farm workers. There was fear that there were going to be maybe the so-called 'raids' and, I mean, a lot of people and a lot of our farm workers would be rounded up. That hasn't happened.

"We have had a few cases, two workers that were detained, and that had an impact on that farm. They lost their labor force and they're still trying to figure out a long-term plan for work there. I think the ultimate solution is we need some sort of reform in Washington – a real immigration bill that's rational, it's realistic, that our farmers can have, and the public can also support." 

As far as environmental issues, would the state have money available to help farms meet pollution control requirements put in place to keep Vermont's water clean, or is it really all on the farmers to comply with these new rules?

"It's a partnership. In the agriculture sector alone, over the next two years we have about $5.2 million that's going to be used with capital dollars or clean water funds. So that's a substantial contribution, the state has stepped up.

"And then also the farmers are stepping up as well, because there's cost share programs. Say if they want to build a new manure pit or if they want to contain silage in a bunker, some of those are six-figure projects and if you ask a farmer to kick in 10 percent of that, that's a substantial amount for them."

"The one thing I've learned in the last six months is I know the public wants our farmers to succeed. I know they want them in our communities."

We're seeing farming really change – a lot of success in farmers markets, organic food, vegetable farming. But in terms of sheer dollars, can any of that really replace dairy?

"Well, dairy's certainly our biggest part; It's about $2 billion worth. But those areas are important as well. Vegetable farming may not come with a big dollar figures or whatever, but it's important for our communities and we need to support them as much as we can."

With all these various challenges, do you still see a future for Vermont as a farming state?

"It has to be. And the one thing I've learned in the last six months is I know the public wants our farmers to succeed. I know they want them in our communities."

Vermont Farms: A Shifting Landscape explores Vermont's agricultural economy with the people who wake up early every day to try to make their living of the land. Click here to explore the continuing series.