Vermont's Agency of Agriculture will no longer run the Dairies of Distinction program, ending a decade's worth of participation. The Addison Independent broke that news last week. The program is run in four other states, and recognizes farms for their aesthetic value.
Diane Bothfeld, Vermont's Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, said the program is run in other states by volunteer groups or other farm organizations, not at the state level. In Vermont, the program was started by volunteers, but was eventually taken over by the state.
"We feel as an agency that it's time to go back to volunteers," she said. They tried unsuccessfully to find an organization to take over the program.
The Dairies of Distinction recognizes farms for how they look: whether barns are painted, how equipment is stored, whether or not the lawn is mowed, how the cows look from the road, if they are visible, but doesn't take into account practices on the farm, including whether or not they are meeting the state's water quality mandates.
"The Agency, being a regulatory body as well, being able to say well that's a beautiful farm, snapshot in time, but doesn't take into account any other issues that may be occurring on that farm that are not part of this program," Bothfeld said.
There are other programs that recognize farms: The Vermont Dairy Farm of the Year, Conservation Farm of the Year, and the Lake Champlain Basin Program has given awards in the past to farms as well.
Farmers enjoyed a good year of milk prices last year, but 2015 is shaping up to be a tougher year. "Prices averaged out at $23 per hundred pounds of milk last year, and it looks like they're going to average out at barely $17 this year," Bothfeld said that $6 difference can be tough. That level might trigger insurance payments to farmers under the USDA's new Milk Margin Protection Program, depending on the level of insurance farmers purchased.
"Fuel prices are lower, which is helpful, but grain prices really haven't changed that much, so it will be a tighter year, and then we all get into weather dependence, on what kind of weather we're going to have and how that shapes up for farmers," Bothfeld said.
By the end of 2014, 610 farms had signed up for some sort of risk management, 28 for livestock gross margin and 582 for the milk margin protection; that's 70 percent of Vermont's farms. The amount of insurance varies, depending on what farms signed up for, so it is hard to know how many farms will see payments, or how much money they will receive.
Still, many farmers took advantage of last year's high milk prices to pay down debt, pre-buy fertilizer, grain, and seed or made investments in equipment or did farm maintenance to get ahead of the drop in milk prices.