2.2.2018 – The Farm Show and a Dairy Update

The House Agriculture and Forestry Committee made its annual pilgrimage to the Vermont Farm Show at the Champlain Valley Expo Center. The Farm Show is basically a trade show for agriculture. This is a wonderful opportunity to visit with folks from virtually every agricultural sector with boots on the ground in the state.

For our committee, participation at the Farm Show starts on Wednesday evening, which is the Capitol Cook-off. We used to have a milking contest, known as the “Political Pull” but when the Farm Show moved from the Barre Auditorium to the Champlain Valley Expo Center a decision was made to switch to a cook-off. This was, in part, to spotlight diversified agriculture and feature many of the products being raised/produced locally.

Participants in the Cook-off consist of three four-member teams, one each from the House, Senate, and Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (AAFM). We are also assigned a Junior Iron Chef from a local high school. We can all use a common “pantry” of ingredients and there is now a “mystery” ingredient that, if used, gains us extra points. In the past, the mystery ingredient has been perch from Lake Champlain, venison, and goat meat. This year it was eggs – chicken, duck, and quail – and we got even more points for using all three. Each team is also given $50 that may be spent on other ingredients from the vendors at the Winter Buy Local Market, which takes place in the same room.

The Winter Buy Local Market includes a wide variety of producers including maple, fiber, cheese, wine, meats, candles, fruits and vegetables, jam, honey, culinary oils, beer, spirits, jewelry, and other handmade crafts. One vendor, Babette’s Table, was sampling and selling fabulous salami that she makes at the Mad River Food Hub in Waitsfield.

The Mad River Food Hub was founded several years ago by Robin Morris and is a fully-equipped, licensed vegetable and USDA-inspected meat processing facility. It was the first such facility in the state to accommodate vegetables and meat at the same location. Robin has recently opened the Mad River Taste Place, also in Waitsfield, where many local products are featured and sold.

The Mad River Food Hub serves as an incubator space for small producers that need a licensed facility to create their value-added products. The Food Hub has been the recipient of a Working Lands Grant and is an invaluable resource for our farmers who want to develop products and make the jump to larger facilities.

But back to the Cook-off – our team, captained by Rep. Tristan Toleno of Brattleboro, did a fabulous job, making a delectable dish of potato/garlic cheese gnocchi topped with quail eggs, kale salad with spicy sopresatta, and sautéed colorful root vegetables. All of this was done in one hour!! The sad news (to us) was that we came in second to the AAFM but we won the People’s Choice award. The bottom line though is that the event was great fun and highlighted our vibrant local products.

On Thursday, we returned to the Farm Show to get an update regarding our dairy industry. The news for our conventional producers is not good, in that milk price projections indicate an average decrease in the blend price of $1.46 per hundredweight in 2018. This may not seem like a lot but it may make the difference between losing money and paying for the actual cost of production.

Milk prices are calculated on a federal level in a way that does not favor Vermont. Part of our challenge is that we consume only 5% of what we produce and export the other 95%. Several years ago, I felt that if we could keep more of our milk in-state and use it for value-added products, we would be better off. Interestingly, the number of dairy processors, both on- and off-farm has increased from 64 in 2009 to 147 in 2017.

Some folks have felt that organic production would be the savior of the Vermont dairy industry and for those who have transitioned it has made a great positive difference. It takes three years to transition pastures and crop fields to organic standards and one year feeding organic grain to make the change. This requires a big investment because organic grain is more expensive and during that year the milk revenue is paid for at conventional prices.

Recently, the organic buyers have put the brakes on taking on more organic producers. Some farmers who are in the process of transitioning have been told that their milk will not be accepted until 2019. The major organic buyers – Organic Valley, Horizon, and Stonyfield – have a supply management business model, which regulates the amount of milk any one farmer can produce. This is actually a plus because milk prices are much less apt to fluctuate causing uncertainty and low prices. It is tough, however, for those who would like to get into the organic market and now have to wait.

It is interesting to note that in 2009 there were more than 1,000 dairy farms in Vermont and in 2017 that number is now 796. During the same time period, the average number of cows has dropped from 135,000 to 128,667. The trend is fewer, larger farms.

An important but sobering presentation was made by FarmFirst, an organization that offers help to farm families that might be experiencing stress and/or hard times. Farming is not an easy business and FarmFirst was developed after an incident in early 2010, a time of very low milk prices, when a farmer in Batavia, New York went out to his barn, shot all of his cows, and then himself. Two notes were left with the words “Lonely, Discouraged, Overwhelmed, No hope, Can’t go on, Danger to my family, Worn out, The kids are so talented, Gwynne you are a good person, and So sorry.”

FarmFirst offers all manner of services to help farmers through difficult situations on a confidential basis. If you, or anyone you know, need help don’t hesitate to call FarmFirst day or night at 1-877-493-6216. They will connect “you with the support and resources you need to succeed.”

It is good to see our entire agricultural sector, so important to our state’s economy (dairy alone represents $3 million per day) represented in one place. I enjoy visiting with the folks who are doing the hard work and I, too, raise sheep so I feel at home. It also offers me the opportunity to visit the forage competition booth, bend down over a basket of hay, and breathe in. If I close my eyes and forget about the fact that I’m wearing a down coat, I can almost believe it’s summer.