4.10.2020 – Farmers’ Markets, Milk Dumping, and High Mowing Seeds

The House Agriculture and Forestry Committee continued to work this week with four meetings via Zoom. Our meetings can be watched in real time on YouTube by going to our webpage and clicking on the Live Stream link – previous meetings can be viewed as well.

I think we all can agree that keeping our communities safe and healthy is our most important goal. For the most part it seems that people have been following the guidelines for businesses and social distancing set out by the Administration. One source of frustration, however, is the recent decision regarding farmers’ markets.

Last week I wrote that we had taken testimony from a representative from the Bennington Farmers’ Market (BFM) and Secretary of Agriculture, Food, and Markets, Anson Tebbetts. We had a good discussion about the protocols that the BFM had put in place to reduce person-to-person contact while offering an opportunity for farmers to sell their produce.

Some of these measures included customers preordering from farmers online or by phone. A limited number of volunteers would maintain social distancing for the outdoor curbside pickup. A clear route would be laid out with good signage for vehicles to enter and exit and two volunteers directing traffic. People would line up in alphabetical order and would not be permitted to leave their vehicles. All items were to be boxed, the boxes placed in the vehicles by volunteers, and one volunteer would receive the money. As a result, Sec. Tebbetts indicated that it sounded like the BFM was meeting all the guidelines and could go forward with their market the next day.

Apparently, another farmers’ market was held indoors without the same protocols mentioned above. In this case, many of the regular vendors had dropped out because of the virus so it was decided to have the market indoors as usual but with tables spaced wide apart, however, each vendor collected their own money. This caused concern for the Department of Health and it was determined that farmers’ markets in general would not be able to conduct business.

Needless to say, this was disheartening to hear. For the BFM farmers, this was particularly disappointing because they had made great efforts to have a safe experience for all of their customers that met the guidelines that had been laid out for other businesses.

Our committee, on a unanimous multi-partisan basis, felt that something had to be done about this and quickly. One of our witnesses said, “So it’s alright for people to go to Dollar General and buy a Mountain Dew, but it’s not alright to get fresh, local vegetables at a farmers’ market with curbside pickup?” (No offense Dollar General or Mountain Dew!) If certain farmers’ markets were not following the guidelines, then that should be corrected but to prohibit all of them is disappointing.

In earlier testimony, there was a sense that certain activities like the sale of ornamental plants could be delayed for a while. That is understandable given that we don’t want people in close proximity in greenhouses choosing their summer flower baskets.

However, farmers need income, particularly at this time of year as they are trying to get crops in the ground – the crops that will feed us this year. In terms of value, we found out in earlier testimony that our fourteen winter farmers’ markets bring in $1.2 million per month and the 67 summer markets $2.8 million per month so this is significant income for our farming community.

News reports are sobering regarding the squash, cucumber, tomato, and blueberry crops in Florida and Georgia that are being left to rot or plowed under due to a lack of help to harvest them. Closed borders are preventing their valuable workers from getting into the United States from, in many cases, Central America. I predict that we will be more reliant on our own Vermont farmers to feed us in the near future and it was reported that our farmers are already experiencing increased demand for their produce.

We have noted that farm stands/stores and CSAs (Community Sustainable Agriculture) are allowed to do business but not every farmer has one set up and they probably won’t have the time or resources to create one now as we enter the growing season.

My committee unanimously agreed to write a letter to the Scott Administration asking them to reconsider the essential nature, importance, and value of Vermont’s farmers’ markets. We will be asking them for a speedy resolution and updated clear guidance so that farmers’ markets are able to function knowing that socializing and music will not be part of the experience for the time being.
In our weekly Zoom meeting with the Windham County delegation, it was agreed that something needed to happen so that our farmers’ markets could get up and running knowing that social distancing and strict protocols would be part of the equation.

We have heard the heartbreaking news that due to the closing of schools, restaurants, and other food services farmers have had to dump their milk. This is tragic for the farmers who work so hard to produce it.

What’s interesting is that demand for dairy products in the stores has been high while milk prices to the farmers are falling and it doesn’t necessarily make sense. It has been suggested that more milk should be packaged in larger sizes since schools are not buying the half pints, but it’s not that simple. The plants that bottle the smaller sizes do not have the ability to package larger sizes and the plants that do are running non-stop.

I have been asked about what happens to the dumped milk. It goes into the farm’s manure pits and is factored in as part of the farm’s Nutrient Management Plan. We are fortunate that this is occurring at a time of year when the manure spreading ban has been lifted so that farmers can begin to empty their pits when conditions allow.

One of the bright spots in all this is that High Mowing Seeds (www.highmowingseeds.com) in Wolcott is hiring people to work for them. Organic, non-GMO seeds are flying off the shelves at High Mowing and they can’t keep up with it. This is a good indication that people all over the country are planning to grow a Victory Garden to feed themselves and their neighbors as we work together to survive the coronavirus.