1.14.2022 – The Vermont Dairy Task Force, Carbon Sequestration, and the Vermont Climate Council

This week included some extremely interesting testimony in House Agriculture and Forestry. One of our goals is to enable a successful, sustainable future for Vermont’s farmers, which is complicated and easier said than done. At the same time, we want our farmers to continue to be part of the solution to environmental degradation. Additionally, we want to work on supplying more of our own food on a regional New England basis.

One of the first topics we heard about was the work of the Task Force to Revitalize the Vermont Dairy Industry. Vermont dairy farmers have been struggling for several years with low milk prices (which are set at the federal level) and higher input costs. In recent years, we have lost a great number of farms, in particular, small and medium-sized farms. This has had an effect on the availability of auxiliary businesses, such as equipment, feed, seed, and fertilizer enterprises. Interestingly, the number of cows has not decreased significantly so the trend has been for large farms to get larger.

The Legislature requested a report (Act 129) from the Department of Financial Regulation that indicated the need for change. The Dairy Task Force started meeting in May 2021, calling 53 witnesses to testify. They developed nine categories of short- and long-term recommendations that involve state and federal action.

Dan Smith, a lawyer who has expertise in dairy issues, co-chaired the Task Force and opined to us that money accrued from pandemic recovery could be helpful in improving the situation. For instance, Maryland currently pays the premiums for their farmers for the Dairy Margin Coverage Program (DMC). The DMC offers “protection to dairy producers when the difference between the all-milk price and the average feed price (the margin) falls below a certain dollar amount selected by the producer.” The DMC is a risk management strategy, like insurance. If we were to cover DMC for Vermont farmers, it would cost $3.8 million, but it would increase participation from farmers and would have paid out an estimated $30 million recently.

Some of the same problems we’re seeing nationally are plaguing the dairy industry in Vermont including labor shortages. Dairy processors are seeking employees to keep the cheese and yogurt plants running and, in some cases, are paying good wages with signing bonuses to boot. Typically, the Cabot plants run seven days a week but are down to six because of the lack of workers. Farm workers are also needed as well as CDL drivers to transport milk. In addition, housing and childcare for workers is in short supply.

Other strategies are being discussed to improve the dairy sector including supply management, but it is recognized that additional analysis is needed so there is a request to continue the work of the Dairy Task Force. One bright spot is that we are now using 58% of the milk we produce in Vermont with the advent of increased cheese and yogurt making. It used to be that we were using only 5%, which kept us even more at the mercy of the federal milk order pricing.

Another area we have been focusing on is the use of soil health practices, such as cover cropping, manure injection, and no- and low-till. There are many benefits to employing these practices such as phosphorus reduction in the Lake Champlain Watershed, but the one we had the chance to hear about this week was carbon sequestration and the potential for payment for ecosystem services.

I met Dr. Sara Via at a Council of State Governments conference in Hudson, NY, before the pandemic started. I was impressed with the research she was doing at the University of Maryland and with the Maryland Department of Agriculture regarding the quantification of the amounts of carbon that could be sequestered using these various practices. Dr. Via was kind enough to testify in our committee and, as one member stated, it was like attending a graduate course in college.

One stunning statistic that she mentioned was the fact that there are 42 million acres of lawn in the USA, making it the largest irrigated crop in the country. Lawns do not sequester carbon but are actually emitters when you consider mowing and other factors. She has been working on other more eco-friendly grasses that could be used, as well as native plants that would be more suited to our environment.

Members of the Vermont Climate Council testified regarding the Climate Control Action Plan, including Windham County’s own Abbie Corse from the Corse Farm Dairy in Whitingham. The work done by the Council is the result of the Global Warming Solutions Act that was passed by the Legislature. Jane Lazorchak spoke about the goal to lower emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 and the group’s five impact areas. They include cutting climate pollution, resilient working and natural land, vital communities, capturing carbon, and cross cutting solutions.

I encourage everyone who is interested to take advantage of the resources offered on the legislative website – www.legislature.vermont.gov – where you can click on the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee, view our agendas and the briefings and documents that are presented to us, and watch the livestream of our committee meetings by clicking on the “Livestream” link. You can also view all of our past meetings by going to YouTube and selecting our committee’s name and the date.

This coming week we will be back in Montpelier and on Thursday, January 20, at 10:45 am, we will be hearing from Ellen Kahler of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, talking about her work with New England Feeding New England, a group aimed at creating a regional food system.