From Your Commissioner…
New Effort to Keep New England Dairy Farms
On Monday New England’s state commissioners and secretary of agriculture joined forces for an event at Conant Farm in Richmond, Vermont to launch a new initiative called ‘Keep Local Farms.’ The program aims to help stabilize income for dairy farms, and create new connections between New England farms and their customers and neighbors.
One of the most frequent questions we get is, “What can we do to help dairy farmers?” Many people volunteer that they would gladly pay more for milk and dairy products if they knew the money went to the farmers. Folks in the dairy industry have been scrambling to create a way for milk-drinkers and lovers of our agrarian landscape and heritage to increase the returns dairy farmers get for their milk and all the other uncompensated benefits and services farms provide to New England states and communities.
This ambitious new effort has been developed by farmers and their organizations, with help from state departments of agriculture and the Cooperative Development Institute. Inspired by the ‘fair trade’ concept, Keep Local Farms aims to return more money to the region’s strapped dairy farmers, while educating the public and strengthening ties between farms and communities.
The current cost of producing milk far outweighs the prices farmers are getting. Farm families are running out of savings and credit to cover this gap. Many New England dairy farms have been going out of business, and more will follow soon if farm incomes do not increase significantly. The federal programs to assist dairy farmers when prices are low have not been adequate in this severe downturn. The Keep Local Farms program is designed to help reduce price instability for farm businesses.
The New England dairy industry has a hugely positive economic impact on the region. The milk produced on these farms is valued at $12.2 billion, and creates over $5 billion in economic activity. There are approximately 1,880 dairy farms in New England, most of them small, with fewer than 100 cows per farm. Nonetheless, the dairy industry provides upwards of 22,000 jobs–including farming, farm supply businesses, milk haulers, processors, marketers, farm service firms and agencies.
New Englanders appreciate and rely on their stable supply of fresh dairy products. These quality foods are fresh, healthy, local, and provide a real source of food security. I remember the eloquent testimony of outdoor recreation groups and environmental advocates like the Conservation Law Foundation in support of the Northeast Dairy Compact a decade ago. Keep Local Farms provides a way for the many people who benefit from local dairy farms to ensure they remain economically sustainable.
People can learn more, and make contributions through the web site www.keeplocalfarms.org. Information is also available by calling toll-free 877-388-7381.
Funds are collected, pooled, and tabulated monthly. The New England Dairy Farms Cooperative (NEFDFC), of which all New England dairy farms will be members, will handle accounting and payments to farmers. Information on total distributions and the average amount per dairy farm will be posted on the web and through media outlets. Annual audits will also be posted on the web site.
Payments to dairy farmer members of NEFDFC will be made initially at least every six months, to coincide with high-expense periods of spring planting in April/May, and fall harvest in September/October.
The Keep Local Farms program will grow through partnerships with retailers, organizations, colleges/universities and businesses that share the core values of support for local farms, community, economy and you the consumer. These are partners who value farms, local foods and sustainable business practices.
At the launch event Deb Erb, Landaff dairy farmer and member of the New England Family Dairy Farms Cooperative board, said that as the program grows, it may be possible to make quarterly or even monthly payments to dairy farmers.
Keep Local Farms is the promotional effort to link consumers with farmers, Erb explained, and NEFDFC is the umbrella co-op representing New England farmers to distribute the funds. “This concept is several years in the making, and a lot of people have contributed to the effort,” she said. This launch comes at a critical time.
I’ll be watching to see what transpires as this initiative develops. In the meantime, I like that in addition to the regional milk processors like Oakhurst and Cabot, we have several options of buying milk from farms that bottle it themselves, enabling those farms to garner semi-direct sales.