Milk has been Vermont’s top selling agricultural product since 1900, when cows replaced sheep that had supplied wool for clothing. Over time, the economy and culture of dairy farming has continued to evolve. Technologies advance, milk prices and feed costs fluctuate, and new farming practices emerge.

Today, milk is still Vermont’s number one agricultural commodity despite tough times in the industry. It makes up 70% of agricultural sales, bringing over $2 billion of economic activity annually. The dollar amount only reflects a portion of dairy’s large-scale impact, though.

“If dairy disappeared, it would be like pulling the rug out from under all agriculture because the suppliers and service providers couldn’t stay afloat without it. It’s the cornerstone of the farm economy,” says Al Karnatz, VLT’s Farm Director for the Champlain Valley. Vermont’s veterinarians, farm-supply stores, and financial or technical services are necessary resources for all kinds of farms—whether they produce milk, vegetables, or meat.

The changing character of dairy farms today shows deep-rooted patterns meshed with innovation. Almost all Vermont dairies are family-owned. Eighty-two
percent have less than 200 cows, and only 3% have more than 700 cows. But there are fewer total dairies, and herd size has climbed. In great part, this is
due to a national pricing system that has favored larger-scale farms. Farmers here are also ahead of the curve technologically, using robotic milkers, bunker silos for economic feed storage, and methane digesters that create energy.

Just to cover the cost of producing milk, the average farmer needs $17-18 per hundred pounds of milk (called hundredweight). Currently the price is a meager $14 per hundredweight, and farmers’ debts are mounting. Commodity milk values spike and drop unpredictably nowadays. These prices are set nationally through a complex process that is partly market-determined and partly regulated.

Organic milk offers more security because the rate is based on a per-year contract with the purchaser, usually Organic Valley or Horizon. These companies vary the amount of milk they buy depending on demand, so there are limited openings for new organic farmers. Many Vermont farmers are interested in making the conversion, but costs are high. Organic milk companies are at vendor capacity for 2016, and can only prepare farmers for organic production in late 2017 or 2018. Still, Vermont leads the nation along with Maine in percentage of dairies that are certified organic, at about 22%.

Given dairy’s interconnectedness with other agrarian businesses, the industry’s stability deserves special attention. We at VLT strive to support dairy farmers in the ways we can. Nearly half of our Farmland Access projects matched traditional, organic, and value-added dairy farmers with land. When farmers sell conservation easements, the proceeds can help to purchase new land, improve infrastructure, relieve debt, or transfer the business to their children.

We work with VHCB’s Farm & Forest Viability Program, which helps farmers with business models and succession planning. More than anything, we can ensure that the land dedicated to farming today will be available and affordable for tomorrow’s farmers.

Photo by Caleb Kenna