In a brief visit to Vermont Friday, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said he did not favor a supply management system that many dairy farmers hope will help support their struggling industry.
A trip to a dairy farm was not on Perdue’s schedule while in Vermont. He visited a large-scale sugaring operation in Milton and helped Gov. Phil Scott tap a maple tree in a ceremony marking the beginning of the sugaring season.
Perdue got a little maple sugaring 101 during a tour of Georgia Mountain Maples. Kevin Harrison, co-owner of the 160,000-tap operation, explained some of the basics — like how cold nights and warm days make the sap flow.
“So it does need the cooler temperatures?" Perdue asked.
“That’s right. If it were to stay warm, like 60 or 70 degrees, three days in a row, the tree will start to bud,” Harrison told him. “We’ll still get sap, but the flavor of the syrup is off.”
Georgia Mountain Maples, with its giant gleaming evaporators, high-tech reverse osmosis machine and bustling show room, is a prime example of maple’s success story in Vermont.
Some dairy farmers who showed up at the event hoped to draw the comparison for Perdue between booming maple and struggling dairy.
Phil Parent, an Enosburg dairy farmer, said maple’s success is due in large part to a system organized by producers north of the border. The Federation of Québec Maple Syrup Producers maintains a syrup reserve which they use to control the regional supply.
Parent said Québec’s system basically helps establish the price Vermont producers get for their maple products.
“And I can’t help but see the correlation between the maple and the dairy. It's a world of difference we're seeing,” he said. “Maple has been thriving in this area, because of what the federation did up in Québec. They manage their supply, and I think that’s the key to having a proper price for your product — you know, to get a minimum price for what your cost of production is covered by.”
Parent said his cost of production for about the last four years is higher than the price he gets for the milk he sells. He was hoping to talk to Perdue about a supply management system he and other farmers think would help bring production in line with demand, and boost prices in the process.
“We don't know if we're going to be able to have the time allotted for that [meeting],” Parent said. “But I think it’s a very important issue that should be brought up here.”
Perdue did meet with some dairy farmers who showed up at Georgia Mountain Maple. But in a question and answer session with reporters, the secretary did not say what Parent and others wanted to hear.
“The dairy industry is wide and broad in the U.S., [and] I don’t really see a lot of hopes for a Canadian-type supply management system,” Perdue said. “Look when you’re under economic stress and you’re rushed, you look for any kind of help where you can find it. I certainly understand, I’m not offended by the question. I just don’t think the spirit of entrepreneurship and economic liberty in the United States really calls for a supply management system in any of our crop areas.”
The Vermont Milk Commission has recommended a supply management system, and the three-member Vermont congressional delegation also has supported it.
Perdue said the U.S. Department of Agriculture will speed up the rule-making for a new dairy insurance program that should help farmers cover some of their losses. He said the program should be in place by June.
“These farmers have had it tough. ... Most of your Vermont dairy farmers are smaller, and it’s been a tough go out there," Perdue said. "But if they can just hang on, I think to the summer, literally — we don’t say this very often in the federal government — help's on the way.”
Perdue also addressed another need of rural Vermont, and rural America: better broadband internet service. The agriculture secretary encouraged Vermont communities and internet providers to apply for a new round of USDA grants designed to boost broadband in underserved areas.