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Marketing Or Meaningful Change? Ben & Jerry's 'Caring Dairy' Pays Farmers A Premium

Cows out standing in a field.
Chantale Nadeau, courtesy
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Heifers at the Nadeau's Top Notch Holsteins Farm in Holland enjoy quaity pasture and one of the best views in Orleans County.

Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Inc. has long marketed its social mission along with its sweet desserts. This year, it strengthened a program aimed at getting farmers to take better care of their workers, the environment and their cows. Farmers say the premiums make a difference. Critics say the company could do a lot more.

The changes to the Caring Dairy program come during a disastrous year for Vermont dairy farmers. In January, wholesale milk prices were projected to rise, ending a four year slump. But then the COVID pandemic hit, schools and restaurants closed, demand for milk plummeted and prices crashed.

The financial pressures have led 20 Vermont farms to close so far this year, leaving the state with just 629 farms in August.

More from VPR: 'They Should Include Us': Vermont's Immigrant Farmworkers Push For Coronavirus Aid

But some farmers are earning a bit more money for following environmental and labor standards set by Ben & Jerry’s. Aaron and Chantale Nadeau enrolled their Top Notch Holsteins operation when the program started almost 10 years ago. Now, they’ve qualified for some added premiums under the top tier of the Caring Dairy guidelines.

Chantale and Aaron Nadeau
Credit John Dillon / VPR
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VPR
As part of the Caring Dairy program, Chantale and Aaron Nadeau are trying out a rotational grazing system that both feeds their heifers and restores the pasture.

Striding up a hilly pasture in Orleans County, Aaron Nadeau shows a visitor one of his latest projects. But first, he stops to appreciate the view enjoyed by his heifers resting in the shade. Toward the southeast, the blue silo of his home farm peaks through the trees in the distance.

“This is Vermont right here!” he says with a laugh.

The young cows are shy and scatter when we approach. We pause and soak in the 360-degree panorama that – at a height of about 1,600 feet – captures a wide sweep of the Northeast Kingdom.

The land is more than beautiful, however. Nadeau has made the pasture work for him and his cows with an innovative grazing system that provides his young stock the nutrition they need from the sun, soil and forage. The pastures are actually part of his grandfather’s old place, which Nadeau brought back into family ownership four years ago. Since then, he’s has worked to restore the land.

“So this farm was fairly run down, honestly,” he said. “It looks pretty, but the land itself was neglected, never fertilized. Nothing was ever put back into it. We had the resources to put down the manure and lime and kind of get it back growing like it should. It’s very good land. I knew the soil was good; it just needed the inputs.”

One of his pasture projects is a key part of the Ben & Jerry’s Caring Dairy program, which requires participants to develop a demonstration project that others could follow. Nadeau’s involves getting the cows to graze rotationally – that is, to move through the fields and capture the nutrients from the pasture without overgrazing.

But instead of an elaborate fencing system that would require money for fencing and labor to move the cows, he gets them to graze from plot to plot by applying manure in strips to the field. Not surprisingly, cows don’t like to eat grass that has fresh manure on top.

“But after 30 days they did start, they hit this spot all over,” he said. “That’s what people want to know, especially milk farmers who maybe can fertilize their pasture. They want to know: when will their cows actually want to eat it again?”

The next step requires that Nadeau and his wife Chantale write up the results of their grazing experiments, for other farmers to hopefully replicate.

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Top Notch Holsteins farm is one of 50 Vermont farms in the Caring Dairy program, the other seven are in New York state. For following the program's full animal welfare, fair labor and environmental standards, the Nadeaus earn about $1.75 extra for each 100 pounds of milk they sell. At current prices, that’s about a 12% price premium.

Back at his barn, Aaron Nadeau said the premium has been great, especially this year.

"It makes you feel good when you get the check, that's for sure; [Caring Dairy] definitely doesn't cover the loss. But you wouldn't not want to have it." - Aaron Nadeau

“It makes you feel good when you get the check, that’s for sure,” he said. “You know, it’s a boost; it definitely doesn’t cover the loss. But you wouldn’t not want to have it.”

Chantale Nadeau explained the value this way:

“One of the best parts about Caring Dairy for me is that I’ve always been proud of what Aaron does, but it allows, it does allow [them], like he says, to highlight what the farmers are doing,” she said. “And that’s rewarding, because it’s not an industry that has come with a lot of financial rewards.”

Ben & Jerry's Cheryl Pinto in barn
Credit John Dillon / VPR
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VPR
Ben & Jerry's Cheryl Pinto says the Caring Dairy program raises the bar for farmers to protect the environment, their workers and their animals.

Cheryl Pinto works on the program for Ben & Jerry’s, and has the aspirational job title of “values-led sourcing manager.”  She said the program now has two tiers. To meet the highest standards, farmers must practice no-till agriculture on 75% of their crop fields, and agree to have 10% of their land set aside for biodiversity. Plus, they have to have a demonstration project, like the Nadeaus rotational grazing experiment.

“With Ben & Jerry’s focus on regenerative agriculture, this is sort of encompassing all of that. It’s important to not disturb the soil, make sure that you’re getting animals out on the grass because it houses some of the [carbon] sequestration,” she said. “It really boosts soil health.”

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Dairy farming and the manure it produces are partly responsible for polluting Lake Champlain and other waterways. Pinto said Caring Dairy is the company’s attempt to support sustainable agriculture.

"We think Caring Dairy, in that space, is really showing there is a different way of doing dairy. And it is really rewarding farmers for what they're already doing and then helping to support them to shift to also do what they want to do," - Cheryl Pinto, Ben & Jerry's

“We think Caring Dairy, in that space, is really showing there is a different way of doing dairy,” she said. “And it is really rewarding farmers for what they’re already doing and then helping to support them to shift to also do what they want to do.”

Environmental activist Michael Colby isn’t buying it.

“This is just corporate propaganda. This is public relations,” he said. “This is the roll out of another propaganda fog machine basically.’

Colby is co-founder and president of Regeneration Vermont, a group that wants to reform agriculture to better protect the environment and farm workers. He’s a longtime critic of Ben & Jerry’s because he argues the company could use its money and market clout to do far more for Vermont farms.

“What possibly is going good in the dairy industry in Vermont over the last 30 years that we’ve been dominated by these multinational corporations like Unilever [Ben & Jerry’s corporate parent] and Ben & Jerry’s?” he said. “You know, hundreds and hundreds of dairy farmers have gone bankrupt. Our water quality is worse than it has ever been. We’ve got so many cyanobacteria outbreaks in this state, largely as the result of confinement, industrial farming.”

"What possibly is going good in the dairy industry in Vermont over the last 30 years that we've been dominated by these multinational corporations like Unilever and Ben & Jerry's? - Michael Colby, Regeneration Vermont

Colby said if Ben & Jerry’s really wants to change the world, it should source all its cream from organic farms. Particularly galling he said, is his feeling that Ben & Jerry’s has co-opted the term “regenerative” agriculture, from which his organization takes its name. Colby said regenerative agriculture actually goes beyond organic practices to build soil health and improve the environment.

Colby has been involved in several lawsuits challenging Ben & Jerry’s environmental and animal welfare claims. A federal court recently dismissed claims that the company misleads consumers when it said its cream comes from “happy cows.”

More from VPR: Judge Tosses 'Happy Cow' Suit Against Ben & Jerry's

Colby said that farms – like the Nadeaus – that meet the Caring Dairy requirements can still use pesticides and herbicides, so they can’t be considered part of the regenerative ag movement.

“They just repackage it and try to fool Vermonters and their consumers around the world into think that buying this product is somehow better and good,” he said. “And it’s total nonsense.”

Ben & Jerry’s Pinto said there’s not a universal definition of regenerative agriculture. She said Ben & Jerry’s wants farms to move in that direction to start.

The Nadeaus said they’ve considered switching to organic production, but that its strict requirements would take some of the tools and technology they use, such as herbicides on cover crops or medications for the herd.

The Nadeaus clearly don’t see themselves as a propaganda symbol for the ice cream maker. Aaron Nadeau said the Caring Dairy premiums are like a bonus a valued employee might get at the end of the work year. A recognition, he said, for a job well done.

“Basically it’s to highlight our skills as farmers and environmentalists. It’s a pro-farmer, it’s a pro-industry program, I believe,” he said. “And, you know, every little bit helps, and we have just been fortunate enough to get in at the beginning.”

Ben & Jerry’s says it would like to expand Caring Dairy someday. But right now, there’s a waiting list for farmers to get on, so it benefits only a small part of the state’s dairy industry.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter John Dillon @VPRDillon

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