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Cows And A Clean Lake? Champlain Advisory Committee Considers Dairy's Future

One cow cleaning another cow
Elodie Reed
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VPR
Cows along Fairfield Road in Fletcher. Vermont had 619 dairy farms in December, down from about 1,000 a decade ago. Farmers that work in the Lake Champlain watershed say they have worked to reduce their impact on water quality.

A committee devoted to cleaning up Lake Champlain is asking some tough questions about Vermont’s signature dairy industry.

The Lake Champlain Citizen Advisory Committee is looking at the future of dairy farming, and if Vermont can have both a strong dairy industry and a clean lake.

The committee is part of the Lake Champlain Basin Program, a federally-funded effort that aims to restore and protect the big lake.

Champlain suffers from an overload of phosphorus, a nutrient that fuels the toxic algae blooms that close beaches every summer. Agriculture is a main culprit. Farms in the Champlain watershed contribute about 40% of the phosphorus pollution plaguing the lake.

More from VPR: A Boom Year For Blooms: Toxic Algae Closes Beaches, Raises Concern About Water Supplies

At a recent meeting, advisory committee Chairman Mark Naud noted the hard work that lies ahead.

“This is a first meeting of what I suspect will be many, an opportunity to hear from a diverse set of voices as it relates to agriculture and water quality issues impacting the Lake Champlain basin,” he said.

"How can an industry that reliably loses $100 million from operations every year, and bleeds the taxpayers for support, be the backbone of our rural economy?" — James Maroney, Leicester resident

The diverse voices offered competing visions for dairy’s future in Vermont. Leicester resident James Maroney has long argued that conventional dairy is killing the lake, even as fewer people buy milk.

Maroney says the state’s political leaders need to acknowledge what he frames as this inconvenient truth.

“How can an industry that reliably loses $100 million from operations every year, and bleeds the taxpayers for support, be the backbone of our rural economy?” he asked.

Maroney is a bit of a pariah in the dairy debate. He argues for sweeping solutions, like helping all farmers switch to organic production, both to help the environment and allow farmers to capture the higher price that organic milk commands.

John Cleary of the Organic Valley co-op told the panel that demand for organic milk is indeed rising, and the state could add another 50 organic dairies in the next decade. But he says the organic sector needs to do a better job of telling its environmental story to boost its market share.

“So we can really only grow the number of farmers in step with growth in consumer demand,” he said. “That's why I think there needs to be a lot of focus on educating consumers about the benefits, including of water quality, to organic.”

More from VPR: Strafford Organic Creamery Keeps On In Vermont's Troubled Dairy Industry

Of the state’s remaining 619 dairy farms, 187 are organic. That’s down from more than 200 organic operations a decade ago. So despite organic farming’s strength, conventional dairy – and its water quality impacts – remains dominant in Vermont.

Advocates of conventional dairy say they are doing better at protecting the environment. Marie Audet, an owner of Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport, said her farm – like many others in the Champlain watershed – now practices no-till farming and uses cover crops to reduce runoff.

“I find that the greatest misconception among non-farmers today is the assumption or the thought that farming hasn’t changed, that the practices that brought us to the phosphorus levels in our lake are continuing, unabated even sometimes,” she said. “Dairy farming is not the same as it was when we started farming with our fathers.”

"I find that the greatest misconception among non-farmers today is the assumption or the thought that farming hasn’t changed, that the practices that brought us to the phosphorus levels in our lake are continuing, unabated even sometimes. Dairy farming is not the same as it was when we started farming with our fathers." — Marie Audet, Blue Spruce Farm

Former dairy farmer John Roberts agrees. Roberts now directs the Champlain Valley Farm Coalition, an organization working to improve water quality and farm viability.

Roberts said 50,000 acres in Vermont are now cover-cropped, up from 5,000 a decade ago.

“I find it frustrating on occasion that people dismiss what conventional farmers are doing, because they are doing a tremendous amount,” he said. “Even the EPA has credited Vermont farmers with how much less phosphorus they are putting in the lake.”

More from VPR: Neighbors Object As Farm Facing Environmental Violations Seeks To Expand

But as farmers work to reduce their environmental impact, they continue to struggle with low prices. Dairy farms today earn almost 20% less than they did a decade ago. The pandemic made things worse, as declining demand forced some farmers to dump milk last spring.

Roger Allbee has served many roles in the Vermont farm scene over the last four decades, including a stint as agriculture secretary under Republican Gov. Jim Douglas. He told the committee that most Vermont dairy farmers are trapped in a global, commodity-based market, where the competitor with the lowest cost of production wins.

People in a conference room
Credit John Dillon / VPR
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VPR
Former Agriculture Secretary Roger Allbee, right, asked the Legislature in February of 2020 to study a new state approach to regulating milk prices and agriculture's environmental impact.

In an interview, Albee noted that he's pushed the Legislature to study a new state approach to both regulating milk prices and dairy's environmental impact. He said the new system could capture more money from the market to help farmers pay to improve water quality.

“We're definitely in a crisis. It's not easy,” he said. “It's a crisis that's going to take all people pulling together. It can't be business as usual. It's going to take the governor's office being willing to step in to show leadership.”

In an end-of-year message, Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts said his agency was able to funnel about $25 million in federal COVID relief funds to about 1,000 agricultural enterprises.

“As we close our 2020, we hope for better times,” Tebbetts said.

He noted that a federally-funded "Dairy Innovation Center" recently got a $2 million boost through an appropriation pushed by Sen. Patrick Leahy.

"This new approach provides technical and financial assistance to help dairy producers diversify their products [with] innovative on-farm production practices and closely looks at emerging market trends with the goal of improving the dairy economy," Tebbetts said in his statement.

Vermont lost 58 dairy farms in 2020, reducing the total to 617. That compares to almost 1,000 dairies in business a decade ago.

"... figuring out how we can take the existing landscape, and the existing economy, and the existing people and communities that have grown up around this really vital sector of our economy, and working with those groups to figure out what the solutions are, is the work of a generation." — David Mears, former environmental conservation commissioner

Yet citizen advisory committee member David Mears said more farm attrition is not the way to a cleaner lake. Mears is a former commissioner of environmental conservation. He notes that acre for acre, paved-over developed land contributes more phosphorus run off than farm fields.

"So figuring out how we can take the existing landscape, and the existing economy, and the existing people and communities that have grown up around this really vital sector of our economy, and working with those groups to figure out what the solutions are, is the work of a generation," he said. "And we’ve got that work right in front of us."

The advisory committee's work continues this month with a close look at the herbicide glyphosate, a weed killer that’s widely used on crop fields in the Champlain basin. Glyphosate is listed as a probable carcinogen and several European and Latin American countries have recently banned its use.

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