Poll shows Vermonters willing to pay more for dairy, but getting that money to farmers is complicated
Inside the South Royalton Market on a recent Friday, Ivy Mix and Nico Bardin shopped for a few things: cheese, Tylenol, salad greens, oat milk and a small container of chocolate milk from Strafford Organic Creamery.
Mix said she likes to buy from Strafford because it’s a small business, and she knows her money is going right back to the farm.
“How much was it, $4.89 for, what’s this, 16 ounces — a liter — of chocolate milk, which I think is worth it. But not everyone can just, like, willy-nilly go spend nearly $5 on a thing of chocolate milk,” she said.
Mix grew up in Tunbridge. She’s now 36 and owns a restaurant and cocktail bar in Brooklyn, but since the pandemic, she says she’s been visiting Vermont more often. And she's seeing changes in her hometown.
“When I was growing up, this area was just dairy everything, like all dairy,” Mix said. “And as time has gone on, all the farms have closed. And it’s sad.”
Ten years ago, Vermont had nearly 1,200 conventional and organic dairy farms. The latest data show nearly 40% have since stopped shipping milk.
Over that same time period, the number of small and medium-sized farms declined significantly, while the number of large farms milking more than 700 cows doubled.
Vermont officials have identified this trend as a problem. The governor tasked a commission to come up with an action plan to ensure “a reliable source and network of healthy and sustainable local food.”
And a legislative task force is considering a narrower question: How do state leaders revitalize Vermont’s dairy industry? Among the many suggested solutions: placing a surcharge, maybe 5 or 10 cents, on products labeled as milk.
A VPR-Vermont PBS poll conducted in early January found 74% of respondents said they were willing to pay between 5% to over 20% extra for dairy products in order to support the industry.
The poll, however, didn’t ask to whom, or for what, that extra money would go toward.
For its part, the legislative task force wants a fluid milk surcharge to help with marketing Vermont dairy products out of state.
But that’s not what 85-year-old St. Albans resident Jerry Morong, one of the VPR-Vermont PBS poll respondents, would do.
“Well, if the price went to the farmer, I wouldn’t — I don't mind paying more at the market,” Morong said. “If it just goes to the middleman and so forth, then I'm not willing. I'm willing to support the farmer.”
The fact is, in today’s world, there are middle people. That’s because there are a whole lot of steps to get milk from a cow, in a barn, to your dining room table where you’re serving the shredded cheddar cheese on taco night.
In Vermont, most dairy farms accomplish this by belonging to a cooperative. Co-ops help pool and sell farmers’ milk. Increasingly, cooperatives also transport the milk to processing facilities, make it into butter, bottled milk, yogurt, cheese or ice cream, and then market the products themselves. These are all jobs that require time and expense, and cooperatives effectively remove that burden from the farmer.
But dairy cooperatives have overhead too. As they get larger and do more of these tasks, they need investment money. And in the short term, that cuts into farmer profits.
“Overall, our industrialized food system is broken,” said Molly Anderson, who directs the food studies program at Middlebury College. “It doesn't work for anyone except the largest producers of crops and livestock, and the big companies that are buying up these products.”
Anderson has some hope for Vermont, based on its size, the lack of a powerful agricultural lobby — even dairy farmers, she says, have to fight to be heard — and Vermonters’ interest in buying local food.
“Vermonters need to back the diversification of agriculture, buying a lot more local products of all kinds and supporting the preservation of farmland — but farmland that will be dedicated to growing diverse products. Not just growing dairy cows, or beef cows for that matter,” she said.
“Well, if the price went to the farmer, I wouldn’t — I don't mind paying more at the market. If it just goes to the middleman and so forth, then I'm not willing. I'm willing to support the farmer.”
So if our poll respondent, Jerry Morong, wants his money to go directly to dairy farmers, he can buy products directly from them. And other local products, too, Anderson argues, to create a stronger food system overall.
Another option for directly supporting dairy farmers: Get behind the 1,500 or so migrant farmworkers who provide so much of the industry’s labor, and more likely than not, are the ones milking and caring for the cows.
Lupita Gómez, a 27-year-old Addison County resident, worked on Vermont dairy farms for a few years before becoming an organizer with advocacy group Migrant Justice.
In a Spanish and English bilingual interview facilitated by a translator, Gómez said she’d like for people to learn more about where their dairy comes from.
“Well, for us, for the migrant community, who really sustain the industry in Vermont… one is that they learn who's getting milk and food to the table,” she said. “And another thing, is that they are supporting the Milk With Dignity program.”
Milk With Dignity works with companies like Ben and Jerry’s to ensure farmworkers get better wages, housing and working conditions. One of the ways a company participates is by paying an extra premium to both farm owners and farmworkers.
Since it began in 2017, the program has expanded to protect more than 250 farmworkers in Vermont and New York.
“Which not only means another accreditation, but ensures that people's labor rights are being respected,” Gómez said.
She added that you can talk about local food, about organic food, about more expensive food — but none of those qualities mean dairy workers have fair working conditions.
María Aguirre provided translation for this story.
From Jan. 3 to Jan. 9, the VPR-Vermont PBS 2022 Poll asked hundreds of Vermonters about their opinions on climate change, broadband, dairy and more. Explore part two of results here. The first part of the results were released in January.