Commentary: Regional Milk Matters
By: Helen Labun
For a generation the dominant story of Vermont agriculture has been specialization - the 10 cow dairy that makes the world’s most sought-after butter, maple leaf wrinkle creams, obscure wine varieties, domestic saffron, researchers who are finding a market for milkweed fibers. These stories are remarkable. It isn’t only the businesses themselves that should impress us, but how as a collection they have inspired Vermonters to foresee a bright future for agriculture in our state. What we lack in natural assets for agriculture we make up for in innovation, utilizing our scale to support experimentation and to prove even tiny markets can be enough for a thriving business.
That’s the good news. The downside is that we can begin to think Vermont no longer has a role to play in more conventional types of agriculture.
Vermonters don’t talk a lot about the finer points of interstate commodity markets. Many Vermonters have a sense that unless something is special, premium, unique in some way, it’s doomed to failure in our state. Commodities are something for soy farmers in Iowa to worry about. Nonetheless, these basic agricultural goods are key to agriculture’s future - and to deem them irrelevant in Vermont is deeming us irrelevant to the future of U.S. agriculture.
The truth is that Vermont does have relevance nationally, and it isn’t only in inventing the next creative use of maple syrup. Current work on dairy is highlighting that fact.
Vermont’s relevance is written into the foundation of American agriculture. Economic policy treats agriculture differently than other businesses because we agree that government has a fundamental role in ensuring a robust food supply for its citizens (and there’s discussion about how milk pricing reflects that role here). Thinking in regions is key to that goal. The United States is a big country, and a century ago - when transportation, refrigeration, retail sales, and global trade had an entirely different face - the impact of geography on food security was much more self evident. Food systems have changed, but even with the best technology we still can’t escape the constraints of geography. Costless, timeless transportation doesn’t exist for food. Even if it did, dozens of other things can cause a disruption to supply - droughts, extreme weather events, and pathogens, for example, or purely man-made crises like financial market failures that rearrange the business landscape.
Regionalism is important, so let’s look at New England as a region.
According to USDA statistics Vermont produces more than half the milk supply for New England. Furthermore, 15% of all our land is in uses related to dairy farming (in a state that’s 70% forest) and 80% of our farmland is tied up in dairy - which means regardless of your feelings towards milk in particular, the future of dairying is deeply entwined with the future of all our state’s agriculture, and by extension with our ability to keep producing basic foodstuffs in a distributed way throughout the country. It doesn’t have to be dairy produced on those fields, but the transition time to other options doesn’t match the rate of closure for the dairy farms currently in place, and so, at least for the moment, dairy is a critical part of the answer.
Vermont dairy is highly relevant regionally, and for that reason it’s relevant to the structure of our national agricultural system.
To affect the fate of our dairy, however, Vermont hits against the other limitation of our most popular approach to making change. The standard storyline is that Vermont does something a little radical because we can, and then other places follow suit once we demonstrate it’s possible. GMO labeling is an example of this pattern - once Vermont implemented labeling requirements, national brands had to come up with a response and carving out a tiny solution just for Vermont wasn’t going to be it. It didn’t go entirely to plan, but nonetheless Vermont changed and the nation responded. Because of where the component parts of the milk market are located, we don’t have that type of solution readily at hand - we can’t jump out in front of the pack. We need to think back a generation ago to intensive regional collaboration, like what was behind New England’s Dairy Compact in the 1990’s.
Also like the Dairy Compact days, the problem and the search for its solution should capture a place in popular attention not because it’s particularly sexy, or particularly different from what anyone else is doing, but because it’s particularly important.
There’s no time like the present. The search for options to strengthen our dairy sector is on - and the public can play along. The New York dairy summit convened by Agri-Mark in mid-August drew participation from across the country and they’ve built the Dairy Proposals 2018 website to post proposals on next steps. And whatever those next steps might be for the Northeast, their potential relies on Vermonters’ ability to envision dairy farming as part of our success story.