By Rural Vermont Organizer Mollie Wills
Caption: Dairy Farmer panelists Larry Gervais (left), George van Vlaanderen (center), and Amber Machia discuss opportunities and challenges in a tumultuous industry. Photo courtesy of Michael Frett, St. Albans Messenger.
“What I heard here today confirms why my wife and I have lived here for 15 years.” Ward Heneveld echoed the sentiments of many while reflecting on attending Rural Vermont’s “Faces of Dairy: Conversations with Vermont Farmers”, a panel event that took place at the Dairy Center in Enosburg Falls last Saturday.
Almost fifty local farmers and eaters alike gathered to listen to and honor the dairy farming community, and to have a conversation about the future of Vermont’s dairy economy. The six-person farmer panel represented many facets of the dairy industry, and widely diverse perspectives on the agricultural backbone of Vermont.
“What is this country going to do for us? There’s only so long you can stretch a dollar,” reflects Damien Boomhower, a fourth generation organic dairy farmer based in Fairfield, referencing consistently plummeting milk prices and a general lack of support from federal and state agencies. “What incentive are we giving the next generation to get into dairy?” Damien is the father of two young children, and wasn’t the only farmer concerned about the next generation.
George van Vlaanderen, of Does’ Leap Farm in East Fairfield, ponders the same question. His take on how to best support future farmers? “It’s contingent on us to educate friends and neighbors about where our food comes from and the impact of voting with your dollars.” We can support a prosperous agricultural future by supporting our farmer neighbors today.
Amber Machia, herdswoman and owner of Red Barn, a value-added dairy processing company in Highgate Center, could not agree more. “It’s a few dollars out of your pocket, but it goes all over the place” she concurs, referencing the power of spending dollars locally and how farming supports a multitude of local businesses, including feed supply stores, trucking companies, label and package makers, and distribution hubs.
The deep impact of farming on our local communities was a sentiment soundly echoed by all of the panelists, and many audience members to boot. Panelist Larry Gervais, of Gervais Family Farm in Enosburg Falls, one of the largest dairy operations in Franklin County, sums it up well: “We don’t need to grow. We need viability. If we can keep farms on this land, the impact in our communities is huge. Farming is the heartbeat of our community.”
Our agricultural heartbeat is in threat, as is our farmland. With an average farmer age of 58 and consistently inadequate milk prices, the future for our dairy community, and its accompanying 80% of Vermont’s agricultural land, is in jeopardy as it goes through a formative transition. Heather Darby, renowned agronomist and soil specialist with UVM Extension and moderator of the event, bluntly questions the future: “Producing food is a requirement for life. How important is that career? Will people know how to produce food in this county [in the future] when only 1% of the population is farming?”
Despite tough questions and an uncertain future, the atmosphere in the room remained surprisingly bright, and the current reality is not without its triumphs. Marita Canedo, Migrant Justice staff member and event panelist representing the Milk with Dignity Program, reflects on Ben & Jerry’s adoption of the program as a human rights victory. “It took more than two years in a public campaign and 4 years in conversation. We had to have translators and it took a long time, but we finally had everyone at the same table. There’s human rights in that ice cream.” The Milk with Dignity Program brings together farmers, farmworker, buyers, and consumers to ensure dignified working conditions in the dairy supply chain, asking the corporations making the most in the dairy industry to pay for a higher standard of human rights for workers.
Perhaps the most commonly echoed sentiment in the room was that of gratitude. Gratitude for the support of Vermont’s farming community and its local products, gratitude for our working lands and animals and the nourishment they provide, and gratitude to have hands in the earth and the ability to feed one’s neighbors. This was best summed up by raw milk producer and panelist Aubrey Schatz of the Family Cow Farmstand in Hinesburg. “I’m thankful that I get to do this. I choose to do this. Connection as a human is what we have in life” says Aubrey, in deep acknowledgment of the foundational role she plays within her community. After all, as well stated by farmer and audience member Jenny Nelson, “farmers own the land that holds this state together.” It is our responsibility to support our agricultural landscape and the vital heartbeat that feeds our communities, fills our bellies, and makes this state home for us all.
Rural Vermont’s mission is to lead the resurgence of community-scale agriculture through education, advocacy, and organizing in support of Vermonters living in deep connection to one another and to the land that nourishes us all. More information and how you can get involved at www.ruralvermont.org