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Dairy & Dickens: The Best and Worst of Times.

There is a monumental shakeup about to happen in Vermont’s commodity dairy industry. It’s time is up, a barely-functioning paradigm, well within its last gasps, with even its most staunch defenders finally coming around to the reality that industrial, nonorganic dairying cannot work for Vermont. Not, that is, if we’re going to farm the way we think we farm.

That isn’t an easy pill to swallow, not in a state that reveres its dairy farmers. But, over the last several decades, we’ve been revering them straight to their demise, cheering them on, even when all the rational indicators said that it wasn’t adding up. Vermont’s nonorganic dairy farmers have been teetering on the edge of economic ruin for far too long, with thousands having already thrown in the towel and a mere 600 still left to navigate the downward spiral.

The economics are bad enough. Diary farmers today are literally paying to sell their milk. The average price for nonorganic, commodity milk has been stuck at around $15 a hundredweight (cwt) for months, while it costs about $22 to produce that same milk. For the average Vermont dairy farm of around 125 cows, that translates to losing more than $100,000 a year.

But it goes beyond the money. Vermont’s nonorganic dairy farmers remain wedded to an agricultural paradigm that is doing tremendous damage to our environment, using millions of pounds of toxic pesticides annually, growing GMO corn exclusively, gorging their cows so they’ll produce more and more milk, polluting our waterways, and producing a product that is not in line with the way we think Vermont farms. Bucolic it is not.

These are, indeed, the worst of times for Vermont’s industrial dairying, an age of foolishness, for sure. But, in a great Dickensian way, it’s also the best of times, where a new age of wisdom is providing a path forward. It’s an organic and regenerative path that sees agriculture as the solution for — not the cause of — so many of our current economic and ecological woes.

Those of us who have been calling for this necessary transition gained an unexpected ally recently: Vermont’s former Secretary of Agriculture, Roger Allbee. In an op/ed published in VTDigger, Allbee declared that Vermont’s “conventional dairy farmers need to change their business model…[and]…move quickly with initiatives to emulate what Denmark is doing by becoming an organic milk-producing state.”

To quote a certain Vermont senator, this is huge. And to understand just how huge it is, you have to know a little about Allbee’s life and career, where being raised on a traditional Vermont family dairy farm is the least of it.

In 1980, Allbee was a staff member for the U.S. House’s Committee on Agriculture, a time when the very commodity pricing system that is now starving Vermont’s small farmers was written into law via the Farm Bill. This new commodity-based pricing system for milk was heavily lobbied for by the big processors and wholesalers, knowing that it would further its goals of consolidation and lower milk prices. It was replacing the much more farmer-friendly system of “parity” pricing, a system that was predicated on providing a fair price that would keep farmers economically viable.

After his time in Washington, D.C., Allbee went into farm banking, rising to the level of vice president for Farm Credit Bank. Allbee also served as the executive director for Vermont’s outpost for the USDA’s Farm Services Agency, overseeing government loans, grants and farm subsidies.

Most significantly, however, was Allbee’s tenure as Vermont’s Secretary of Agriculture from 2006-2011. Appointed by Republican Governor Jim Douglas, Allbee was as traditional as they come. It was on Allbee’s watch, for example, that Vermont’s industrial dairying made the dramatic and complete switch to GMO feed corn. In 2006, when Allbee first started leading Vermont’s Big Ag, 37% of the state’s feed corn was GMO derived. By 2011, it was near 100% — full adoption of GMO corn on more than 90,000 acres.

So when Allbee calls the agricultural paradigm that he dedicated his life to propagating dead, it gets people’s attention, as it should. It demonstrates that it’s time to stop trying to tinker with it and apologize for it. It’s done enough damage, economically, ecologically, socially, and otherwise.

And now for the future, where it’s time to bring the minds and resources of the state together to hasten a much-needed transition to organic, regenerative dairying. So many of the pieces are already in place, the grazing experts, the financial planners, the consumer demand, the more than 200 existing organic farms that serve as examples and mentors, and a state of mind that yearns for a kind of farming we can be proud of – the way we think we farm, and the way we should farm.

But to really make it happen, Vermont needs its major dairy corporations, Ben & Jerry’s and Cabot Creamery, to begin to make their own shifts to organic, thus creating the market necessary to quickly and efficiently transition Vermont agriculture to organic.

These two corporations, which account for much of Vermont agriculture, have been enjoying record profits while paying farmers less than it costs them to produce their milk. Cabot’s parent corporation, Agri-Mark, has been boasting of its $1 billion in sales for the last several years, while Ben & Jerry’s has been approaching $600 million in annual sales. Ben & Jerry’s parent corporation, Europe’s Unilever, cites the ice cream giant’s increased profitability of late as a main driver in its overall shareholder growth. All this, while the farmers who are providing the main ingredients – milk! – are being crushed economically, mostly because these two corporations have chosen to force their farmers through the commodity-pricing gauntlet.

There is no doubt that these are the worst of times for Vermont’s nonorganic dairies. But we’re oh-so close to making the turn, and embarking on what could be our best of times. Thanks to a little help from Roger Allbee, we’re getting through the first steps of admitting there’s a serious problem and identifying the solution: organic, regenerative agriculture.