MONTPELIER, Vt. — State agriculture officials and farmers in Vermont are working on four new initiatives that emerged from a well-attended, first-of-its-kind dairy summit that occurred in early April.
More than 240 people attended the inaugural Northern Tier Dairy Summit at Jay Peak Resort in Jay on April 1 and 2.
The Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets organized and convened the summit to develop actionable steps to help a dairy industry hurt by a fifth year of record low prices, a volatile export market and an oversupply of milk. Vermont has lost more than 400 dairy farms over the last 11 years.
About 115 farmers from Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Canada attended the summit, according to Laura Ginsburg, agriculture development section chief for the VAAFM and the agency’s point person for the summit.
“The turnout for the dairy summit was outstanding,” Ginsburg said. “For a first time event in the middle of sugaring season, I was very impressed with the number and diversity of people who decided to attend.”
Keynote speakers included David Kohl, from Virginia Tech University, who spoke about building a farm business that is resilient to market swings; and Zach Ward, from Grasslands Dairy Farm in New Zealand, who described an export-based model of running a farm business that originated in New Zealand.
Other sessions focused on: payment for ecosystem services, examples of successful farm business transition, grazing as a business opportunity, and diversification into growing corn, grains or hemp.
“Overall the speakers were engaging, pushing attendees to think beyond the norm when it comes to running a dairy business,” Ginsburg said. “Conversations were lively and engaging, and it seemed like folks were meeting new people and strengthening existing connections.”
Prior to the summit, Vermont Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts said the VAAFM wanted to let farmers drive discussions at the summit, but that the summit would not “work to find ways to change dairy prices through a supply management system, as this is out of direct control of individual farmers.”
Prices might not have been on the table, but panel discussions and working sessions with farmers produced four new initiatives:
• Convene a Secretary’s Dairy Advisory Committee that will meet quarterly to discuss current issues from the farmer’s perspective and to share agency work. A call-out for nominations will happen in a few weeks, and meetings will begin this summer.
• Publish a monthly “Agriview” series about current topics in dairy such as market trends, national policy changes that affect Vermont dairy farmers, and updates regarding grant-funded work that the VAAFM is completing or has granted.
• Coordinate legislative farm tours this summer and fall.
• Conduct “visioning” and goal development workshops to meet the needs of farmers who expressed a desire to develop a long-term plan for their farm beyond a standard business plan. Workshops will occur this winter.
Furthermore, the VAAFM will apply for the newly released USDA Dairy Business Innovation Initiative funding, because the objectives closely match the dairy summit outcomes and participants’ visions. This funding opportunity will span multiple years and allow the VAAFM and its partners to engage deeply in developing a more competitive value-added dairy marketplace for Vermont producers.
Developing new dairy products for consumers was also a major theme at the summit. In a commentary that Tebbetts distributed statewide in mid-May, after the VAAFM announced the four outcomes, he said change emerged as the main theme at the Northern Tier Dairy Summit.
Farmers at the summit said they want to help the environment by relying on cutting-edge soil management practices; that they’d like to see more agriculture education and whole milk in schools; and that they hope the VAAFM will have a voice in Washington D.C. on topics such as milk pricing and policy.
One farmer at the summit even suggested that Vermont should stop relying so much on cow’s milk and start relying on goat’s milk.
“Through collaboration and creative change, farmers are developing strategies and ideas for future work at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets,” Tebbets wrote in his piece. “Farmers want help showing their farms to the public and policymakers. They believe we all need to do a better job telling what’s happening on their farms through authentic relationships. The agency will embark on getting more people, including lawmakers and regulators, to see their businesses this summer and fall.”
Ginsburg is happy to be moving forward on concrete ideas in the wake of the Northern Tier Dairy Summit.
“The call for nominations to the Secretary’s Advisory Committee is going out in a few weeks, and folks can nominate themselves or others,” she said. “We are seeking a diverse array of Vermont farmers to help the agency stay more directly connected with what is happening on the ground.”