Faces of Dairy: Community Conversations and the Future of our Agricultural Landscape

From time to time, we feature stories from our member organizations. Rural Vermont sent us these dairy farmer voices from their recent event, “Faces of Dairy: Conversations with Vermont Farmers,” a discussion in Enosburg Falls, near the Canadian border.

by Mollie Wills, Organizer, Rural Vermont

“What I heard here today confirms why my wife and I have lived here for 15 years.” Ward Heneveld echoed the sentiments of many others after listening to the day’s discussions. Nearly fifty local farmers and eaters 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,” reflected Damien Boomhower, a fourth generation organic dairy farmer based in Fairfield, referring to 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, pondered 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.” His message: 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, agreed. “It’s a few dollars out of your pocket, but it goes all over the place,” she said. Farming supports a multitude of local businesses, including feed supply stores, trucking companies, label and package makers, and distribution hubs.

The importance of farming in our local communities was echoed by all panelists and many audience members. Panelist Larry Gervais, of Gervais Family Farm in Enosburg Falls, one of the largest dairy operations in Franklin County, summed it up: “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 under 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. Heather Darby, renowned agronomist and soil specialist with UVM Extension and the panel’s moderator, bluntly questioned 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 one percent 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 of Migrant Justice represented the Milk with Dignity Program on the panel. The 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. Marita reflected on Ben & Jerry’s adoption of Milk with Dignity as a human rights victory. “It took more than two years in a public campaign and four 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.”

Perhaps the most common sentiment in the room was one 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 perhaps 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,” she said, in deep acknowledgment of the foundational role she plays within her community. After all, as 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.

 

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