MONTPELIER, Vt. — The Vermont Milk Commission is working to learn more about the health of the state’s dairy industry in hopes that solutions to challenges facing the industry can be addressed by the next federal farm bill, which is due to take effect in a year, Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts said Tuesday.
The commission met in Montpelier on Tuesday for the first time in six years. It plans to meet several more times over the next several weeks so members can gather opinions from dairy farmers, milk handlers and consumers to learn what they would like to see to ensure that farmers have a “fair, predictable pricing system,” he said.
Recommendations are to be delivered to the congressional delegation for dairy policy that could be included in the five-year farm bill that will be decided upon by Congress next year, said Tebbetts, who is a dairy farmer.
“We need to get to a better place, that’s for sure,” he said of the current status of the dairy industry. “It’s pretty clear farmers need to be paid a better price for their product.”
Dairy remains by far Vermont’s largest agricultural sector, accounting for more than 70 percent of Vermont’s agricultural sales and contributing $2.2 billion in economic activity each year.
Under Vermont law, the Milk Commission is required to hold hearings to be informed of the status of the state’s dairy industry.
Milk prices, now $17.36 per hundred pounds, are up slightly compared to the $15.25 paid a year ago, but they are nowhere near the $23.63 paid in 2014, according to statistics kept by the agency.
“We’ve had highs and lows. Right now it really hasn’t recovered,” Tebbetts said of milk prices. “History has shown that it should have recovered by now, but it hasn’t. So I think that’s a red flag for a lot of people. Why hasn’t it recovered? Why haven’t farmers gotten a better price?”
There are currently 786 cow-only dairy farms in Vermont, down from 838 a year ago and 1,051 in 2009, statistics show. There are now about 129,000 cows in the state down from about $135,000 in 2009.
The topics discussed at Tuesday’s meeting included the international market for dairy products, the number of milk processing facilities and farm credit issues.
Vermont produces about 63 percent of the milk produced in New England, but dairy farmers in New Hampshire other states are facing the same challenges.
New Hampshire had 115 licensed cow-only dairies in October 2016, down from 123 in January 2016. Earlier this year, Gov. Chris Sununu signed into law a measure providing up to $2 million in emergency funding for the farmers.
“Prices are similarly up a slight amount, and continue to kind of wobble along up and down a bit from month to month,” said New Hampshire state Veterinarian Steve Crawford.