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December 28, 2021

Failing Dairy Farms Are an Opportunity to Grow Back Better

Transitioning from dairy will decrease net GHG emissions, help with housing, make Champlain healthier, and provide an exit for hard-working farm families.

A history of change

The history of land use in Vermont is a history of change. Indigenous Vermonters cleared small fields in the most fertile areas and used fire to keep down underbrush to make the hunt easier. The first European settlers hacked down the woods as fast as they could to make room for subsidence farming. Early Vermont cash crops included not just maple syrup, wood, apples, and corn but also potatoes and wheat. The first industrial product from the Green Mountain State was potash obtained by burning lots of wood in iron pots. Cleared land was taken as a sign of progress; the forest was a forbidding place just waiting to be tamed.

By the early 1800s the thin soil on the hillsides had already become too depleted for most crops; in the fertile valleys, successful farmers expanded their land by buying out less successful neighbors, who then headed for greener pastures further west. In 1811 the Merino sheep came and transformed the landscape once again. Sheep can graze anywhere, even in rocky soil; remaining hillside trees were cleared to make room. According to Hands on the Land: A History of the Vermont Landscape by Jan Albers (from which all the facts in this brief history are taken), “by 1840… there were 1,681,000 sheep in Vermont six times the human population”.

By 1850 the sheep boom was over. The railroads, instead of expanding the market for Vermont wool, opened it to competition from the west where it cost half as much to raise sheep. The few remaining Merino farms survived by raising breeding stock and selling it to the rest of the country. The hill farms, however, turned to dairy as did many in the valleys. The milk trains expanded the market for milk and milk products to the rest of the northeast.

In the last hundred years the hillsides have regrown – not before years of terrible flooding due to lack of trees to slow runoff. Vermont began to look like Vermont looks now, a vista of mountains seen over cultivated fields. It’s very pretty. It’s what we’re used to. And it’s not sustainable!

What we’re doing now isn’t working

According to Vermont Auditor of Accounts Doug Hoffer, the State of Vermont spent $285 million between 2010 and 2019 on programs to support dairy farming. During that period the number of dairy farms declined from 1015 to 636. Some of the decline is due to consolidation but most is simply farms going out of business.

IMO the state programs are counter-productive and have actually hurt the industry they are meant to help. The underlying problem is that there is not enough demand to support a price for milk greater than the cost of production. Keeping money-losing farms in business makes it harder for those with better economics to succeed. The more milk that is taken off the market by farms going out of business, the better the chance of the most efficient farms being able to flourish. At best, the state programs are postponing the inevitable. At worst, they’re exacerbating the problem of over supply.

The dairy industry is also subsidized in other not so obvious ways. It doesn’t pay nearly the full cost of cleaning up the damage agricultural runoff has done to the lakes of Vermont nor can it afford to take the measures necessary to prevent current pollution. It is an open secret that the industry depends on the state and the feds turning a blind eye to the illegal and exploitable immigrants who are the only people willing to do the hard work of dairy farming for the low wages the industry can afford.

Milk sales are only 1.3% of Vermont’s domestic product according to Hoffer; it is not clear how much of that would be lost if unprofitable farms closed even faster than they are. There would still be plenty of milk for Cabot to make cheese and Ben and Jerry to make ice cream. There is an argument that, if the farms were to turn into shopping centers and condos, the tourist industry would suffer and those of us whom love the Vermont “look” would be disappointed and perhaps move away.

The answer is what it has always been: Change Crops

We can keep most Vermont farmland productively in agriculture if we do what has been done so many times before: change to a profitable crop. Failing dairy farms should be converted to a combination of forest land and housing. Vermont will look different with more trees and less open pasture, cornfields, and hay fields along its highways; but adaptation is necessary.

Most farms consist of a central area near a road where the house, barn, and other outbuildings are – not to mention the heap of silage with the old tires on top. The rest of the farm is fields used to raise hay or corn or for grazing (not so much anymore). The central areas are very suitable to developing housing which will be at least as scenic as a tumbledown barn. Depending on the location, it could be medium density naturally affordable housing or more expensive housing for those who want to live surrounded by a woods full of recreational opportunity. The fields become forest.

Trees take carbon out of the atmosphere and sequester it in the ground where it improves the soil. Dairy farms are a major source of methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas. Forests are resilient to climate change because they reduce runoff in extreme weather events and provide local cooling.  Wood buildings are making a comeback because the wood used for construction keeps carbon locked up while concrete production is a huge emitter of greenhouse gasses.  Forest land is used more and more often for recreation including biking, hiking, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling. That use will more than compensate for the loss of some open vistas both to those of us who live here and potential visitors.

If the combination of revenue from some development, wood harvesting, carbon credits for the carbon sequestered by the trees is large enough, the land can be sold for enough to allow selling farm families a happy retirement – or a chance to go into the forestry business. My hope is that with some change of regulations and permitting reform, private capital and the opportunity for profit can make this conversion to a wood crop a sustainable program without the need for constant subsidy. That’s yet to be proven and I’ll write more about the opportunities and the challenges.

If government money is needed, we have some available if we stop subsidizing failing dairy farms. We have more available in federal reforestation funds in the infrastructure bill which already passed. The Vermont legislature should be looking at support for reforestation as a much more effective way of reducing Vermont greenhouse gas emissions than subsidizing electric cars for rich people or increasing the cost of energy for everyone.

Preserving the status quo – even a scenic status quo – is not an option. Changing crops as the world changes has always been the Vermont tradition.

See also:

Trees v. Solar Panels

Trees Are the Right End of the Stick for CO2 Reduction in Vermont

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