Everybody knows what's new in Vermont agriculture. It's the small farm, the niche market, the "artisanal" cheese-maker, the "farm-to-plate" producer growing food sold to the increasing corps of "localvores," a word that did not exist a decade ago and is now part of the everyday lexicon.
As is often the case, what "everybody knows" isn't exactly true.
Oh, it isn't exactly false, either. That "very upstart agriculture," as one local farming expert put it, is thriving and growing in Vermont even more than in most other states.
From one perspective, it may seem strange to say that dairy agriculture is "growing" in Vermont, where the demise of another milking operation seems almost a daily occurrence.
But those are the small and medium-sized farms. Like farming (and many other businesses) elsewhere, Vermont dairy farming is not diminishing; it's consolidating. There are more cows being milked, but on fewer farms. What farm economists call "industrial agriculture," is becoming more industrial, more centralized, more dominant.
In fact, perhaps the most significant development in Vermont agriculture is the increasing supremacy of the "factory farm," the gigantic spread milking 1,000 or more cows whose hooves rarely touch natural ground and whose teeth never munch grass.
According to Food & Water Watch, a Washington-based advocacy group, dairy farming is even more consolidated in Vermont and elsewhere in the Northeast than in the rest of the country, even if a big Vermont dairy farm would seem puny compared to some 20,000-cow operations out west.
"We think it's partly because of concentrated buyer power," said Patrick Woodall, the organization's research director. In any business, a giant, dominant, buyer (in this case the milk processor) encourages development of giant, dominant producers. In the Northeast, Dean Foods last year effectively acknowledged that it comes close to monopolizing the dairy processing business. With no real competitors to bid up the price of their product, dairy farmers have little choice but to get as big as they can, so they can produce as much as they can.
By Food & Water Watch's assessment, the "density level" of factory farm in two Vermont counties – Addison and Franklin – is "extreme" while it is "severe" in Orleans County and 'high" in Orange and Windham Counties. Factory farms, Food & Water Watch argues, are more likely to overuse antibiotics in their animals, pollute the air and water, force farmers to "get big or get out," and lead to "corporate control" of agriculture.
Those are value judgments, as is the "factory farm" label itself. Food & Water Watch's facts – based on U.S. Department of Agriculture census figures – are accurate, and its description of the increased dominance of "factory farms" is significant. Its value judgments – like those of all advocacy groups – are open to debate, and at least in Vermont's case, one of its fears – the one about corporate dominance – appears to be misplaced.
"All Vermont farms are family farms," said Marie Audet, the business manager of Blue Spruce Farms in Bridport.
Hers certainly is. Her father-in-law, Norman Audet, started the farm in 1958, milking 35 cows. She, her husband, his two brothers and one brother-in-law now run it. Her son and one nephew are working there, and will probably take over one day. It's a real family operation.
It's also a real big operation, with 2,400 cows, half of them being milked, the other half younger animals who will one day be milked. The farm now covers 3,000 acres (not contiguous), most of it used for growing the corn and hay the cows eat.
Because corn and hay are not a cow's natural food, some large beef and dairy operations routinely inject their animals with antibiotics to keep them from bloat or other digestive ailments. Hence Food & Water Watch's concern about excessive antibiotics in livestock.
At Blue Spruce, Audet said, only a sick cow gets antibiotics.
"We have very specific protocols to ensure that no antibiotics enter the food supply," she said. "Dairy farmers, as well as anyone, are aware of the possible effects the over-use of antibiotics can have."
If Blue Spruce Farm is a "factory," it's a locally-owned factory that sells its product in Vermont. Every day at least one truck comes to the farm and takes the milk, Audet said, "eight miles down the road to Middlebury at the Agrimark/Cabot Cheese plant."
To be sure, the Cheddar cheese the plant produces goes everywhere. In that sense, Blue Spruce Farm is part of the global economy. But those are Vermont jobs in Middlebury the dairy is helping create. The farm itself employs 25. So Blue Spruce creates "value-added" wealth for Vermont. It also preserves a lot of open space. Without Blue Spruce Farm, some of those 3,000 acres might be turned into housing subdivisions or an office park.
Besides, as Laura De Pietro of the State Agency of Agriculture noted, those smaller, "upstart" farms depend on the big farms because they "support the infrastructure," the feed and supply stores and the services all farms need.
Valuable and local though it is, Blue Spruce and the other big farms are "industrial." The cows at Blue Spruce Farm, Audet said, do not graze. They get a carefully calibrated and regular diet of grains so their human owners can be sure of the quality and consistency of the milk produced. The cows, by all indications well-treated, are not individuals; they are units of production.
Less than 10 miles from Blue Spruce Farm but an agricultural world away sits Golden Russet Farm, 84 acres – only ten of them actively cultivated – owned by Will Stevens and his wife, Judy. Stevens moonlights (well, also serves) as a member of the State House of Representative, an Independent representing Shoreham, Benson, Orwell, and Whiting.
The Stevens operation is part of that "upstart agriculture" that Dave Rogers, former lecturer at the University of Vermont's College of Agriculture and Life Science, now a policy advisor to NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association) Vermont, said had recently "reached a critical mass of energy and political support for alternative forms of agriculture," enabling farmers like Stevens to make a living off the land.
Golden Russet's vegetables are raised organically and sold locally. "I think what we do is consistent with traditional Vermont values of local control and personal accountability," Stevens said.
Neither Rogers nor Stevens has harsh words for conventional agriculture. "We're not in the business of bashing large farms or denigrating work those farmers do," Rogers said. "They work hard trying to make a living."
Stevens does, though, have his own way of describing the difference. Not large or small, conventional or "upstart." He calls them "commodity agriculture" and "relationship agriculture." One "relationship" is with his ultimate customers. Marie Audet never knows who buys the cheese made from Blue Spruce Farm's milk. Stevens and his wife sell some of their vegetables at a farm stand.
"Relationship agriculture is not anonymous as it is in the commodity world," he said. "In the relationship world you have to present yourself to the public. You're judged on your personality to some extent, and you're required to be a marketer as well as producer."
Stevens also has a relationship with the market that Vermont's big diary farmers lack. "I have some control over my price," he said. Marie Audet, as she concedes, has none. Ironically, the farm "upstarts" with their politically liberal image, operate in a market economy, where prices are set by the interplay of supply and demand, while the big commodity dairies, often considered conservative, operate in a regulated economy, their prices set by the federal government. "We have no control over our price," Audet said. "We don't have the mechanism to respond to demand."
(All three Vermonters in Congress have proposed legislation, to alter that situation. It is not expected to go anywhere).
Both kinds of Vermont agriculture face problems. For the "upstarts," the key question seems not to be survival (though no doubt some will fade away), but survival without losing their independent, improvisational, character. Look what already happened to Stoneyfield Farm, the yogurt company that started at an organic farming school in New Hampshire and is now part of the Evian Water/Dannon Yogurt corporate empire.
David Rogers said he hoped that the new breed of farmers could avoid the "kind of squeeze that makes farmers have to get bigger to get more cash-
flow. They don't seem to be on that treadmill. They seem satisfied to be on the scale they're at or the scale where they're able to manage. That's what attracts young people to local production. The can make a living farming."
But big money is always tempting. And as the commodity farmers can attest, modern economic and technological realities (the economies of scale) tend to reward the large, centralized, enterprise, especially if it is big enough to have some influence over its market.
In the long run, the challenges facing the big commodity farms might be even more threatening. David Rogers said he thought large-scale farms might be "unsustainable economically, socially, environmentally." The big farms (and the taxpayers) spend millions to combat the pollution that thousands of cows inevitably create. But even as sympathetic an observer as the Agriculture Agency's Laura DePietro acknowledged that farms cause 40 percent of the pollution that leads to excessive algae in Lake Champlain. Forty percent isn't most. But it's a lot.
Vermont's "factory" farms also depend to some extent on federal subsidies, and as anyone who has been following the budget debate in Washington should be able to see, they may not last forever. Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican, said direct federal payments to farmers might be eliminated next year.
Farmers are often uncomfortable discussing subsidies, and like so many of them, Marie Audet said she'd rather they did not exist. But exist they do. Most of them go to the biggest farmers (81 percent of Vermont's farmers got no subsidies in 2009), and no one seems to turn them down.
According to USDA figures compiled by the Environmental Working Group, Vermont farmers got $252 million in federal subsidies from 1995 through 2009, $42,436,000 in that last year for which figures are available. The biggest checks, for $565,444, went to Mead Farms in Newport Center. Among the other recipients was the farm owned by Doug Nelson, famed for being the keeper of "Pete the Moose," whose farm got $285,215. Blue Spruce, with $221,046, was 15th highest on the Vermont list.
Could they survive without the federal aid? Probably, though Ranson Mead in Newport Center gladly concedes that he "tries to get into every government program we can so we can stay afloat." If the big farms lose
income from any source, with no control over their price they would have no choice except to try to produce even more milk, which would reduce the price of their milk (aggregate demand does affect price, even if the individual producer can not).
Most factories are easier to manage.