Got Local Milk?
A free-ranging dairy discussion with ag expert Anthony Pollina
The biggest irony in Vermont's growing localvore movement: Milk, the state's best known food, is rarely "local." Gone are the days when you could buy a fresh quart from the farmer down the road. Bottling plants are also on the endangered list. Almost every drop of Vermont milk, including organic, is pasteurized, homogenized and shipped to points south before it is mingled, packaged and brought back to the state in gas-guzzling trucks.
Some ag observers believe the system -- which also dictates the price farmers receive for their milk -- is hastening dairy's demise. Anthony Pollina is one of them. Long before the current crisis brought fresh, gubernatorial attention to the industry, Pollina founded Dairy Farmers of Vermont, which now draws its 300 farmer members from every county in the state. The Montpelier-based DFA is working to establish an instate processing plant that would collect, bottle and market Vermont-brand milk.
Pollina has been an activist and expert on agricultural issues for more than two decades; in the early 1980s, he launched the family-farm-friendly Rural Vermont, an organization that has consistently challenged state ag policies on issues ranging from genetically modified seeds to the dearth of local slaughterhouses. Like dairy farmers, many local meat producers often have no choice but to "process" their animals out of state, a bottom-dollar proposition. Meanwhile, Vermont restaurants can't get enough homegrown beef, chicken and lamb.
When he's not fundraising, Pollina talks about Vermont agriculture on "Equal Time," a four-times-a-week radio show on WDEV, and serves as acting chair of the Vermont Progressive Party. He has twice run unsuccessfully for statewide office as a Progressive, for governor in 2000 and lieutenant governor in 2002.
SEVEN DAYS: Governor Douglas has been airing public-service spots on radio stations urging us all to take Vermont vacations and buy locally raised food. Is it that easy?
ANTHONY POLLINA: Consuming locally produced milk isn't as simple as it might seem, or as the governor would like us to believe. The governor should address the factors that prevent Vermonters from buying truly local products. I'd tell Douglas, "If eating local is as simple as you suggest, then you should start by making the state do it and ensure that others can."
The issue with milk is that, over the past several years, there's been an incredible degree of consolidation in the dairy industry. That's led to Vermont farmers losing control of their markets. They have very limited options as to where they can sell their milk and what they get paid for it.
The national and regional consolidation has resulted in the shutting down of locally owned dairy processing plants. As early as 2000, [U.S. Senator] Pat Leahy pointed out that expanding dairy conglomerate Suiza Foods had a strategy of buying up dairy processing plants for the purpose of closing them.
Suiza merged with [Dallas-based] Dean Foods in 2001. [Dean Foods operates more than 100 plants in the United States, Spain, Portugal and Britain. The company is the leading U.S. manufacturer of soy milk as well as organic milk, following its acquisition of Horizon Organic Dairy Corp. two years ago.] Dean Foods controls 70 percent of the milk sold in our region. They don't care about Vermont or the state's dairy farmers.
Hood, which is based in the Boston area, controls 15 percent of the milk in our region. So, together you've got two big corporations with an 85 percent market share of the milk sold around here. What does that tell you about how easy it is for Vermonters to buy local milk?
SD: You're saying it's almost impossible for a large proportion of Vermonters to do the localvore thing when it comes to milk?
AP: It is impossible. And the situation won't change until Vermont rebuilds its dairy infrastructure.
The way it goes now, these conglomerates have the aim of producing as much milk as possible, as cheaply as possible. The industry doesn't care about farmers; it cares about milk. There's a big difference between the two.
Dean Foods would actually prefer to buy milk from one giant farm. It'd be cheaper for them, and that's all that matters.
SD: What about Monument Farms in Weybridge? They process their own milk.
AP: Monument Farms is one of the very few dairies left in the state that enables Vermonters to say they're drinking truly local milk. There's also Thomas Dairy [in Rutland] and Strafford [Organic Creamery], but these are small operations that can supply only a small percentage of Vermonters.
A lot of people think Booth Brothers sells only Vermont milk, but it's actually been owned by Hood for some time, so its milk gets mingled with other states'.
SD: How about Cabot? Isn't its milk from local sources?
AP: When you're buying from Cabot, you're buying products made with milk from Vermont and from other states in the region. Cabot is owned by Agri-Mark [which is based in Massachusetts].
SD: But Cabot has the image of being a locally owned co-operative. Are you saying Vermont dairy co-ops are complicit in making it hard for Vermonters to buy milk produced in the state?
AP: The St. Albans Co-op is another case like Cabot. Co-ops in Vermont have been swept up -- or blindly allowed themselves to be swept up -- in the wave of consolidation in the dairy industry. They've bought into the industry model of milk as merely a commodity. That's not the Vermont model, or at least it's not what most Vermonters would want the state model to be.
We need to escape from that way of thinking. Milk can be made into more than a commodity by adding value to it. The Vermont name alone is a highly effective way of adding value. We've seen it happen with maple syrup, teddy bears and even coffee.
We know consumers in this state and in many other states will reach for, and pay more for, products they know are made in Vermont. Throughout this region, consumers see Vermont farmers as being their local farmers.
SD: So a certified, made-in-Vermont label would make a big difference?
AP: Absolutely. And we can do it by segregating Vermont milk from that of other states. Having a certified Vermont label would suggest to consumers that it's a higher-quality product -- that it's going to be BGH-free, for example. [Bovine growth hormone is a genetically engineered stimulant to cows' milk production. It is used by many large and mid-size dairy farms, including some in Vermont.]
SD: You said Douglas could make it simple for Vermonters to buy genuinely local milk. What steps should he and the legislature take?
AP: The first would be for the State of Vermont to support its dairy farmers by buying their milk. The state refuses to do that now. They claim it's too complicated to find a sufficient supply of local milk; they're right about that.
State officials should be called on this. They should be publicly confronted with the task of trying to buy local milk, and they'd then be embarrassed when Vermonters saw how difficult it really is.
If the State of Vermont wanted to have a real impact on the dairy crisis, they could make it possible to buy 100 percent Vermont milk for state institutions such as schools and prisons. They could also use political and financial leverage to get semi-public institutions like Fletcher Allen and UVM to buy milk. Big private employers like IBM and National Life could be urged to do the same thing. Vermont institutions and companies could also agree to pay farmers a steady and fair price for their milk. The money would then stay in our own communities instead of going to some faceless corporation in who knows where.
SD: That's what three food co-ops -- in Burlington, Middlebury and Montpelier -- have just started doing with Monument Farms. They're selling Vermont-produced milk with its own label and have made a deal with Monument Farms so that the producer is guaranteed a fair price.
AP: Yes, the co-ops' milk initiative shows it can be done at some scale. It's not going to be possible to make their milk available to large numbers of Vermonters, but it's a good start.
SD: What would it take to enable most Vermonters to buy milk produced entirely by farmers in the state?
AP: If there was a sizable dairy processing plant in the state committed to doing business only with Vermont farmers and paying them a reasonable price, then we'd be on the way to having it happen.
It's not possible now, though, because, again, we've lost the infrastructure.
SD: Is that what your own organization is trying to achieve -- to help rebuild the dairy infrastructure in Vermont?
AP: Yes, we'd like to see Vermont get to the point where one or more processing plants were operating in the state and producing only certified Vermont milk.
SD: Have you tried to get the Douglas administration to see the situation from your perspective?
AP: Many times. But they're not seeing it. They react to a crisis like the one facing farmers now by coming up with short-term fixes like providing a temporary price subsidy. They're also approaching the marketing issue in a really inappropriate way.
Vermont is talking with New York and Pennsylvania about jointly promoting milk from the three states. But we don't help market maple syrup from New York. So why should we help sell milk from states that are much bigger producers?
SD: Does everything you're saying apply to organic as well as conventional milk? There's a view that organic milk is somehow associated with Vermont.
AP: The organic dairy industry has actually consolidated more quickly than what's happened in the conventional industry. Organic Cow of Vermont is now owned by Dean Foods -- same as Horizon. Organic Cow actually had to drop the "Vermont" part of its name. It now presents itself as any other national organic dairy.
Organic Valley [a Wisconsin-based cooperative of organic dairy farmers] is trying hard to do the right thing. They'd like the milk sold in Vermont to be entirely from Vermont farms, but they also face the obstacle of having no access to processing plants in Vermont.
Organic milk from Vermont goes to New York or Connecticut to be bottled and is brought back to Vermont after being mingled with organic milk from other states.
SD: Given Vermont's size and the political power of the dairy industry -- and with two companies controlling 85 percent of milk sold in Vermont -- isn't this idea of building an in-state processing infrastructure pretty utopian? There's no way Dean Foods is going to allow its market share to be cut, right?
AP: It's not utopian. We're talking about coming up with about $5 million. That would be enough to make consumption of truly local milk possible on a significant scale. You could open one or two bottling plants in Vermont with that kind of money.
I think Vermonters would get behind such an investment. Look at how much the state wants to spend on the Circ Highway. Look at the size of subsidies it gives companies like Husky for locating in Vermont. Look at the money the state puts into promoting the ski industry and tourism in general.
We also directly spend taxpayers' dollars on land conservation. There's nothing wrong with that, but the state could also spend money on a dairy infrastructure that would allow Vermont farmers to stay in business and conserve their own land.
SD: What do state officials say when you make this case to them? How come they don't adopt your logic?
AP: I recently told people from the Ag Department that if they're interested, I could present the Dairy Task Force with engineering plans, floor plans, construction plans, whatever kind of plans they want for a dairy processing plant.
They said, "Well, that idea has come up, but it's not a priority."
The Ag Department doesn't know how to think creatively. Like it or not, they're part of the whole system that's destabilizing agriculture in Vermont. To do what we're talking about would mean moving outside the industrialization paradigm for agriculture. And that would mean having to confront the industry's leaders. They'd have to take on Agri-Mark and Dean Foods, and they don't want to do that.
SD: What about the farmers themselves? Dairy may be a dying industry in Vermont, but farmers are still a major political constituency. Why don't the farmers get engaged with this infrastructure proposal you're pushing?
AP: I know a lot of dairy farmers in Vermont, and I don't think there's a single one of them who'd say this isn't an idea worth trying. There needs to be better leadership in the dairy community. Right now, farmers are hurting so much it's hard for them to come up with any kind of capital investment.
The average farm in Vermont that's milking 100 cows is expecting to see a $60,000 reduction in income this year, along with an added $20,000 in fuel and fertilizer costs. That's overwhelming. Farmers can only focus on somehow making it through the immediate future.
SD: Why has the price of milk paid to Vermont farmers fallen so much?
AP: The dairy industry will say it's because production is up in other parts of the country and that's driving down prices. I say it's because of monopolization of the market resulting from the consolidation I spoke of earlier.
SD: The state is going to provide $8.5 million in emergency assistance to dairy farmers because of low prices and the bad weather. That should make a difference, right?
AP: The state doesn't have an effective response at all to what's happening. Why does the state government stand by and expect it's OK for farmers to sell milk at prices below their production costs?
How can politicians have the chutzpah to praise farmers for all their hard work and perseverance after the politicians have given their own selves raises?
We're loving Vermont farmers, all right -- loving them to death. All this stuff about how great farmers are doesn't put a penny in their pockets. Sending them subsidy checks is a nice thing to do, but it's not very empowering. If anything, it creates reliance on the way things are done now.
And who's going to stand up and say the dairy industry in Vermont is doing really well with the way things are now?
SD: Say more about why state politicians and officials don't see it your way.
AP: They've got a very conservative, pro-business, pro-globalization view of agriculture. And it's clearly the wrong view. It's the view that's gotten Vermont dairy farmers to the point of collapse.
SD: OK, let's assume the state itself isn't going to do what you want. But can't big institutions help? UVM, for example?
AP: It's possible they could, but in UVM's case it would mean confronting Sodexho [the Maryland-based corporation that services its dining halls; it ranks as the largest food and facilities-management operation in the country]. UVM can negotiate with Sodexho about what it buys for the dining halls. UVM could tell Sodexho it won't renew its contract unless Sodexho agrees to buy certain products -- like Vermont milk.
Other universities are doing this sort of thing. Dartmouth, for example, is supporting local agriculture more effectively than UVM.
SD: But then we come back to the point about there not being a dairy infrastructure in Vermont.
AP: Right. But UVM and others could certainly invest in it, could certainly help raise the needed money. It wouldn't take long to get the infrastructure in place. Vermont milk would be available to UVM next spring or the year after if they invested in it now.
SD: It sounds like you're suggesting that buying local milk isn't only politically correct but essential to the survival of the dairy industry in Vermont. There are only about 1200 dairy farms left in the state.
AP: Yeah, and 30 or 40 have gone out so far this year. The state is either going to admit and correct a huge mistake -- which was allowing the infrastructure to be lost -- or it's going to say good-bye to the Vermont dairy industry.
I'm not saying the state should build and operate a dairy processing plant. I'm saying the state should make the capital available to co-ops at no cost.
If something like that doesn't happen, the dairy industry as we know it is absolutely going to disappear in Vermont. There will continue to be some large farms, but with milk prices expected to stay very low for at least another year, there's so much discouragement that hundreds and hundreds of dairy farms are now at serious risk of going under.
SD: The state is contributing to the death of its dairy industry, in other words.
AP: Steve Kerr [head of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture] says we need to look in the mirror and acknowledge that we live in the real world. His solution is for Vermont farmers to make more milk. He wants them to do this at a time when they're getting $3 less per hundredweight than two years ago.
The state's leadership is out to lunch on this issue.
SD: Does the same set of dynamics apply to other Vermont ag products -- meat, for instance?
AP: It's essentially the same. Institutions like UVM are locked into national food services that are in turn locked into national markets. I was at a meeting not long ago where Sodexho was asked about buying chopped meat from Vermont suppliers. The company said they were very limited in where they could buy meat.
It's circular reasoning. UVM and other institutions should break the lock. That's all there is to it.
SD: What would it take for a local grower like David Miskell to be able to sell his tomatoes to UVM?
AP: We asked that question at a meeting a year ago and were told by Sodexho that a truck would have to take Miskell's tomatoes to Massachusetts where they'd be reloaded with other tomatoes and driven back.
Think about how completely antithetical this is to sustainability.
SD: Have you suggested an alternative plan?
AP: We've proposed what we call the 2 percent for Vermont solution. We're calling on institutions like UVM and Fletcher Allen to invest 2 percent of their endowments in these kinds of projects. Private businesses could do it, too. Imagine if National Life invested 2 percent of their portfolio in Vermont infrastructure.
Sodexho and others say the supply isn't available in Vermont to serve their customers here. But I can guarantee you that Vermont farmers would meet the demand if Sodexho were to change its policy.
The state could help a lot, too, of course, by buying Vermont-raised meat for its own institutions. The state could use its power to help create the market.
We lost half of our meat processing plants when Howard Dean was governor. I was there when the meat processors were pleading with the Vermont Legislature to release money to save the plants. The state could have made that investment and kept the industry viable.
SD: Misty Knoll in New Haven sells Vermont poultry. How can they do it?
AP: Misty Knoll may be the only local producer able to meet Vermont regulations, which are tougher than USDA regulations.
Other potential producers find it too difficult. American Flatbread wanted to buy chicken from a farm across the road from them in Waitsfield, but the regs prevented it from happening.
SD: What's wrong with having tough regulations? Isn't it about protecting public health?
AP: We should be doing everything we can to make it easier to sell local food. Vermont's regs are tougher than New Hampshire's, and no one I know of is saying New Hampshire's regs are inadequate.
A poultry industry is just waiting to happen in Vermont. My wife and I were involved in a survey of Vermont grocery stores and restaurants not long ago, and poultry just went off the charts in terms of local products the stores said they'd like to sell.