Agriculture officials and farmers in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts have launched a program called Keep Local Farms to stop a trend that has seen New England lose two-thirds of its dairy farms since 1990. Organizers say they hope to appeal to consumers' growing taste for local foods, pitching dairy products from anywhere in the six-state New England region as local.
"It would mean a real change to our landscape in New Hampshire and all of New England if we were to lose a significant part of our dairy industry," said Lorraine Stuart Merrill, New Hampshire's agriculture commissioner and a dairy farmer.
As part of Keep Local Farms, organizers set up a Web site for people to make contributions, which will be divided among farmers, and are urging universities and other institutions to charge a little extra for dairy products in their cafeterias, with the proceeds going to farmers. The University of Vermont is the first to sign on.
Organizers also hope within the next year to launch a co-branding effort that would put labels on local dairy products and ask consumers to pay premiums for the locally made milk, cheese and other dairy goods.
Officials, who launched the project Monday, pointed to a sad irony in which consumer demand for local produce is taking off when the largest part of New England agriculture is withering.
Many dairy farmers say they have left the region because a highly complex federal pricing system has failed to keep pace with costs. The pricing system, which dates from the 1930s, sets a national floor price that farmers are paid for their milk, then tweaks it to respond to supply and demand in the market and different costs faced by farmers in different regions.
Farmers are getting about $11.40 per hundred pounds of milk, down from $18.72 last year, officials said, attributing much of the change to declining exports amid the global recession. Put another way, farmers are getting 97 cents for a gallon of milk that costs $1.80 on average to produce. Some stores price milk at $5 or more per gallon.
Even farmers who sell out are struggling to pay off their debts, said Rob Wheeler, who with his family milks about 60 Jersey cows and taps maple trees for syrup on his 360-acre farm in Wilmington, a small picturesque town ringed by mountainous countryside in the southern part of Vermont.
"Even the most financially sound dairy operations are in a tough situation," Wheeler said. "It's not a pretty picture for a life's work."
The commissioner of Massachusetts' Department of Agricultural Resources, Scott Soares, said the most critical part of the dairy aid plan is likely to be the co-branding effort because it will put the issue of dairy pricing directly before supermarket shoppers.
"It's a response to what we have heard from consumers wanting to pay more for milk if they have the opportunity and the assurance that that additional fee is going to go to the dairy farms directly," Soares said.
But Vermont's director of dairy policy, Diane Bothfeld, said it would take some time to get any of the major brands of milk on board. She said it's hoped that in the coming months the program will gain "more credibility, more momentum, to be able to convince processors to co-brand their product."
"It's a big step for someone to change their logo, to reach out and start co-branding with a program that's brand new," Bothfeld said.
Even if the program works as well, it's not the long-term solution for the troubles facing dairy farmers in New England and nationally, said Roger Allbee, Vermont's secretary of agriculture.
"Obviously there needs to be a change in federal dairy policy, because it's broken, it's antiquated and it needs a fix," he said.
In July, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it would temporarily raise the price paid for milk and cheddar cheese through its dairy price support program. Kelly Loftus, spokeswoman for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, said that hadn't had much of an effect on the prices farmers get for fluid milk so far.
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