I woke up on Friday and read this article in the Burlington Free Press regarding the Organic milk market growing in VT. It was a great way to start the day. I am so pleased that organic dairy farmers in Vermont have caught a bit of a break and are going to be able to produce more milk.
We have been buying organic milk consistently since last summer, when the organic milk market in Vermont was in turmoil. Vermont is a state that is known for our dairy. The small, family-owned, dairy farms that Vermont is known for are actually very much in jeopardy. We made the decision to change our buying habits to vote with our dollars and support organic dairy farmers. A key turning point in this was riding in the VT cares ride last summer. I rode past probably 10-15 dairy farms, all of which had products that I had seen in the local grocery stores, in my bike ride through central Vermont. I decided that I wanted my milk dollars to be supporting those farms. So we changed our habits and began paying more for our milk. I understand that our decision to buy OG milk is a drop in the bucket, and it’s not like we caused the organic milk market to grow. I do think that we had a small part in it, and that our actions, coupled with the decisions of many others, led to a change. I have to tell you, it feels great.
Organic Milk and VT Dairy Farms
The organic certification for milk has strict rules farms must follow regarding the health and life of the dairy cow. One rule that is a sticking point for some farmers is the cow can’t be given antibiotics if it gets sick (or has an infection), a natural tincture must be used instead (I believe that most farmers use a garlic tincture to treat infections, for example). Some farmers, which otherwise have herds that would qualify for the certification, choose not to go organic because of this rule. The cows also need to spend a certain amount of time in pasture to be certified organic. I think that the rules for organic milk seem to make sense. I also think that there are some great local farms that produce milk that don’t go for the organic certification because they want to be able to use antibiotics – so the organic certification isn’t the end-all be-all of good milk. It is, however, a pretty good indication that the milk you are drinking comes from cows that were treated well. It also tastes noticeably better.
Vermont dairy farmers have had a rough decade. For more on this, check out this great Seven Days article from last year. The price they get paid for their milk has dropped to the point that, even if they sell all of the milk they produce, they are still not breaking even. This has led to many longstanding small family farms needing to close up shop. Some farms decided to switch to organic, banking on it saving their farms. It was a gamble to do this, as there are costs associated with getting that certification. Last summer, Organic Valley, a huge organic milk co-operative that purchases and distributes organic milk from dairy farms, placed a limit on the amount of milk that the VT farms could produce, as they didn’t want to be over-producing for demand. So, dairy farmers knew going into the next dairy cycle that they weren’t going to be making enough money to pay back their costs as the amount of milk they could sell was limited. I think it’s a testament to the commitment of the farmers that have stuck around that they keep holding on and hoping things get better. This production limit was just lifted by Organic Valley, as demand is growing. I can’t tell you how happy that makes me for the dairy farmers that stuck with it. To be clear, the removal of this limit is akin to winning a battle – the war is not yet over. Even with the removal of the limit, dairy farmers are going to have razor-thin profit margins. I will continue voting with my dollar and supporting these men and women that are committed to bringing quality milk to the marketplace. I hope you do the same.
For more background on Vermont Dairy Farmers and the struggles they face, check out these two Seven Days (the local Burlington independent newspaper):
images via flickr/putneypics
Have you had any experiences where you felt the small contributions you made to something made a difference?