Why Owning Your Own Farm Isn't Necessarily a Ticket for Financial Well-Being

These are economically tragic times for America’s farmers. This year, the average on-farm income for a farm family will be -$1,400. Yes, negative. In other words, they’re paying to produce the nation’s food and fiber. And it’s been going on for decades, all the result of a food system, from production and processing to sales and regulations, that is dominated and controlled by a handful of integrated corporate behemoths. That control, coupled with an economic model centered on the devaluation of production (farming!), has spelled nothing but doom for farmers.

While it’s happening everywhere, we live amidst its damage in Vermont, seeing firsthand the impact commodity-priced dairy is having on our agriculture. It’s a horror, really, with thousands of farms lost in the last few decades, all squeezed and pinched and eventually forced to leave the only thing they knew—working the land. And again, it’s all the result of a cheap food model, dictated by the corporate few and allowed by a largely shrugging public.

There’s plenty of money in food. It’s just not getting to the farmers. Vermont’s dairy industry, for example, is dominated by two well-known corporate giants: Ben & Jerry’s and Cabot Creamery. Last year, Ben & Jerry’s grossed around $600 million and Cabot and its parent, Agri-Mark, grossed nearly a billion dollars. Both have bragged in financial reports about how well they’re doing, with increased executive pay and all kinds of bells and whistles for the office set. Ben & Jerry’s makes so much money that they have a foundation to give some of it away.

Lost in the largesse are the farmers producing the dairy for the ice cream and cheese. An average-sized Vermont dairy farm is losing more than $100,000 a year to produce the cheap commodity milk that in turn is making Ben & Jerry’s and Cabot a lot of money—$1.6 billion between them.

It’s about more than money, too. The kind of “conventional” farming being done by these commodity-based dairy producers goes far beyond just bankrupting farmers; it also causes nearly half of Vermont’s water quality woes, creates cow burnout and disease from the brutal push for more and more production of cheap milk, promotes the use of GMO-derived feed, toxic pesticides and climate-threatening nitrogen-based fertilizers, and gives rise to social and worker justice issues relating to farm and farm workers.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Last week a broad coalition of Vermont farm, environmental and business leaders came together to deliver a solution to the state’s dairy crisis. In the form of an open letter to the governor-elect, Republican Phil Scott, the group called for a statewide transition toward regenerative and organic dairy production.

The letter was co-authored by former Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Roger Allbee and the team from Regeneration Vermont, a nonprofit organized to promote agricultural solutions to the state’s environmental, climate and economic problems. The list of co-signers included the Conservation Law Foundation, Lake Champlain International, Vermonters for a Clean Environment, VPIRG, NOFA-VT, Sierra Club (VT Chapter) and business leaders like the Alchemist Brewery, Butterworks Farm, and Chelsea Green Publishing.  

More than 200 of Vermont’s remaining 800 or so dairies have already made the transition to organic, reaping the economic benefits and addressing the ecological impact of industrial-scale animal confinement. Organic dairying, unlike conventional, requires cows to have access to pasture, giving rise to healthier cows and carbon-sequestering grassland management. 

“This transition must be started now,” the letter declares. “And the first step must be to convince the large dairy buyers like Ben & Jerry’s and Cabot Creamery that have built their brand upon the backs of the conventional dairy farmers to step up to the plate and stop participating in a model that pays their farmers less than it costs to produce the milk in their highly-profitable products. We have to change the economic formula. It’s time for Vermont’s farmers to reap the benefits of farm products that are tied to what consumers are seeking today.”

Given the tight, corporate control of all things agriculture and the national political climate, in which agricultural policy hasn’t even been mentioned in a presidential debate in 16 years, taking aim at the chief benefactors of agri-exploitation—food corporations like Ben & Jerry’s and Cabot—seems to make the most sense. As Willie Sutton liked to say, it’s where the money is.

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