Pay more for milk? Initiative aims to support family farms
Keep Local Farms, a program supporting New England dairy farms, asks consumers to pay extra for milk in order to boost local family businesses, similar to fair trade practices for coffee and chocolate.
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In Wisconsin, another top dairy state, Family Farm Defenders sells fair trade cheese for about $6 a pound, guaranteeing that the farmers who provide the milk get paid $3 for every pound sold. The farmers set the price to cover the cost of production plus a living wage.Skip to next paragraph
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The group sells $30,000 to $50,000 worth of cheese each year, providing about 30 farms with an estimated $500 to $1,000 a year, executive director John Peck said. The challenge is expanding the sales, he said.
In Vermont, where farming is tied to tourism, residents want to help farmers, said Marie Audet, who with her husband owns Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport. Their farm was one of the first in the state to produce electricity from methane gas from cow manure.
Green Mountain Power customers who want to support such renewable energy projects pay a premium on their electricity bills, with the money going to help dairy farmers buy generators that run on methane.
"They don't have to do that, but they know that part of being in Vermont is the open working landscape," Ms. Audet said.
The public also rallied to help Vermont farmers after flooding from Tropical Storm Irene last August ravaged farm fields and carried away feed and even some cows. People donated money to help farmers rebuild and volunteered their physical labor.
Still, Robert Cropp, a dairy marketing specialist and professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, doubted most people would pay more for milk or other products to support family farms.
"Most consumers are far removed from the farm," Mr. Cropp said. "They don't understand agriculture and how food is produced and things of this sort."
Keep Local Farms raised $220,000 over two years. After paying taxes, it sent $100 checks to 1,370 farms — or about 75 percent of the dairies left in New England. It's rethinking that approach after hearing from farmers, and might provide grants that could help multiple farms rather than individual payments.
"We had far more success than we expected, and yet it wasn't enough to be meaningful to the pockets of dairy farmers on a long-term basis," said Gary Wheelock, executive director of the New England Dairy Promotion Board.
He added, "What we heard over and over ... was we want to enhance public understanding about who we are and what we do. The money's great, but if we don't have a license to farm, if people don't understand who we are, and our ability to farm in our local communities is reduced, it threatens the viability of our farms."