Falling dairy subsidies threaten farms and tourism in Vermont

The ``Irish farm,'' as it is locally known, is one of Vermont's most beautiful. Its 800 acres of meadow, pasture, maples, and stone walls roll away toward the main ridge of the Green Mountains. Television viewers across the United States have seen it the past three Christmas seasons as the setting for an advertiser's ``Christmas card to the nation'' -- with a horse-drawn sleigh jingling across a snowy Vermont landscape toward the farmhouse.

But the Irish farm has another distinction. Like many across the United States, it is threatened with financial failure. And, in turn, most Vermont officials agree, that poses a threat to the state's vital tourist industry.

The Irish farm lies in the heart of Vermont's Mad River Valley, once famous for dairy farming but now best known as the home of major ski areas like Mad River Glen, Sugarbush, and Glen Ellen. Few working farms remain.

Edward Eurich, who owns this particular farm, pronounces his name ``Irish.'' Hence, it has become the Irish farm. Mr. Eurich, who has been a farmer for 40 years and twice served as Vermont's commissioner of agriculture, says his farm may not be a farm much longer. He explains that a number of factors weigh heavily against his farming future. One is a recent local tax assessment that boosted the farm's fair market value. Another is ``the high cost of everything.''

But the factor Eurich sees as most significant is the drastic drop in recent years in the level of federal milk price supports. In Vermont there is a widely held feeling that the depletion of milk price supports is an arrow aimed not only at the heart of Vermont dairy farming, but also at the heart of a much wider segment of the state's economy.

Vermont farmers watch the political battle in Washington over federal farm supports with deep sympathy for their compatriots in the Midwest. But there is a feeling here that the result of the Reagan administration's effort to get the federal government out of the farm price support business might eventually hit a broader spectrum of the Northeast's economy than the Midwest's.

US Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D) of Vermont, long been known in Washington as a spokesman for farmers, sees the 1985 farm bill now being debated as crucial to farming in his home state and, perhaps, to farming in the entire Northeast. Senator Leahy sees the farm bill not only as a piece of legislation that can decide the fate of dozens of small Vermont farms, but also as a key to the health of his state's economy.

If the farms fail, according to Leahy, Vermont's overall economy could be dealt a severe blow. For with the death of the farms could go the picturesque Vermont landscapes of open fields and tree-covered hills, the type of landscape that the official state magazine, Vermont Life, sells.

Thus, Leahy said recently, ``If agriculture fails, we're going to lose a lot that attracts tourists and high-tech industry.''

A Leahy aide notes that one of President Reagan's first acts after taking office was to eliminate the twice-yearly adjustments in milk price supports. Those supports immediately began dropping. In 1980, according to the aide, farmers were paid $13.10 per hundredweight for milk, which is 80 percent of parity. Today, farmers receive $12.69 per hundredweight. With inflation and steadily rising costs, that amounts to just 56 percent of parity.

In Franklin County, on the plain that stretches far north to Quebec's Laurentian Mountains, George Dunsmore milks 60 cows in the little farming community of Georgia. He has just completed four years as Vermont's agriculture commissioner.

``The whole promotion of Vermont is done on an agricultural basis,'' he said recently, ``and we expect a 50 percent per hundredweight drain in milk support next April. Of course, it will accelerate the loss of marginal farms and put other farms into that category.''

Vermont Environmental Conservation Secretary Leonard U. Wilson, like Eurich a Mad River Valley resident, said recently, ``There is clearly a point below which price drops bust the farmer. Remember, much of back-country New Hampshire looked like Vermont once. Now you see tumbled-down barns, old chicken coops, brush.''

During the past 10 years, Vermont has lost 10 percent of its working farms, according to Frank Sadowski, a member of the Vermont Planning Office. He said recently, ``I don't really see the price support cuts as having catastrophic effects on the dairy industry, but maybe on the tourist industry.''

Mr. Sadowski says he believes dairy support declines will most likely drive some marginal upland farms out of business. Their little patches of open land, white farmhouses, and red barns are all that keeps much of scenic upland Vermont from being taken over by trees and brush.

Figures from the most recent federal census are not promising in terms of Vermont's farming future. From 1978-82, the number of working farms in the state dropped from about 7,000 to around 6,300. Farmland in production decreased about 100,000 acres. Small farms failed faster than big farms.

Vermont's new governor, Democrat Madeleine Kunin, said recently: ``There is no thought-out agriculture policy in Washington. Nobody has given any thought to the broad effects of cuts in the dairy price system.

``Agriculture is only 3 to 4 percent of the Vermont economy, but it touches all aspects of it.''

Governor Kunin said that while she is not wedded to the present farm price support system, she does feel certain that farmers need substantial federal help.

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