- Anne Wallace Allen ©️ Seven Days
- Sen. Peter Welch (right) in the lunch line at St. Albans City School during the listening tour
The labor shortage. Workforce housing. Milk pricing. Farm subsidy programs. Foreign trade. Climate change regulation.
Even the topic of broadband came up. Many of Vermont’s rural areas have poor internet service, and the group sought to remind Welch that this amenity is becoming more critical on farms, too, as machinery becomes more high-tech.
“We need funding for rural broadband to support precision agriculture resources,” said Paul Doton, who milks 70 cows at his family’s Doton Farm in Barnard and is on the board of the Agri-Mark dairy cooperative.
Welch's listening session was at the St. Albans offices of Dairy Farmers of America, a national marketing cooperative that buys milk from 12,500 farmers, including many in Vermont. Afterwards, he headed to the St. Albans City School, where he had lunch with the principal and superintendent and discussed the importance of using local food in educational programs.
Welch regularly handled farming issues during his 16 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. Many of the farmers’ points related to the federal Farm Bill, a large package of legislation that governs regulatory and funding matters. Congress passes a farm bill about once every five years; the latest iteration, called the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, expires this year.
Welch acknowledged that he'll have his work cut out for him in seeking to help Vermont’s dairy farmers. Vermont has been steadily losing dairy farms for years, and it’s now down to just 520 individual dairy farms, from 675 in 2019.
Some of the lost farms have merged into larger ones. Farms are also going out of business as a result of financial problems and retirements.
Ten years ago, Vermont had 212 organic dairy farms. They now number just 140, said Madison Kempner, policy director for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont.
“We’re losing them as fast as we can talk about them,” Kempner said.
Dairy farms face stiff competition from huge operations in larger states. They’re also subject to the vagaries of milk pricing formulas that, farmers say, don’t pay them enough to make a living. In August, dairy farmers filed a class action lawsuit against Dairy Farmers of America, saying it artificially lowered milk prices for the region’s farmers, according to Vermont Public.
Farmers at the meeting on Wednesday said they need more help from the state and federal government to counter rising prices for fuel, feed and other supplies.
There are also plenty of issues that don’t appear to have a direct remedy in Congress, such as the wave of farmer retirements underway and consumers' shift away from drinking milk.
Doton asked Welch to help keep flavored milk on school lunch tables. Schools starting removing chocolate milk from their offerings about a dozen years ago, citing concerns about childhood obesity, though, according to Education Week, they’re starting to bring it back.
“Make sure there aren’t bans or limits on flavored milk in school,” Doton said. “That’s something that's really important.”
Welch said he knows labor is important to farmers, too. Vermont’s unemployment rate hovers around 2 percent, and its workforce has shrunk by about 20,000 since before the pandemic. Welch said nationwide labor problems are suppressing farming so much that the U.S. is starting to lose its longtime status as a net food exporter.
“It’s not the lack of agriculture capacity to grow crops and export; that's been a strong contributor to the U.S. economy,” he said. "But ... we’re not able to produce as required. We’re starting to import food. This labor issue is really crucial.”
Also critical: climate change regulations that affect how farmers do their work, which can cost them.
“We can’t just tell farmers to do it without having a way to compensate for what the public benefit is going to be,” he said.
Some of the farm industry leaders pressed Welch to secure a seat on the Senate Agriculture Committee. Welch noted that he had served for a while on the agriculture panel in the U.S. House and added that he's spoken to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who makes committee assignments.
“He knows my interest in agriculture, I’ll put it that way,” Welch said.
Representing farmers has helped Welch build some bridges in the sharply divided Senate, he said.
“With all the controversy and the conflict in D.C. ... my work on agriculture has always been an opportunity for me to forge relationships with some of my rural colleagues, most of whom are Republicans,” he said.