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Farmers, Money, Cows and Water Quality

For years, farmers have been punished by low milk prices. That hurts everyone, because farmers are central to Vermont's economy and our way of life. We need local food. We need our lands in production. In other words, we need farmers to earn a fair price for milk.

It's also essential to recognize conventional dairy has contributed significantly to our degraded water quality, as much as 50 percent of the problem. I don't blame farmers; they've been trapped in a rigged commodity market. But there is no question modern conventional dairy is polluting our water.

A few years back, to get out of a losing lawsuit about water quality, Vermont committed to the federal Environmental Protection Agency to spend as much as $2 billion over the next twenty years. That's what the EPA believes is needed to clean up our water. I think we need to explore smarter, more cost-effective solutions than the bureaucrats in Washington have considered. 

And before we ask Vermonters to contribute any more to cleaning up our water, we need to have faith our investment will work. We deserve to know beaches won't keep closing, lakefront property values won't tank and tourists will keep visiting our beautiful lakes.

Which brings me to cows. 

At the end of World War II, the heyday of Vermont dairy, we had over 11,000 farms milking about 275,000 cows. They produced 1.5 billion pounds of milk a year.

Today we have only 800 dairy farms with just 135,000 cows. But, we import over 40,000 tons of fertilizer and about the same amount of supplements/feed, which wasn't the case in the 1940s. With those additives, Vermont now produces 2.5 billion pounds of milk a year, even though we only have half the cows. This is unsustainable. 

There are three main problems: 1) The economics of conventional dairy aren't working for farmers; 2) Vermonters are already paying millions of dollars to prop up Vermont agriculture through current use and other programs; and, 3) Our water systems can't handle the phosphorous run-off.

If agriculture is 50 percent of the problem. then it should get 50 percent of the clean-up money. Let's make smart investments and gear our agricultural sector so it's profitable and supports clean water.