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Michael Colby & Will Allen: Sweatshop Dairy

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Will Allen and Michael Colby, who are co-founders, along with Kate Duesterberg, of Regeneration Vermont, a new nonprofit educational and advocacy organization that is working to halt the catastrophic consequences of Vermont’s adoption of degenerative, toxic and climate-threatening agricultural techniques.

Vermont agriculture exists in what seems to be two parallel universes, one in our minds and the other in reality. When people are asked to think about or imagine Vermont farming, they’ll inevitably mention grass and pastures and grazing cows, all with a perfect blue sky and just the right puffy clouds. It’s a well-marketed image, and comes attached to flavors like Cherry Garcia and slogans like “farmer owned.”

But the reality is much different. Because a vast majority of Vermont’s agriculture – more than 70 percent — is all about commodity-driven, nonorganic dairy production, where GMO crops dominate, cows are on concrete, gorged and fully dosed with an array of pharmaceuticals, fields are bathed in toxic pesticides, and our waterways are declared impaired as a result of the nitrogen and phosphorus-rich farm runoff.

Nope, these aren’t the quaint little family farms of yesteryear, the ones still dancing in your head when you imagine Vermont agriculture. It’s not that these farms don’t exist, it’s that they’re getting pinched out by the dominant industrial model, a model that is coddled by Vermont’s political and regulatory elite and subservient to Vermont’s two giant nonorganic-dairy corporations: Ben & Jerry’s and Cabot Creamery.

The success of these two dairy giants was built on two things: the backs of Vermont’s dairy farmers and some effective marketing based on an image of Vermont farming being rather pure and bucolic. The Yankee pride dictated the farmers’ wry smiles, even though they’ve been in a near-constant state of economic brinksmanship for generations, seeing so many of their family members and neighbors go under. But the myth declared that all was well in New England farm country, and so we all joined in.

It’s all folded nicely within the branding, the stories and images of the Ben & Jerry’s cows and the lush, rolling fields for Cabot’s bovines. And it’s always wrapped with a ribbon of support for the farmer, because everyone supports the farmer, right? Except, that is, when it comes time to providing them with a fair price.