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‘More than just hard work’ — Senator Welch visits Miller Farm in Vernon

Jun 14, 2024

Peter Miller, of Miller Farm in Vernon, gives U.S,. Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt.., a tur around the facility where they get milk ready for some of the local schools on Friday, June 14, 2024.
Kristopher Radder – Vermont News Media

VERNON — In the last four years, 40 percent of Vermont’s organic farms have gone out of business. That’s 70 small herd and family farms that had decades of history in the Green Mountain State’s agricultural industry.

Miller Farm in Vernon has been bucking that trend for more than 100 years, but it hasn’t been easy.

“People who go out of business now are all good farmers,” said Peter Miller, the grandson of Arthur Lyman Miller, who founded the dairy farm in 1916. “We’ve considered throwing in the towel a few times in the past few years.”

The Millers and their relations, as well as Keith Franklin, who’s been working the farm since 1987, tend 240 milking cows on 700 acres, with much of that milk going to Stonyfield Farms for its organic yogurt.

“We don’t want to ever give up on Vermont farmers,” said U.S. Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., during a visit to Miller Farm on Friday. “It’s important that we keep local dairy and local farming going. But it’s going to take more than just hard work, it’s going to take markets. What the Northeast Dairy Innovation Center is all about is coming up with creative but really practical ways to help the farmers sell their products.”

Welch said he’s been finding common ground with his colleagues in the Senate when it comes to finding ways to help small farmers survive and thrive.

“The Dairy Innovation Center is Exhibit A as to how it actually can work,” he said.

Laura Ginsburg, strategy and innovation manager with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets, said the innovation center has been dispensing grants in the Northeast since 2021.

“By the end of this year, that number will be over $50 million,” she said. “That being said, we’ve had a total request of $72 million. So we know the demand far exceeds what we’re able to fund.”

Miller Farm, with Harley Sterling, nutritional director for Windham Northeast Supervisory Union, and the Northeast Dairy Business Innovation Center developed a model to provide organic milk to eight schools in Windham County, and Miller Farm received a grant to purchase bulk pasteurizers to deliver organic milk to the students.

The Northeast Dairy Business Innovation Center has received $45 million to distribute to the region’s farmers through 2026.

Each of the pasteurizers can process 150 gallons at a time, said Miller, an amount they couldn’t do before when they were just selling to Stonyfield or bottling their own milk.

“We’ve been buying conventional milk at about four and a half dollars a gallon,” said Sterling. “We were looking at maybe twice that for organic.”

However, noted Sterling, on Thursday he audited the numbers and learned they had spent only 5 percent more on milk since getting it from Miller Farm.

Sterling said the savings can be attributed to a reduction in waste in the amount of milk students were throwing away before the switch.

“We saw almost zero waste,” he said.

“Organic is a model that allows farmers to choose to stay small if they want to and stay as a family-run operation,” said Olga Moriarty, executive director of the Northeast Organic Family Farm Partnership. She said it’s collaborative efforts like that between the innovation center, Miller Farm and WNESU that are critical to the survival of organic dairy farms.

The Northeast Organic Family Farm Partnership was formed after Horizon Organic and Maple Hill Creamery ended contracts with 135 farms.

Story Written by Bob Audette, Bennington Banner

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