In The News

Peter Welch unveils new legislation to help organic dairy farmers

Nov 2, 2023

Welch announced the bill at the Choiniere Family Farm, a grass-fed organic dairy in Highgate Center. “The margins are much tighter for us, so this bill is super important,” one of the farm’s owners said.

A group of people standing next to each other in a barn.
U.S. Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., announces the introduction of a new bill that would benefit organic dairy farms alongside members of Organic Valley and the Northeast Organic Farmers Association of Vermont at the Choiniere Family Farm in Highgate. Photo by Emma Cotton/VTDigger

HIGHGATE — U.S. Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., has introduced new legislation that would give more federal support to organic dairy farmers across the country. 

Recent economic conditions have made it increasingly difficult for small, organic dairy farms to stay in business. While the organic label is designed to give certified producers a buoyed price for their product, consolidation and loopholes in the national program have made it harder for small organic producers to stay alive. Rising production costs, deflated milk prices and natural disasters have exacerbated the issue. 

“Over the last few years, we’ve gone from 195-ish organic dairy farms down to about 120-ish organic dairy farms, so the trend is quite precipitous,” said Grace Oedel, executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, which certifies Vermont’s organic farms. 

While all dairy farms have faced economic headwinds in the past several years, conventional farmers can access funding through a disaster assistance program and a safety net program, neither of which are available to organic farmers. Major brands have recently exited the region, making the situation more dire. 

Welch’s bill — which is also backed by U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; Tammy Baldwin, D-Wi.; Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; and Cory Booker, D-N.J. — proposes extending disaster assistance to organic farmers who face a net income decrease of at least 10% due to factors such as organic feed shortages and increased input costs. 

The bill would also streamline the process for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to distribute those payments. It would set up a system to collect more data about the organic dairy industry, including the costs of producing milk and the prices that producers are paid for their product. The USDA would be required to publish regular reports about organic milk that are equivalent to existing reporting requirements for conventional milk. 

“It’s essential that we have vastly improved data collection for organic dairy,” said Maddie Kempner, policy director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. “The data collection provisions in this bill are really a no-brainer.”

In addition, the bill would require the USDA to develop a proposal for an organic dairy safety net program, which is already set up for conventional farmers. 

The bill, which Welch imagines as an addition to the federal Farm Bill, has won the broad support of organic organizations across the region. Asked whether he expects the bill to receive support from his colleagues on both sides of the political aisle, Welch said there is typically broad support for agricultural initiatives. 

“The reality is that every single one of us has agricultural interest in the communities we represent,” he said. “There tends to be a lot of local support for agriculture.”

The debate, he said, is often about the type of agriculture being considered. While there’s “a lot of support for the big commodity programs that are not particularly beneficial to Vermont,” Welch said, support is growing for initiatives such as Farm to School and providing safety nets for different agricultural programs, such as organic.

Welch announced the bill at the Choiniere Family Farm, a grass-fed organic dairy in Highgate Center. 

The cost of goods is increasing, according to Guy Choiniere, one of the farm’s owners, and consumption is decreasing. “The margins are much tighter for us, so this bill is super important,” he said. 

On the exterior of one of the farm’s barns, the Choinieres had mounted a collection of awards for conservation excellence and sustainability. 

While loopholes in the national organic standards have allowed some large farms in different parts of the country to become certified while violating some of the program’s standards, Vermont farmers are held to more strict environmental rules. 

“When one dairy farm closes, those are land stewards of hundreds of acres, on average, per dairy farm,” Oedel said. “So when that land is being used organically and then it’s not, that’s a really big loss for the ecosystem, as well as food security in the state.”

Story Written by Emma Cotton, VTDigger

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