McClaughry: Farm report avoids phosphorus, biz model problems

Former Reagan administration farm official finds Scott admin report constructive, but disappointing

John McClaughry

Earlier this month the Scott Administration released the Report of the Governor’s Commission on the Future of Agriculture. The Report is well-written and constructive, but for many people seriously concerned with this subject, it is likely to be a disappointment.

John McClaughry

The 33-page Report purports to chart a path forward to cope with today’s crucial challenges and opportunities. It does a good job explaining that “agriculture is a principal engine for Vermont’s rural economy”, and that our farming sector – especially its largest component, dairy farming – is essential to preserving Vermont’s scenery and indeed its iconic character. Point taken.

At the onset it notes, correctly, that Vermont’s dairy sector is under threat from a confluence of factors mostly outside the state’s control. A footnote explains that these include a long-term decline in conventional milk prices due to production efficiencies and evolving consumer preferences, a rigid (that is, insufficient) USDA pricing regime, a national market with returns to scale that favor larger farms from other regions of the country, and decisions from regional producers to consolidate their supply chains.

Given all that, the Report assembles a long list of coping strategies, which together promise a “robust commitment to investing in appropriate projects and policies”. These include, for example, Payments for Ecosystem Services, Farm Enterprise Ownership Purchasing Assistance, a Farm and Forest Viability Project, the Working Lands Enterprise Fund, a streamlined regulatory process, and so on – so many that the Report recommends funding a skilled “navigator” to help farmers get everything they qualify for. 

These new initiatives to produce a healthy, diverse, and resilient agricultural ecosystem will require $31 million in early grant funds, plus $59 million more over five years, to supply a long list of services to dairy farmers. From where? That awkward question is not recognized.

This is not to suggest that all these proposed programs are worthless. Far from it. A renewed Strategic Brand Initiative to promote premium prices for Vermont-made products should be well worth the requested  $250,000 expenditure. Strengthening the Current Use program to protect operating farms from development-driven property tax burdens is well worth doing. But the great bulk of the spending – often described as “investment” – is built on the model of the concerned government doing all sorts of things to keep an economically imperiled sector of the economy afloat.

Here are four reasons why this report is something of a disappointment to me.

Nowhere does the report take cognizance of a multitude of Federal programs to boost the agriculture sector and its associated rural economy. The venerable UVM Extension Service and the Farm Service Administration, Yankee Farm Credit and Vermont Agricultural Credit Corporation are not mentioned.

America’s dairy sector is producing more milk than America’s consumers want. Last year’s 2.654 billion pounds is, despite population growth, the same as national milk production in 2012, and ten percent below the record high level in 2017. Even after federal government efforts to buy up surplus milk to sustain higher prices, the price many farmers get in many years is below their cost of production.

Big well-capitalized dairies enjoy efficiencies that keep them in the black, but small and medium dairy farms are often hanging on at the margin, or kept afloat by family off-farm employment. The Report avoids any critique of the prevailing industrial dairy business model – large freestall barns, heavy equipment, 20,000+ pounds a year of production from hard driven cows, reliance on migrant labor, and purchased feed and fertilizer. The alternative of low-input grass-based New Zealand style dairy farming, with its notably lower cost of production, is not mentioned, let alone recommended.

And then there’s the billion dollar problem for which Vermont is under the gun of the Federal EPA: phosphorus from fertilized fields running into the lakes – notably Lake Champlain. Dairy farming is not the only source of the phosphorus, but it’s the largest. 

It’s not as if state government isn’t working to ameliorate this problem. The Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets and the Agency of Natural Resources are working together to find a solution. The choices are: stop applying fertilizer, dredge the alluvial fans and treat the Lake to neutralize the phosphorus, or extract the phosphorus from the cycle and ship it out of the watershed to phosphorus-deficient places that need it, or as dewatered manure fuel logs. But no discussion of this crucial problem appears in the Report. The word “pollution” appears only in a list of concerns on Page 2.

The Report is well intended, but it stops short of explaining how the proliferating assortment of proposed new state programs will solve the dairy sector’s current and impending problems, and convincingly justifying the expenditure of millions of tax dollars.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute. He was Executive Secretary of the Cabinet Council on Food and Agriculture in the Reagan White House.

Categories: Commentary

4 replies »

  1. As usual kicking the can down the road for cow manure.. guessing the quality of our lakes and rivers is not important enough to mention.. all I need do is travel on route 105 and look over to the Missisquoi river, to know manure leaking into our waterways is a big problem! The water in the river is chocolate brown!!

  2. A few years ago at a televised forum on water quality featuring Canadians, one well-credentialed panelist made the point that the single best thing farmers could do to improve water quality is to stop growing corn. Makes a lot of sense. Cows are made to eat grass, not corn. Corn’s typical large farm requirements introduce huge quantities of chemicals and fertilizers to run off into the Lake, and produces a crop that cows aren’t designed to eat anyway.

  3. Liquid Manure …….started ohhh…70’s-80’s I’m not exactly sure but I do know whey back when my father who had farmed his whole life…..saw this pollution coming and talked about it alot! this was before it took hold…….and what i see now is place after place with liquid pits way to close to waterways……and spreading this stuff works great and absorbs so long as its not too wet, or too dry, or frozen……..ummm we do live in Vermont where one of those scenario’s is common most of the time……….just sayin

  4. We have nothing that adequately replaces fossil fuels – NOTHING!!

    Even fossil powered wood chipper or pellet maker, wood requires chain saws, big trucks tree grappelers, more trucks, ALL on woods roads created by fossil power Then a million pound train to deliver chips – powered by diesel fuel, just to a single user, Burlington Electric.

    Even more $$$ for pellets for home use

    Cut spilt and dry will rocket in price, and we don’t have nearly enough businesses to cover every home in Vermont.

    “Fossil Free?” is a bad joke or an EVIL purposeful lie!

    Nobody is asking about home heating fuel oil at $5 a gallon. 275 gallon fuel tank is $$$ 1375 bucks, and that several time a winter !!

    No more $200 fillups for the rich or the poor !!