An art dealer-turned-Addison County farmer argues the economics of organic milk
The complex economics of dairy farming can be confounding to anyone, including dairy farmers themselves. For decades, assorted agriculture experts have been trying to untangle a system that is choking small-scale milk producers in Vermont. Their efforts have done nothing, however, to stem the decline of family dairy farming and the concurrent disappearance of a way of life.
Leave it to an unlikely source — a former Park Avenue art dealer — to unravel the complications and arrive at what appears to be an elegantly simple solution: facilitate a switchover to organic milk production.
James Maroney, who moved from Manhattan to an 800-acre Addison County dairy farm in 1986, has outlined a five-step approach to successful dairying. It has yet to find a publisher, but in the meantime, Middlebury College's Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy and other analyses of the environmental meltdown, calls Maroney's 90-page website treatise "a new way to think about Vermont dairying . . . Candidates for governor should have to pass a quiz on the contents of this volume."
Maroney, 64, discussed his work during a recent kitchen-table interview in the old hilltop farmhouse in Leicester that he shares with his wife, Suki Fredericks. His earnest, animated manner complements the writing style of his book, 5 Solutions to Vermont's Farm Crisis: The Omnivore's Fundamental Dilemma.
SEVEN DAYS: Can you first explain why you moved to this farm?
JAMES MARONEY: Suki and I bought it in 1986 from what was essentially a corporation that called the farm Agrivalley. We moved from Park Avenue and 74th Street because we wanted to leave New York and raise our family on a farm. We believed in the pastoral ideal.
In those first years we were running what was arguably the biggest organic dairy farm in Vermont. Organic milk really didn't exist back then. People hadn't even heard of it. We were producing 2 million pounds a year of organic milk until 1995, when our barn burned down and we got out of dairying directly. We still sell organic hay and lease some of the land to a farmer who keeps 125 heifers here.
We renamed the place Oliver Hill Farm in homage to its founders — two bachelor brothers named Oliver.
SD: So what made you decide to weigh in on the politics of dairy farming in Vermont?
JM: It's something I've studied over the past several years because I care greatly about this way of life. I talked to a lot of farmers and so-called experts and became familiar with the history of the issue. I focused on the state government's Vermont Milk Commission that was established in 2002 but didn't actually convene for a few years, and eventually produced a report in January 2008 that presents all the same ineffective ideas that have been put out for the past 50 years.
It calls for more farm expansion and greater efficiency as the way to preserve the dairy industry in Vermont. The guys behind this envision getting to the point where there are 10 to 20 huge farms that produce virtually all the milk in the state. That's not how most Vermonters look at dairy farming, and it's not how we're going to solve the economic problems that are destroying family dairy farms in the state.
One of the reasons for the problem's persistence is that all the governors in Vermont's recent history, including Democrats Madeleine Kunin and Howard Dean, have named agriculture commissioners from the political right. They've been dominating the debate on how farming should be conducted in this state.
And look at the results: We had about 4500 dairy farms in the 1940s and we're down to 1100 now. Also, 2006 was the worst year for dairy farmers in Vermont in the past two generations. The industry lost $100 million that year, which is the latest that we have statistics for. The state's answer was to provide $11 million in relief payments for the farmers, divided up on the basis of the size of production, so the smaller producers actually didn't get much.
That's still a huge amount of money for a state as small as ours to be providing. But it's like saying that there's a guy drowning in 10 feet of water, so we'll lift him up so he's only drowning in 9 feet of water.
SD: The basic problem is that dairy farmers don't get a fair return on their investments and their labor, right?
JM: Everybody in the milk business in this state and nationally is making money, except for the dairy farmer. That's a basic reason why the status quo is so locked in.
The consumers also don't understand the situation. They see there's no shortage of milk and they wonder why farmers are always complaining. They don't get why small farms keep going out of business.
Consumers also don't distinguish between the food system and the farming system. The latter refers to the processing, packaging, distribution and retailing of food, which is a lot different than growing it. I'm concerned with the farming system, which is what distinguishes my book from Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. His solution for the blandness and unhealthful quality of mass-marketed food is to find and buy food produced locally by small-scale farmers. His approach — and it's a good one — is gustatory, and mine is agricultural. That's why I borrow from Pollan in subtitling my book, The Omnivore's Fundamental Dilemma.
A key factor is that Vermont dairy farms actually turn out way, way more milk than Vermonters themselves need. We produce 2.6 billion pounds of milk a year, with 95 percent of it being shipped out of state.
Conventional milk is cheap in the stores, but it isn't going to stay that way much longer. Agriculture of all kinds depends heavily on oil. Very few people realize their food is actually oil in another form. And as the price of oil soars, the price of food is getting higher and higher, too.
SD: So you're proposing that more Vermont dairy farmers should switch to organic production because that kind of milk brings a much higher price than conventional and is also more in keeping with what Pollan writes about?
JM: Sales of organic milk in this country are growing by about 25 percent a year, and farmers get about 50 percent more for organic milk than for conventional. So it's really bizarre that the Vermont Milk Commission warned in its report that dairy farmers should not regard organic milk production as a "panacea."
We've got this largely unspoiled rural landscape that's ideal for agriculture and that appeals greatly to tourists. We're also close to two of the most affluent markets in the country: Boston and New York. So why not capitalize on our assets by providing much more support for organic dairy farming? We could certainly help farmers stay in business and encourage young Vermonters to get into farming by helping them produce milk that's free of growth hormones and isn't produced in factory settings.
Think of the market there would be for "Vermont Certified Organic Fair Trade Milk."
There would also be a huge plus for the entire economy of the state. There's a multiplier effect — when farmers are doing better, all their suppliers do better as well, which helps spread the money around Vermont. Right now we're all suffering from a negative multiplier: Everyone in Vermont is doing less well economically because farmers are doing so badly.
SD: So why aren't more Vermont dairy farmers making the switch? Organic still accounts for only about 10 percent of the dairy farms in the state.
JM: Government isn't going to facilitate the changeover because most stakeholders are happy with the way things are. Official thinking about agriculture also has a right-wing complexion. And no democratic system is going to boost the price of food in order to boost the income of farmers when they make up less than 1 percent of the population.
A lot of dairy farmers are themselves afraid to go organic because it's such a macho vocation. They've got all these big machines — big tractors, big barns, big cows — and they're even proud of their big debt.
It's really ironic because agricola, the Latin word for farmer, is feminine.
Transitioning to organic is also expensive. It can take three years to get certified organic if you're growing hay to feed your cows. Farmers also can't produce as much product using organic methods as they can by conventional means. Organic grain is expensive as well.
SD: So how do we get from where we are to where we should be?
JM: The state can and should provide much more financial and technical support to help dairy farmers transition to organic. The model here could be the Vermont Telecommunications Authority that the legislature created to help bring broadband Internet services to remote parts of the state. I would substitute the name "Vermont Milk Authority" and have it provide incentives for promoting the switchover to organic production. The aim should be to enable incredibly hardworking small dairy farmers to earn a middle-class income. That's not asking a lot.
Capital for a new, in-state organic milk production facility could be raised through a sort of statewide Community Supported Agriculture system. Subscribers would receive milk as dividends for their investment in this CSA. If someone put in $5000, say, the yield would be $300 worth of milk a year — which is a 6 percent return and enough to cover a family of four's annual consumption.
I set all this out in detail in my book. Anyone interested in joining the discussion should give it a look.