Dairy farmers ready for effort to raise milk prices

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(Host) A group of Vermont dairy farmers has spent the last few months organizing an effort to increase the price of milk for the farmer. Now they’re poised to move forward, and they have their eye on an old bottling plant in Springfield.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind) Maureen Lehouillier and her husband Paul own a dairy farm in Irasburg. Like other family farmers, the Lehouilliers say the price being paid for their milk doesn’t cover what it costs to produce it. They’re borrowing money to stay afloat.

(Lehouillier) “Borrowing is pretty much the only way to stay alive right now and it’s sad. Really sad.”

(Zind) The Lehouilliers are among more than three hundred Vermont farms who have joined Dairy Farmers of Vermont. Together they produce 850 million pounds of milk annually. That’s about a third of the milk the state produces. The group spent the winter organizing and lining up support – now it’s prepared to see if it has enough clout to get it’s members a better price for their milk.

In the near future, Dairy Farmers of Vermont will begin bargaining with dairy processors in hopes of increasing the price farmers are getting. Current prices are near historic lows.

The group is also looking to eliminate the milk middleman by getting into the processing business. It has its eye on the former Idlenot bottling plant in Springfield. Anthony Pollina is coordinator for Dairy Farmers of Vermont.

(Pollina) “We’ve had people look at the plant to determine it’s feasibility and they have come back and said that it represents a great opportunity. It’s location is good. It’s price is reasonable. We would expect to have some decision made by the end of the summer.”

(Zind) Pollina says the group is still working on the financing to buy the plant. If they are successful, they would market the milk bottled in Springfield as a premium Vermont product and sell it throughout the region at a higher price.

The idea is similar to one attempted by a small group of Vermont farmers in the 1990s. They marketed their milk under the brand name Vermont Family Farms. Glenn Symon is a Shoreham farmer who was a member of the Vermont Family Farms group. Symon says there’s no question consumers in large markets like Boston and Hartford will pay more for quality, locally produced milk.

(Symon) “You’ve got about seventy million people that are thirsty. You could sell an awful lot of milk.”

(Zind) Symon says the problem his group encountered was getting the stores to stock Vermont Family Farms milk. The farmers found it difficult to convince stores to devote more shelf space to milk, when they can make more money on other products.

(Symon) “During the time that we were working so hard to put this product out there, four or five different bottled waters with a pretty label came out and were throughout all of the stop and shops and Grand Unions and so forth and we were in ten of the stores.”

(Zind) Vermont Family Farms was eventually sold to the Saint Albans Cooperative. Symon got out of dairy farming. Pollina says the prospects for Dairy Farmers of Vermont are brighter. Pollina says research shows an increasing number of consumers are willing to pay a higher price for milk if the quality is good and they knew they were supporting family farmers.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind

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