Dairy farmers try to launch milk processing plant

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(Host) A group of dairy farmers wants to launch a Vermont brand of milk. Their plans could include a farmer-owned milk processing plant. The farmers were in the Statehouse this week to ask for help.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Dairy Farmers of Vermont is a new organization that aims to work like a labor union on behalf of struggling farmers.

The group has signed up about 310 farmers who together produce about 900 million pounds of milk a year. They hope to use their collective clout in the market place to bargain for higher prices. They also want to market their own brand of milk, and maybe even buy a processing plant.

Mark Lawson is a Charleston dairy farmer who spoke to the Senate Institutions Committee about the idea:

(Lawson) “Our idea was to pool a bunch milk together to try to get a higher price for our milk. Also, it’s kind of a two sided organization – we also wanted to look into producing a Vermont milk product.”

(Dillon) Lawson and others in his organization believe consumers will pay a premium for milk if they know the profits will flow directly back to farmers.

Anthony Pollina, last year’s Progressive Party candidate for lieutenant governor, has helped organize the new farmer group. He says they’re still working on plans to process and market milk.

(Pollina) “We believe there is in fact a market for that. The problem with it of course is access to capital to make it happen. You need a sustained effort to build a brand and to build consumer acceptance of a brand. That costs money, quite frankly. And you also need the ability to acquire processing facilities, meaning an existing facility, possibly build a facility or share a facility. But all of those things take capital.”

(Dillon) With wholesale milk prices at their lowest level in decades, the senators listened sympathetically. And they were clearly interested in the farmers’ plans to boost their income with a Vermont brand. But they wanted more details. And they warned the state wasn’t in a position to hand out money. Senator Vince Illuzzi chairs the committee:

(Illuzzi) “The only legitimate role for the state would be to make available capital which would in some manner or form have to be paid back. We can’t simply give a grant to an entity or a group of farmers because then you open up the unfair competition argument, which in fact it would be.”

(Dillon) Illuzzi says the committee has asked the farmers to come back in a week or so to present more detail about their plans.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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