By Dave Fidlin | The Center Square
A Vermont legislative task force focusing on the state’s dairy industry capped off the calendar year with a list of recommendations that will be taken up in 2023 by the General Assembly.
The Task Force to Revitalize the Vermont Dairy Industry proposed a series of recommendations, which will be sent by way of a report to the state Senate Agriculture Committee in January before potentially advancing to other channels in state government.
The recommendations come at a time when Vermont’s dairy industry has been reeling in the face of outside pressures, which were exacerbated this past year as the cost of fertilizer skyrocketed amid inflation and the war in Ukraine.
Final numbers are still pending, but dozens of dairy farms within Vermont have closed in 2022. At the time of the task force’s first meeting in late August, the number was pegged at 22 operations.
Many of the proposed changes focus on the Vermont Milk Commission, an entity within the state’s Department of Agriculture.
The task force has recommended a series of tweaks aimed at giving the commission more flexibility in adjusting pricing mechanisms within Vermont to bring balance to dairy farmers and consumers alike.
During deliberations of the proposed changes, Michael O’Grady, deputy chief counsel with the Vermont Office of Legislative Counsel, discussed the state’s minimum producer price regulation.
“It’s discretionary for the commission,” O’Grady said of language in the list of recommendations. “What is being changed is guidelines for setting the price. It’s not just about production, it’s about processing and manufacture of dairy products as well.”
The Vermont Milk Commission is a long-established entity within state government, though there are efforts to provide it with more tools to respond to pressures facing the state’s dairy industry.
The commission, for instance, could have the ability to hire people to address a range of issues as they arise – a proposal that raised logistical questions about oversight of the task at the recent meeting.
“There’s options,” O’Grady said. “The agency can use its own staff, which is currently authorized. If they want to contract for outside services, they can. The General Assembly can appropriate money for that.”
While the task force’s work has wrapped, state Sen. Robert Starr, who serves as co-chair, said the process of implementing changes to help the state’s struggling dairy industry has actually just been formalized.
“I think it’s very important that we remember that what we’re doing is proposed legislation that we would be moving forward with,” Starr, D-Essex, said. “The meetings and the hearings and getting the people in – once the Ag Committee goes over this – will start all over again.”
Speaking to the next steps, Starr said, “We’ll be taking testimony. I feel that we’ve done a pretty good job of getting the legal aspects of this.”