Tom Evslin: Failing dairy farms are an opportunity to change

This commentary is by Tom Evslin of Stowe, an entrepreneur, author and former Douglas administration official. It is republished from the Fractals of Change blog.

The history of land use in Vermont is a history of change. Indigenous Vermonters cleared small fields in the most fertile areas and used fire to keep down underbrush to make the hunt easier. The first European settlers hacked down the woods as fast as they could to make room for subsidence farming. Early Vermont cash crops included not just maple syrup, wood, apples, and corn but also potatoes and wheat. The first industrial product from the Green Mountain State was potash obtained by burning lots of wood in iron pots. Cleared land was taken as a sign of progress; the forest was a forbidding place just waiting to be tamed.

Tom Evslin

By the early 1800s the thin soil on the hillsides had already become too depleted for most crops; in the fertile valleys, successful farmers expanded their land by buying out less successful neighbors, who then headed for greener pastures further west. In 1811 the Merino sheep came and transformed the landscape once again. Sheep can graze anywhere, even in rocky soil; remaining hillside trees were cleared to make room. According to Hands on the Land: A History of the Vermont Landscape by Jan Albers (from which all the facts in this brief history are taken), “by 1840… there were 1,681,000 sheep in Vermont six times the human population”.

By 1850 the sheep boom was over. The railroads, instead of expanding the market for Vermont wool, opened it to competition from the west where it cost half as much to raise sheep. The few remaining Merino farms survived by raising breeding stock and selling it to the rest of the country. The hill farms, however, turned to dairy as did many in the valleys. The milk trains expanded the market for milk and milk products to the rest of the northeast.

In the last hundred years the hillsides have regrown — not before years of terrible flooding due to lack of trees to slow runoff. Vermont began to look like Vermont looks now, a vista of mountains seen over cultivated fields. It’s very pretty. It’s what we’re used to. And it’s not sustainable!

What we’re doing now isn’t working

According to Vermont Auditor of Accounts Doug Hoffer, the State of Vermont spent $285 million between 2010 and 2019 on programs to support dairy farming. During that period the number of dairy farms declined from 1015 to 636. Some of the decline is due to consolidation but most is simply farms going out of business.

IMO the state programs are counter-productive and have actually hurt the industry they are meant to help. The underlying problem is that there is not enough demand to support a price for milk greater than the cost of production. Keeping money-losing farms in business makes it harder for those with better economics to succeed. The more milk that is taken off the market by farms going out of business, the better the chance of the most efficient farms being able to flourish. At best, the state programs are postponing the inevitable. At worst, they’re exacerbating the problem of over supply.

The dairy industry is also subsidized in other not so obvious ways. It doesn’t pay nearly the full cost of cleaning up the damage agricultural runoff has done to the lakes of Vermont nor can it afford to take the measures necessary to prevent current pollution. It is an open secret that the industry depends on the state and the feds turning a blind eye to the illegal and exploitable immigrants who are the only people willing to do the hard work of dairy farming for the low wages the industry can afford.

Milk sales are only 1.3% of Vermont’s domestic product according to Hoffer; it is not clear how much of that would be lost if unprofitable farms closed even faster than they are. There would still be plenty of milk for Cabot to make cheese and Ben and Jerry to make ice cream. There is an argument that, if the farms were to turn into shopping centers and condos, the tourist industry would suffer and those of us whom love the Vermont “look” would be disappointed and perhaps move away.

The answer is what it has always been: Change Crops

We can keep most Vermont farmland productively in agriculture if we do what has been done so many times before: change to a profitable crop. Failing dairy farms should be converted to a combination of forest land and housing. Vermont will look different with more trees and less open pasture, cornfields, and hay fields along its highways; but adaptation is necessary.

Most farms consist of a central area near a road where the house, barn, and other outbuildings are — not to mention the manure pile with the old tires on top. The rest of the farm is fields used to raise hay or corn or for grazing (not so much anymore). The central areas are very suitable to developing housing which will be at least as scenic as a tumbledown barn. Depending on the location, it could be medium density naturally affordable housing or more expensive housing for those who want to live surrounded by a woods full of recreational opportunity. The fields become forest.

Trees take carbon out of the atmosphere and sequester it in the ground where it improves the soil. Dairy farms are a major source of methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas. Forests are resilient to climate change because they reduce runoff in extreme weather events and provide local cooling.  Wood buildings are making a comeback because the wood used for construction keeps carbon locked up while concrete production is a huge emitter of greenhouse gasses.  Forest land is used more and more often for recreation including biking, hiking, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling. That use will more than compensate for the loss of some open vistas both to those of us who live here and potential visitors.

If the combination of revenue from some development, wood harvesting, carbon credits for the carbon sequestered by the trees is large enough, the land can be sold for enough to allow selling farm families a happy retirement – or a chance to go into the forestry business. My hope is that with some change of regulations and permitting reform, private capital and the opportunity for profit can make this conversion to a wood crop a sustainable program without the need for constant subsidy. That’s yet to be proven and I’ll write more about the opportunities and the challenges.

If government money is needed, we have some available if we stop subsidizing failing dairy farms. We have more available in federal reforestation funds in the infrastructure bill which already passed. The Vermont legislature should be looking at support for reforestation as a much more effective way of reducing Vermont greenhouse gas emissions than subsidizing electric cars for rich people or increasing the cost of energy for everyone.

Preserving the status quo — even a scenic status quo — is not an option. Changing crops as the world changes has always been the Vermont tradition.

Image courtesy of Library of Congress /Public domain
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8 thoughts on “Tom Evslin: Failing dairy farms are an opportunity to change

  1. Mr. Evslin’s previous commentaries have given me pause as to reading others. I am shocked that he worked for Jim Douglas. He apparently has nothing to do now but daydream and hide from C-19.

  2. I can’t get over that he said that the failing farms should be turned into forest and housing.
    I stopped reading right there.

    Have you see the price of wool lately?
    Why re-invent the wheel- go back to sheep farming !!
    The demand for long lasting natural fibers made in America is exploding.
    And how about cutting some taxes and regulations on those farmers so there lives are not expensive nightmares?
    Here in NH, we cut taxes! and guess what happens- we make lots of money !!

    It’s always quite interesting to me how tragic it is when the right people don’t meet.
    The farmers don’t pay enough attention to what is going on out here, what the producers are wanting, what is trending and upcoming.. and they need to be studying this stuff globally too now.

    I think that one of the big issues is that farmers are very good at what they do- Farming.
    But there is a whole lot more to it than that.. that is really only one piece of the puzzle.
    You cannot be a one hit wonder and make it in anything today- this is for sure.
    Artists and creatives often have this same issue. They are very good at creating their art, marketing it, selling it, creating a customer base for it, creating a brand, they are not so good at that business
    part.
    The people that supposedly do that part of things are not always the best at what it is that you do in particular.
    This is all clearly the case because look at where you are at.. and this guy says build houses- in the a state that chases out a badly needed Hannaford Grocery store. Yup Okay *eyeroll*.
    Good Grief, pay attention Man to your people and who they are. I just cannot see Vermonters who take pride in remaining the same then building cul de sacs all over the Green Mountain State.
    I know this and I don’t even live there.

    I’ll tell ya what I see as the problem.
    Vermont only thinks like Vermonters (imagine that) You assume everyone knows everything that you do- well they don’t!
    I’m in NH, I had no idea what rough shape the dairy farmers are in over in Vermont- and here I am right across the river and I follow this stuff all closely- yet I had no idea.
    So if I don’t know, your average folks out there just going through life with no connection to any of this certainly know of the plight of the farms today.. they don’t even know where food comes from never mind the details of the farmers life and his finances.
    So your dept. of AG has done you know favors in that they have not gotten this issue onto the radar out there for all of New England- and that is your customer base out here!!

    So, guess what I did for you Vermont, I called the VT Dept. of AG one day and spent quite a while on the phone with a lovely lady giving her a mountain of ideas, that I never saw happen.
    NH is dotted with food Co-Ops that are well shopped by an army of high falutin’ do gooders that would be all over this- if only they knew.
    The best thing you could do is get over to the food co-ops and say “hey gimme some help here on this, what can we do?”” and I can promise you, they’d come up with an idea.
    This was years ago that I did this.
    I told her “No one would help you more that the people that surround Vermont, your own neighbors, and yet we have no idea at all about what is going on over there with this”.
    WHY is there not a massive information campaign going on that educates the masses about just what the situation is?
    You need this problem solved and tons of people don’t even know about it !!

    My other idea is this.
    People don’t want to drink a lot of milk anymore.. I get that it’s falling out of favor and expensive to produce.
    But what else can be done with milk?

    We here talk about a dumbed down nation every single day.
    We see the effects of it all over the place.. well I think that we are also feeling the affects of a nation of people with no imaginations, curiosity or the drive to solve problems because they just think someone else is going to do it..
    The Socialist state of Vermont is suffering from the effects of it’s people thinking like Socialists and not Capitalists.
    I find it hard to believe that there is nothing else can be produced from milk besides what we know of.

    If the same people that are trying to force masks on us are investigating what can be done with Milk, how do you think that project is going?
    Guess what Vermont, the people that you are depending upon to solve this ARE NOT solving it.
    So guess what we do in business: We Fire them and we get new people, smarter people that want to do the work to solve it.
    Maybe that is *really* the issue.
    Democrats see failure as success because they can then grow government to ‘solve the problem.’
    So I think you should follow the money and find out how hard they are working.
    What are you learning about in how your government handled the Covid situation?
    How do you think they deal with cows?

    • Thank-you for your reply from NH. Vermont government is currently full of faux do-gooders. It’s a beta-test for the NWO in the US. Propping up failing banks and/or subsidizing clearly feeds the ‘beast’ of socialism which is the antithesis of a free market economy.

  3. He’s from the government and he’s here to help, it just makes me salivate in anticipation of what he will say next.

  4. If you’re going to write about dairy farming, learn about it. It’s obvious you have never farmed or have taken the time to learn about it or the history of it in Vermont. I think “subsistence” farming is what you meant to say. “Subsidence” is not the appropiate word. As the previous poster said, manure piles aren’t covered with plastic tarps and tires. That would be a silage pile. The sad commentary is your ignorance and lack of being informed. As a life long Vermonter, I am appalled that this commentary could be called anything approaching journalism.

  5. Re: “Most farms consist of a central area near a road where the house, barn, and other outbuildings are — not to mention the manure pile with the old tires on top.”

    As pointed out in a VDC commentary, Mr. Evslin’s recommendations are somewhat discredited by his misunderstanding of what farms are. Anyone who knows farming, especially in Vermont dairy circles, knows that the ‘piles’ of which Evslin speaks are not ‘manure piles’ but chopped corn silage that is fed to the herds.

    As such, Mr. Evslin’s recommendations are immediately suspect. For one thing, to claim ‘change’ as ‘the answer’ is, as usual, a preamble for dictating what he believes that change should be… a typical false dichotomy.

    If Mr. Evslin wants to lead the way, he should invest his own personal resources in a farm and demonstrate the viability of his claim, rather than relying on legislated ‘government money’. Let the free market determine the proper course of action.

    ‘Preserving the status quo — even a scenic status quo‘ – may very well be, along with others, a reasonable option. After all:

    “Examine the records of history, recollect what has happened within the circle of your own experience, consider with attention what has been the conduct of almost all the greatly unfortunate, either in private or public life, whom you may have either read of, or hear of, or remember, and you will find that the misfortunes of by far the greater part of them have arisen from their not knowing when they were well, when it was proper for them to set still and to be contented.” – Adam Smith

    • Yes, manure is in very expensive ‘pits’ paid for by the state programs.

      And most farms have sold away their rights for very little to the Land trust and are not available for this type of development.

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