On a recent road trip into Quebec, Debbie and I drove beautiful Rt. 100 from near the southern border of Vermont to its termination near the Canadian border.
By the time we were into Vermont’s Mad River Valley, it occurred to us that that we’d seen nary a cow. Remember, wait till the cows come home? Well, no longer in Vermont. And those thousands of iconic old barns? Decaying and abandoned, the majority with not even a for sale sign as a memory, never to be inhabited by Vermont dairy farmers again.
In the past year, 61 Vermont cow dairies have ceased operation, leaving the state with just 749, according to the Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets. That’s down nearly one-third – from 1,091 a decade ago and from more than 11,200 in the 1940s
Tony Kitsos, the UVM Extension outreach specialist, explains that new manure pits and runoff controls are sometimes “the last straw” for dairies.
That doesn’t bother Michael Colby, an agricultural activist from Walden, who cofounded the advocacy group Regeneration Vermont.
“The dairy model is dead. We need to come to grips with that,” he said. “This model’s not working for the farmers. It’s not working for the cows. And it’s not working for rural communities, which are being hollowed out. The only ones benefiting are big ag and big dairy.”
Colby takes particular issue with large-scale farms that rely on genetically modified feed and antibiotics to enhance milk production in sedentary cows. The resulting waste, he argues, is a “disposal nightmare.”
Indeed, a new study released last week by UVM found that annual milk production increased from 5,000 to 20,000 pounds per cow between 1925 and 2012. In that same period, livestock density jumped by 250 percent as farms increased in size, consolidated their operations and kept their cows confined in barns.
Colby believes the solution is grass-fed, organic milking operations. But while a quarter of Vermont dairies have gone organic, even that market has tanked in the past year, as supply has outstripped demand.
The way Colby sees it, Large Farm Operations — defined by the state as those with 700 or more cows — have no place in Vermont.
“I don’t think there is a humane or environmentally sustainable way to operate a dairy LFO,” he said. “It’s constant confinement — and that can’t be done humanely.”
Read more here.
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