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(en) US, NEFAC* (Catamount Tavern News) Interview With Vermont Farm Organizer Peter Sterling

Date Wed, 08 Nov 2006 17:01:10 +0200

In 2002 a group of Vermont dairy farmers approached organizers Anthony
Polina and Peter Sterling and asked them to help form a democratic organization
that could effectively fight for farmers’ rights. What grew out of this is the
Dairy Farmers of Vermont (DFV). Today this grassroots organization consists of
over 300 farms representing a staggering eight hundred and fifty million pounds
of annual raw milk, or one third of the total produced in the state. They expect
to open a farmer owned milk processing plant sometime shortly after the year’s
first significant snow fall. What follows is an interview with DFV organizer
Peter Sterling about the organization, their future plans, as well as the
general state of agriculture in Vermont and beyond.

Interviewer: Peter, what is the situation with Vermont’s dairy farms?

Peter Sterling: Under Clinton and the Bush administration there has been
enormous consolidation in the processing industry. Where [Vermont] farmers,
twenty years ago had 15-20 places they could sell their milk, now they basically
have two…Agrimark and Dairy Farmers of America, [the latter of which] gobbled up
the St. Albans Coop.

Because farmers don’t have enough places to sell their milk these two big
corporations, which control 85% of the fluid milk in New England, can dictate
the price. And they often dictate horrible measures. Farmers have to pay the
transportation cost. When gas prices go up, they tag farmers with a surcharge
for hauling milk. They charge farmers a fee for those ‘Got Milk?’ ads. Dairy
farmers pay for those with a surcharge that is taken out of their milk check. It
has basically created a slave system for farmers.

For example, farmers, when they get their milk check every week, have no idea
for how much it’s going to be for. Imagine anybody else being asked to go to
work and run a business and not having any idea how much their product is going
to sell for. You would never ask a teacher or a politician to do that. They know
what their pay stub is. But farmers are slaves to this system, when the milk
prices plummet there is nothing they can do. These big milk guys, if they had
their way…they would have just one big farm with 10,000 cows. Because for them
it is inefficient to make all these stops.

So what you’ll notice is the big politicians like [former Vermont Governor,
Democrat] Howard Dean or [current governor, Republican] Jim Douglas or their AG
secretaries pay lip service to farms going out of business, but they always say
‘don’t worry, the amount of milk Vermont is producing is not falling.’ Like
that’s the measure of how good things are going.

Interviewer: Could you name the different milk co-ops in the state?

Peter Sterling: For conventional [non-organic] milk there is Agrimark which
makes Cabot cheese which we all know, which does not use all Vermont milk, so
that is an issue. Then there is St. Albans Co-op. Then there is Dairy Farmers of
America, which is the [largest] corporation in the country for milk. St. Albans
Co-op, because they are gutless dogs, signed [in 2004] what they call a
marketing agreement basically making them one and the same as Dairy Farmers of
America…Because they knew their farmer-members would never support such a thing,
they called it a ‘marketing agreement.’ They didn’t technically let themselves
be taken over, but the staff is all the same now. St. Albans Co-op is controlled
by Dairy Farmers of America…which is part of Dean Foods and [other] big
corporations. So you can say that Agrimark, St. Albans and Dairy Farmers of
America are the three biggest Co-ops, but really there is just two. It’s really bad.

What the St. Alban’s Co-op did was disgraceful. Their members found out on the
SCAX news. That’s crazy. They turn on the TV and find out that their co-op
signed this agreement with this corporation that is driving farmers out of
business across America. Dairy Farmers of America, for example, one of their
classic moves is to buy up processing plants and then close them down. And they
will close it down, not because it isn’t profitable, but because it will be more
profitable for them if there was less competition from processors and the
farmers would then have to ship [milk] to their plants that already exist
elsewhere. Bad news!

Interviewer: How would you describe the co-ops in relation to the farmers
and the processors?

Peter Sterling: They are the middlemen. They pick up the farmers’ milk, they are
supposed to negotiate the prices for the farmers, and they don’t really do any
of that. The co-ops are supposed to take all these actions to benefit farmers,
and they really just take it to benefit their board of directors and their
corporate bottom line. St. Albans, even though they call themselves a co-op, as
well as Agrimark, technically are not.

I can give you a lot of examples of the bad things they do…[For instance] we got
fourteen St. Albans farmers to write to the director [of the co-op] saying ‘let
us see the details, the paperwork, lets talk about it.’ No. They wouldn’t even
tell their own farmers about it. Yeah, it’s really bad. Really disgusting…

One of the things that keeps farmers from really speaking out is the reality of
dairy farming which is the milk truck has to come every day to pick up their
milk. And if the co-ops were to black list a farmer or take some kind of revenge
action…then the farmer would loose thousands of dollars in addition to their
cows getting sick because the milk has to be picked up everyday. For example, we
had a farmer, his father came up to Montpelier [the capital] to testify [in
front of the state legislator] about something the co-ops were doing which was
bad. The co-ops, in addition to picking up the milk, also test it to make sure
it is pure and clean. A couple weeks later they sent a guy down to test his
father’s milk, who had never ever had a problem with bacteria count or anything.
The co-op guy looked at him and said ‘no, your milk is not good this week. We’re
not picking it up – there is too much bacteria. Good-bye.’ That was basically a
giant ‘fuck you…’ The tester even said something like ‘you should have been here
working on your milk instead of going to Montpelier…’

Interviewer: Can you say which co-op it was, and who the farmer was?

Peter Sterling: No…But it’s true, and that is how they got back at the farmer
for speaking out.

Interviewer: Was the farmer a DFV member?

Peter Sterling: It was a member’s father…That is the kind of thing that [the
co-ops] will do if they feel they are threatened.

Interviewer: Let’s back track for a moment and get back to the question of
consolidation versus retail prices. To play devil’s advocate for a moment, if
milk is a commodity that we value and want in society, and if it’s cheaper for
consumers to have it consolidated in one massive farm, or a few massive farms,
then what is the argument against such consolidation?

Peter Sterling: There is a few.
First of all, the price to the consumer, when these consolidations happen,
doesn’t necessarily go down…Really what happens is that there is more profit for
the processors.
Number two, farming has an enormous impact on our landscape. If done well it can
have not such a big impact, and it actually can be quite beneficial. If done
poorly, meaning very concentrated with 1000 cows on the land, that is very bad
for the environment, and really it’s also horrible for rural communities in
Vermont. When a farm goes out of business, it’s not just the farm that goes out
of business, it’s the guy who hauls his milk, it’s the guy who sold him feed,
it’s the guy who sold him tractor parts. The whole community suffers. So what
you’re talking about is the [potential] savings of a couple of cents on a gallon
of milk for the consumer [verses] the collapse of a rural economy-you know,
Barton, Enosburg Falls, Newport, Troy. I’d like Vermonters to ask themselves,
would they be willing to pay another quarter for a gallon of milk knowing that
not only would the environment be protected through more sustainable practices,
but on another level these rural economies would be sustained. I think any
Vermonter would part with a quarter per gallon of milk [to sustain family farms].

[In addition] the kind of farming that these guys are demanding is changing the
landscape of Vermont, and not for the better. When you have a farm that has 900
cows on it, that’s absurd for the Vermont landscape. It’s not something the
Vermont landscape can sustain. Wells will go dry…You cannot put big farms on
little pieces of land in Vermont.

Interviewer: How much is milk going for right now per hundred weight?

Peter Sterling: Every farmer has a different [agreement], but generally its $11
- $12…If you adjusted that for inflation, that’s what they were making in 1970.
You can’t [sustainably] farm for something like that.

Interviewer: How many farms have we lost in the last generation, and more
specifically in the last couple years?

Peter Sterling: Well the [State] Ag Department really clamps down on that kind
of info… [Even so] in 1980 there were 5-6000 dairy farms, easy. But now there is
less than 1200. It’s going fast. What happens is there is a minimum number of
farms you need in an area to make it viable. The guy who hauls the milk, a
trucker, he’s not going to drive up to Newport to pick up from one farm. It’s
not worth his time. So if there is only two farms in Newport he ain’t going up
there and [therefore] that farm is done. So you need a minimum number of farms
and we’re getting awfully close in some areas.

But what is really happening, what you can say is the general theme, is that
older guys, [say] a guy who’s fifty and on the verge of getting out of farming,
[is] not going to take out a loan to stay in business, [he’s] going to cash out
now. Why take on another $60,000 of debt if you know the milk prices aren’t
going up?

Interviewer: Are there any areas of Vermont that you can specifically name
that are getting close to being unable to sustain dairy farming?

Peter Sterling: Off the top of my head, it’s getting awfully tight down in
Bennington County. There are not a lot of farms left down there…That is exactly
what has happened down in Rhode Island. [In Rhode Island] there [are] only four
dairy farms left. They can’t make money because nobody wants to drive their
trucks down to pick up their milk. I’m saying you could see that in the near
future in Vermont, and that is something a lot of people worry about.

Interviewer: Of the 11-1200 dairy farms currently operating in Vermont, how
many cows does the average farm have?

Peter Sterling: The state doesn’t release this stuff. They are very cagey. Even
though the law requires them to do so, they don’t. [Even so, we know] there are
only 25 large farm operations, which…is someone with more than 500 milking cows.
For Vermont that is very large. [On the other end of the spectrum]you don’t have
that many conventional farms that are able to make it with under 100 cows
anymore…The average size is getting bigger. In 1950 you were considered a very
big farm if you had 50 milking cows, now you can’t make it with under 100
because farmers are being pushed to produce more, to put Bovine Growth Hormone
(BGH) in their cows, to make more milk to make more money, which doesn’t work.
The more [milk] they make, the more the price falls…Organic is completely different…

Interviewer: Are you seeing Dairy Farmers of Vermont farms also closing
down because of the low milk prices?

Peter Sterling: We have seen a couple. What a bunch of farmers have done,
because they saw this coming…[is] they went organic. The key with organic and
why it’s so attractive to these guys, is because they get a guaranteed contract.
Organic milk is so in demand that the organic companies will give you a two year
contract at $24 a hundred weight…They will [also] help with $30,000 for the
transition. If you’re a conventional farmer your milk prices fluctuate every
week or two, but these guys will lock in for two years. That is the way to run a
business. For two years you know how much you are getting…

Because there are [many] farmers in Vermont who don’t use BGH it’s not too hard
[for them] to make the transition. They had to wait awhile and do some paper
work and bullshit like that, but it wasn’t like a radical change in their
operation. So [many] who want to stay are trying to make it as organic farms…
There is a huge demand for Vermont organic milk, way more than is currently
available from Vermont farmers, that’s for sure.

Interviewer: Do you have organic farms that are part of DFV?

Peter Sterling: Yes and no. Yes in that they joined us to do collective
bargaining, but the processing plant that we are opening will not be organic. We
are going to do BGH free. But we have farmers who started with Dairy Farmers of
Vermont then left to go organic.

Interviewer: In 2004 the price of raw milk peaked at $18 a hundred weight.
What effect did the farmers see from that?

Peter Sterling: It wasn’t long enough to get these guys out of debt. That’s the
problem. They all go into such massive debt when the milk prices drop that they
can’t get [even]. That is why the state’s program to give these guys loans is
such fucking bullshit. These guys can’t use any more loans. They’re loaned out
their fucking asshole. [Really] it’s about getting more money for their milk.
[And] if you’re a corporate guy, like Douglas, the only thing you don’t want to
do is give [farmers] more money for their product. That would mean you’re
lowering your buddy’s profit.

Interviewer: Can you talk some about the history of the Diary Farmers of
Vermont organization?

Peter Sterling: We started in the winter of 2002, when the milk prices dropped
to one of the most historic lows of all time…It went down to $12 a hundred
weight, which was the actual price they got back in 1984 (which is what they are
getting again now)…In response to that, farmers called Anthony [Polina]. [*Note:
Polina is a long time Vermont organizer and supporter of farmer & worker rights.
He received 25% of the vote in Vermont’s 2002 Lieutenant Governor’s race as the
Progressive Party candidate.]

Interviewer: When DFV first started, from what I understand, the goal was
to sign up one third of all the raw milk produced in the state, which you did,
and then to try to negotiate prices with the co-ops and processors on behalf of
the 300 plus represented farms. This was, of course, an attempt at collective
bargaining. What was the idea behind that, and why did it fail?

Peter Sterling: The thought behind that was that even though co-ops, in theory,
are made up of farmer-members and farmer-members sit on the board, in reality
the boards really don’t represent farmer interests. Co-ops stopped doing the
farmer advocacy for farmers that they should be. So instead of pushing the
processors to give the farmers more money for their milk, [the co-ops] got into
bed with [the processors]. So farmers kind of felt like the co-ops weren’t their
voice anymore, and they wanted a voice to help them get more money for their
milk. That is why we thought collective bargaining, a model which works for
unions, would be very effective. We thought if we had enough milk behind us the
co-ops would have to say ‘ok, we have to talk to you otherwise we’re going to
have a serious problem.’ [This is the case] because no matter what [the co-ops]
say, they really do want these guys’ milk.

The problem we ran into [that the co-ops] at the end of the day did not really
believe farmers were going to walk away from their co-ops. [The farmers] did not
have enough places to send their milk. That really hit us hard…Even in face to
face talks [the co-ops] had no intention of helping farmers in even something as
minor as removing the one dollar a hundred weight surcharge for farmers to have
their own milk shipped away to these guys to make all the money. When we
realized that there was no legitimate alternative for farmers to pursue for
their product, we realized we had to crate that. And we thought that creating
some sort of Vermont brand for their product would give the farmers the
alternative they needed…an alternative place to send their milk. That has taken
a lot of our effort of late.

Interviewer: I understand DFV got very close to opening a farmer owned
processing plant in Springfield, Vermont, a few years ago. Didn’t the legislator
shit the bed on that one?

Peter Sterling: No, the Governor did. We needed half a million dollars to help
the farmers’ purchase the plant and the equipment. The Governor did not think
that was a good investment. The [Democrat controlled] Senate passed it, and
[Douglas] used his man in the House [which back then was controlled by a
Republican plurality] to block it, and the Governor refused to support it, and
that is what killed it…Jim Douglas was saying from the beginning that he would
never sign a bill that would give farmers that money. So it was hard to get
momentum for it.

Interviewer: So the Governor killed it. What was his, along with
Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr’s reasoning?

Peter Sterling: Well, Steve Kerr is just a lackey for the corporate guys.
Douglas’s reasoning was that the state should not be giving money to individual
businesses because it might harm other businesses that compete with it. [It’s
all] such fucking bullshit. That is the biggest lie I ever heard in my whole
life. I mean the State of Vermont gives money to businesses every single day. So
he just needed a pretext to protect the profits of his corporate buddies. The
real reason is St. Albans Co-op and Agrimark Co-op didn’t want to see another
[more equitable] place go get [farmers’] milk because it would make them have to
raise their prices.

Interviewer: Recently Governor Douglas sponsored a ‘Farmer Summit’ aimed at
solving, what some have termed, the current crisis in Vermont Agriculture. Did
DFV have a presence at the event?

Peter Sterling: Anthony [Polina] went to it… [But] the Farmer Summit, again, is
just Jim Douglas trying to grab a newspaper headline saying he cares about
farmers. When it really comes down to it he doesn’t do anything to help farmers.
He offers programs of low interest loans which they don’t need. They won’t take
them because they can’t afford anymore loans. They are already maxed out. It was
really just a way for him to look good in public. He won’t do anything to really
help farmers like make sure the state buys Vermont milk and basic stuff like
that. [The summit] was just a lot of politicians flagellating themselves.

Interviewer: I know DFV has also been working on getting Vermont milk into
schools and other public institutions. What is the status of that campaign?

Peter Sterling: Well the legislation did not make it out of the [Democratic
controlled] House. It is unfortunate… But Dexter Randle, a dairy farmer from
Troy, a Progressive [Party] legislator who was also one of the founding members
of the Dairy Farmers of Vermont, introduced that bill. One of the cool things
about Dairy Farmers of Vermont is that we encourage farmers to become
politically active [and] two of our farmers actually ran for office and won.
Dexter Randle from Troy, and the other is [Democrat] Harold Gerhard who lives
down in Addison County. He ran for State Senate and won. So for me, having two
more farmers elected is really great.

Interviewer: You now have two DFV members elected to Vermont’s General
Assembly. In addition, David Zuckerman, a member of the Progressive Party from
Burlington, himself a produce farmer, has been appointed to chair the House Ag
Committee. Unlike in 2003, the Democrats now represent the largest elected
parties in both legislative chambers. Left of the Democrats, the Progressives
[which are essentially democratic-socialists] now have six seats in the House
and expect to add to that in November. In the electoral field you seem to be in
a better position than two years ago. How does DFV assess the electoral
situation for the next legislative session?

Peter Sterling: Anthony [Polina] actually did most of the lobbying, but I would
say we [are] seeking a solution outside the legislative arena for this. We [are]
going right to funders to help us fund the processing plant because after our
experience in the last legislative session in 03-04’ we [don’t] want to waste
our time. We [want] to go right to where we knew we [will] be most effective,
and that is starting a processing plant. [Even so] Anthony is particularly
active in lobbying the state institutions like… UVM to buy Vermont milk. [Still]
we are also realistic in that we have to keep the focus on what we really want
which is a farmer owned processing plant that will supply a Vermont brand of
milk to folks.

Interviewer: In the face of opposition from the co-ops, the processors, and
the Douglas administration, the Dairy Farmers of Vermont have been trying to
rebuild, and trying to establish their own processing plant without the benefit
of state money. What can you say about the status of this project?

Peter Sterling: The trick with a processing plant is to find a place that has a
guaranteed market… So it’s really finding a market for our milk which is the
challenge. So Dairy Farmers of Vermont feels it has got a good location in mind
[and] we are working on the details. We feel like we really got some market
secured for some Vermont brand of products that don’t currently exist. Right
now, the way we are going to make it in the market is by being able to say that
all of our products are made with 100% Vermont milk, and none of the co-ops can
say that because they blend all their milk. Like Agrimark blends their milk with
New Hampshire milk, Massachusetts milk… They all blend them in big tanks, and
they don’t separate it which is crazy because you think that they would want to
say ‘[made] with 100% Vermont milk’ but they can’t say that. So what we are
going to be doing as Dairy Farmers of Vermont is be the only company that sells
its milk regionally using the Vermont name. Of course, there are smaller outfits
like Monument Farms, Stafford Organic…[and]Thomas’s Dairy… Those are three
Vermont brands, but they are tiny and they stay tiny because they just want to
be family operations. Dairy Farmers of Vermont’s plan is to become statewide,
region wide, using the Vermont name as our selling point. That is something
nobody else is doing. And we think that is going to work really soon.

Interviewer: What do you think that is going to mean for participating
Vermont farmers in regards to the price that they will receive for raw milk?

Peter Sterling: What we would do is give them a guaranteed price, a contracted
price for two years that would be in the $17-19 a hundred weight range… That
would mean that farmers would no longer have to suffer the fluctuations of a
market that currently gives them anywhere from $11-$18 a hundred weight – more
towards $11 than 18, believe me.

That is huge for farmers because, again, there will be a contract and they will
know what they will be making for two years. One of the most important things
that farmers want is this security. Even if it’s just $17 they will know that
they will be able to make their loans, and do all these things based on how much
money they know they will get. That is a big deal to farmers. [And] just as
important as helping…[the]farmers that supply the plant, it will create another
place where farmers can go… with their milk… and the other co-ops [will thereby]
be forced to raise their prices [paid] to Vermont farmers. So we believe that
this will actually have a ripple effect on all of Vermont dairy farmers. That is
really the goal;, to change the system by giving farmers not only control over
their milk, but giving an independent, truly farmer owned outlet for Vermont milk.

Interviewer: Do you have an estimate as to how much start up capital DFV
will need to open such a processing plant, and where will that money come from?

Peter Sterling: I think it will cost anywhere from two to three million dollars
to get a processing plant going with the packaging, the ad marketing and all
that. We are raising it from private investors who believe that this is a good
investment for Vermont’s economy and rural communities.

Interviewer: Where is DFV looking to open the plant?

Peter Sterling: Right now the leading candidate for the location of the
processing plant is in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. Mostly because that is
where most of Vermont dairy farmers still exist. So we want to be close to the
dairy farmers for many reasons, not least of which is that that lowers the
shipping cost.

Interviewer: How will DFV take care of the shipping?

Peter Sterling: We will do what other companies do and that is hire a couple
truckers. We may end up buying our own trucks or leasing them… We will do all
the quality testing ourselves…and then work with some distributors who go to
stores already and have them make the delivery of the Vermont milk company
products part of their routes.

Interviewer: Initially how many Vermont farms will participate?

Peter Sterling: I would say that there will be less than twenty farms initially.
But still, that is a good chunk for right off the bat. Some farms may choose to
send only part of their milk to us for whatever reason; some farms may choose to
send all of their milk, so we won’t exactly know till we’re running.

Interviewer: Is the idea to increase the number of participating farms over

Peter Sterling: Oh, yeah. As fast as possible. We want to draw as much Vermont
milk as we can through this plant. For every farmer we get to bring their milk
through this plant we will make the farm economy that much stronger. And they
[the farmers] won’t have to deal with [current] the slave co-op system.

Interviewer: What is the timeline for this plant opening?

Peter Sterling: If all our ducks were to fall in a row, before the end of the year.

Interviewer: Are you going to have the ability right off the bat to get
this Vermont brand of milk onto shelves all throughout the state? Where will
this milk be sold?

Peter Sterling: That is the plan. Our hope is to have it available all
throughout Vermont. We don’t see this as specialty co-op item. We see this as
affordably priced milk… There [are also] other products we want to make that are
going to be good… Even if we process milk, we could then sell that milk to a
cheese maker who wants to be able to say that their cheese is made with all
Vermont milk. It might have another label on it, but the farmers would still be
reaping the economic benefit of selling them their milk. So fluid milk is just
one of the possible products. There are many possible products. There is cheese,
there is yogurt, all the possible value added products in addition to fluid milk.

Interviewer: How are these decisions, where to open a plant, what to
produce, etc., reached? How does DFV internally operate?

Peter Sterling: [DFV’s] board is made up of all full time dairy farmers. Not
gentlemen farmers or out of state farmers. [The board is] all fulltime dairy
farmers who vote on every decision, unlike current [dairy] co-ops… [They are
all] elected by the membership.

Interviewer: Are the elected board members from different regions of Vermont?

Peter Sterling: We did strive to not only have geographic diversity, but [also]
size diversity, meaning smaller farms, medium size, large, etc.

Interviewer: I understand that back when DFV was trying to conduct
collective bargaining with the co-ops, you had allies from within organized
labor helping you with this. Will such good relations continue when the
processing plant gets off the ground? Do you foresee the workers in that plant
being unionized?

Peter Sterling: They better be. I certainly think we would encourage them to be.
I don’t think we should even consider opening up a processing plant that
wouldn’t be a union shop. I think that that is a requirement for us. To me
[unions] are good for workers… why wouldn’t you have one?

Interviewer: Family farmers across New England, in different parts of the
country and beyond, are facing similar problems to those in Vermont. How do you
see the struggle of dairy farmers in Vermont affecting the national debate? Do
you see Dairy Farmers of Vermont growing beyond our borders?

Peter Sterling: Our sincerest hope is that other farmers will see Dairy Farmers
of Vermont as starting this model plant as a way to start their own plant. And
that means, of course, taking back their own means of production.

Interviewer: Is there any thought that down the road DFV could evolve into
a larger farmer organization that would include other farmers outside of the
dairy industry?

Peter Sterling: Well that would be amazing. But right now it takes so much
energy to organize dairy farmers, you know guys that are working 70 hours a week
for low pay. Once we get this processing plant going I think you could see
different [projects] sprout up that would support local Agriculture, like a
farmer owned (or state owned) slaughter house for people who want to slaughter
their animals locally and things like that. You could see this thing blossoming
into something beyond dairy farming.

Interviewer: Do you have any final thoughts to add?

Peter Sterling: Farmers will never be able to succeed with the current system…
Guys like Douglas are not doing anything. Farmers need to take action. By taking
action and starting a processing plant they are insuring that there will be a
place for them to sell their milk that will pay them a fair share. If you look
at every newspaper article there is, all Jim Douglas’s solutions, he never once
mentions that farmers need to be paid more for their milk, and that [in part] is
what we are about.

*The Dairy Farmers of Vermont can be reached at: (802) 223-6767

Montpelier, Vermont, 2006
By David Van Deusen
Reprinted From Catamount Tavern News (Vermont NEFAC newsletter)
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