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Why Owning Your Own Farm Isn’t Necessarily a Ticket for Financial Well-Being

Authors: Michael Colby & Will Allen | Published on: December 10, 2016

These are economically tragic times for America’s farmers. This year, the average on-farm income for a farm family will be -$1,400. Yes, negative. In other words, they’re paying to produce the nation’s food and fiber. And it’s been going on for decades, all the result of a food system, from production and processing to sales and regulations, that is dominated and controlled by a handful of integrated corporate behemoths. That control, coupled with an economic model centered on the devaluation of production (farming!), has spelled nothing but doom for farmers.

While it’s happening everywhere, we live amidst its damage in Vermont, seeing firsthand the impact commodity-priced dairy is having on our agriculture. It’s a horror, really, with thousands of farms lost in the last few decades, all squeezed and pinched and eventually forced to leave the only thing they knew—working the land. And again, it’s all the result of a cheap food model, dictated by the corporate few and allowed by a largely shrugging public.

There’s plenty of money in food. It’s just not getting to the farmers. Vermont’s dairy industry, for example, is dominated by two well-known corporate giants: Ben & Jerry’s and Cabot Creamery. Last year, Ben & Jerry’s grossed around $600 million and Cabot and its parent, Agri-Mark, grossed nearly a billion dollars. Both have bragged in financial reports about how well they’re doing, with increased executive pay and all kinds of bells and whistles for the office set. Ben & Jerry’s makes so much money that they have a foundation to give some of it away.

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Special Report: US Organic Farming Hotspots – an Opportunity for Rural Communities?

Author: Marilyn Borchardt

“For us, cheese has always been a vehicle to achieve this other thing,” Mateo Kehler of Jasper Hill Farm said.

“A vibrant community that’s not completely dependent on globalization. This is our response to globalization: We have the opportunity to extract wealth and redistribute it in our community in a different way.”

Mateo and his brother Andy of Jasper Hill Farm, like all resourceful farmers, understand that making a living in rural America today requires more than just milking cows. And just like the California winemakers of an earlier generation, they set a lofty goal to challenge the best of European cheesemakers.

Can Organic Agriculture Contribute to Increasing Income for the Larger Community?

Do clusters of organic farming activity lead to higher income for farmers as well as others in their community? A recent study suggests that producing organic foods is correlated with lower poverty and increased household incomes in rural communities.

In their economic analysis, Pennsylvania State University agricultural economist, Ted Jaenicke and then-student Julia Marasteanu (who now works at the U.S. Federal Drug Administration) identified counties around the country with high levels of organic agricultural activity where a neighboring county also has high organic activity. Their analysis suggests that clusters of two contiguous hotspot counties is correlated with increased median household income by an average of $2,094 – and reduced poverty levels overall.3

This income increase in organic hotspot counties averages 4.7 percent in relative terms for all people residing in hotspot counties.

At a time when most workers in the U.S. are experiencing stagnant or declining income, what economic development official wouldn’t want to promote such a dramatic improvement in income?

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Will Allen & Michael Colby: Dairy Marketing vs. Reality

Author: Will Allen and Michael Colby

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Will Allen and Michael Colby, who are co-founders, along with Kate Duesterberg, of Regeneration Vermont, a new nonprofit educational and advocacy organization that is working to halt the catastrophic consequences of Vermont’s adoption of degenerative, toxic and climate-threatening agricultural techniques.

The great divide between the well-marketed image of Vermont dairy farming and its stark and toxic realities is becoming harder and harder to ignore. The marketing shows healthy cows grazing on lush pastures. But the reality is cows on concrete, being fed a diet of GMO-corn and the toxic residues from the hundreds of thousands of pounds of herbicides sprayed annually on the corn and hay fields.

Instead of addressing the toxic legacy of the very non-organic dairying that dominates our agriculture, Vermont’s two giant diary corporations, Cabot Creamery and Ben & Jerry’s, and the state’s agricultural agency that acts more as their protector than regulator, continue to hide behind the myth and the marketing. It’s a head-in-the-sand approach that is bankrupting farmers, poisoning our rivers and lakes, accelerating climate change, and producing dairy products that may contain those same toxic residues that are so abundantly fed to the cows.

Vermont can do better, much better. And it has to start with addressing the cold, hard facts. Thankfully, Vermont farmers are required to report their pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer usage every year to the state’s Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets (AAFM). And while some in the agency and within the agricultural community still try to spin the numbers to keep the myths alive, the reality can’t be ignored: Vermont is farming with more and more toxic chemicals.

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