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Smart Growth in Action: The Changing Face of Agriculture

Farming has always played a major role in the lives of Vermonters. In the late 1700’s, most families lived on self-sufficient farms, until the early 1800s when dairy farming became a new major source of income. Today, dairy farming continues to dominate the Vermont economy, though the industry overall has been struggling for decades. In fact, the recent drop in milk prices has many dairy farmers wondering how long they can remain in farming. How are farmers facing this challenge to sustain their livelihood?
Farm diversification is one strategy that many are employing. Examples of this are seen throughout the state, and the hope is that this strategy combined with a supply management system, will see farmers through this economic downturn and into a more promising long term future for the industry.
Value-added products such as cheese, wine, and locally produced meat are just some examples of how farmers are extending their agricultural activities. These products, sold at farmers markets and local stores, are providing additional income when excess milk supplies drive prices down. Agri-tourism is also becoming a popular alternative. Some farms offer cross-country ski or snowshoe tours, and others have taken up the Bed and Breakfast business.
The idea of a supply management system is also gaining attention with area dairy farmers. The idea is that milk producers are given output goals, which match anticipated consumer demand. Farmers who overproduce have to pay a fine, which is then distributed to farmers who meet their targets. There are many advantages to the system, including price stabilization and a reduction in farm expenses, since farmers would know how much milk to produce. However, many have concerns about the need, and cost, of increased oversight.
For those of us non-dairy farming folk, the best we can do to help the industry stay afloat is to buy local as much as possible. It is this trend that will create a stable, long term market for dairy farmers to continue their livelihoods and to maintain the traditonal landscape that we all appreciate.