Louise Calderwood: All farmers care for the land
Editor’s note: This commentary is by Louise H. Calderwood, who teaches at Sterling College, is government relations director for Northeast Agribusiness and Feed Alliance, is a maple syrup producer and an agricultural consultant. She also grazes a herd of 60 goats for meat.
I‘ve been deeply involved in Vermont agriculture for nearly 40 years, first as an employee on a 60-cow hill farm, then as an extension agent, in state government, as co-owner of a 160-cow dairy herd, and now teaching the next generation of farmers at Sterling College.
I have worked across the full spectrum of Vermont dairy, from a family with three cows selling raw milk to the largest conventional dairies in the state. One of my sons owns a 200-head goat dairy and the other son is employed by a 600-head grass-based cow dairy. Heck, my license plate is “BOVINE.” Agriculture is all my family does and we believe strongly in it.
By working with every type of dairy farmer imaginable (even water buffalo), I have come to see that there are many right ways to steward soil and water and animals. I would never impose my choices on others and I would never accuse any responsible farmer of not caring about the land they farm or the animals they raise. All conscientious farmers have a lot in common as they do the best possible job of improving for the resources under their care.
I’ve heard some farmers say Vermont should be organic or bust. But that’s simply not how I see it. And quite frankly, that kind of hostility doesn’t help anyone, nor does it help the situation we’re all facing — a challenging market that has forced milk prices way down.
Consumers are willing to pay more for organic foods and milk because they believe the food is different. If every farm became organic there would be no price differential between organic and non-organic products and organic farms would be in rough shape. Organic farmers rely on their higher-priced products to provide the income needed to allow them to follow the organic standards.
Whether you farm organically or not, the reality is the market is saturated for both types of dairy farms. Our vendors aren’t buying as much and they’re also not paying as much. Every farmer in Vermont is working hard to stay afloat and productive. The key to profitable farming is building the health of our soils. After all, if land is our most valuable resource, why would any farmer not care about improving it?
There are several water quality challenges we face in Vermont connected to agricultural production, including temperature, pathogens, sediments and phosphorus. Vermont farmers have taken the situation of impaired waterways seriously and conscientiously. They are complying with the new regulations, participating in extensive research projects and, in many cases, doing even more than is required. Vermont farmers, both conventional and organic, have been planting vegetative buffer barriers, using methane digesters, cover cropping with winter rye, and implementing many other good farming practices. It’s paying off — the latest USDA report released a few weeks ago found a reduction in phosphorus making its way into Vermont’s waters.
There is no war between organic and conventional farmers in Vermont and it’s not helpful for those on the outside to hurl accusations, many of which are not scientifically backed up. Different types of farming necessitate different techniques, and all farmers are guided by strict regulations. While there’s an ideal sort of farming that every farmer believes in and works to achieve, it doesn’t mean another way of farming is bad. Dairy farmers have much more in common than not.
Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of Vermont’s economy and farming in Vermont is one big wheel propelled by many varied and important cogs. All our farmers are doing their very best to be good stewards of the land and we should work to support each other.