I’ve been spending time this summer getting to know some of Vermont’s many, many dairy farmers. This exploratory research is an early component of my dissertation research, which looks at how dairy farms vary in their demand for off-farm inputs and how this in turn impacts their impact on water quality and the regional economy. The hope is that this research will reveal opportunities to strengthen rural economies and local food systems while simultaneously reducing nutrient pollution and the use of nonrenewable inputs.
Last week I had the chance to visit a farm on the Vermont/Quebec border with some researchers from UVM’s Agricultural Extension program. The farm had recently transitioned from “conventional” organic milk production to 100% grass-fed organic milk. This means that the farmer needs to meet all of his animals’ nutrient requirements using his own pasture, hay, and other forage crops. This is challenging, as most organic dairies rely at least in part on grains and other supplements purchased off-farm. In Vermont, where winter starts in September and ends in June (at least it feels like it…), the growing season is short and so it is hard to produce enough food to sustain an animal herd through the winter. As a result, a lot of land is needed to produce a relatively small amount of milk.
On the face of it, grass-based dairy seems like an inefficient use of land. However, when farmers purchase grain from off-farm, they are in effect appropriating land from elsewhere, extending the footprint of their farm virtually and rendering appearances deceiving. Corn, unlike nitrogen, cannot be conjured from the air through the application of chemistry and fossil fuels.
In a place like Vermont, grass-based dairy has some important positive attributes. Hay fields and pasture have dense root mats and permanent soil cover, so erosion is minimized, avoiding a major source of nutrient and sediment pollution to local water bodies. At the farm we visited, much of the manure is composted, making for a more stable source of nutrients for the fields while reducing the risk of losses to the environment. This is important because Lake Champlain, Vermont’s largest water body, is already suffering the effects of excessive nutrient inputs, which have degraded water quality and caused harmful algae blooms.
Well-managed pasture can also build up organic matter, sequestering carbon and improving soils over time. Furthermore, while conventional dairy farmers are trying to stay afloat at milk prices of less than $17/cwt., grass milk is selling for more than $40/cwt.! Admittedly, cows raised on a grass-based diet produce considerably less milk than those bred for a grain diet, but the farmer also sends relatively little money off farm to pay for grain and feed supplements. As a result, a well-managed grass-based dairy farm can be highly profitable, even with a relatively small herd.
The challenges of running a grass-based dairy should not be underestimated. During our visit, the farmer and his son recounted how the dry spring and early summer weather were making it hard to produce enough food to last them through the winter. Additionally, their animals were not producing much milk as they had been forced to supplement their pasture with baled hay from the previous year, which was of poor nutritional quality. The farmer, who maintains around 85 milking cows, was talking about having to potentially cull 20 animals if rain didn’t start coming. Despite this, the Extension researchers I accompanied reported that the animals were healthy and even with the drought and the high temperatures the pasture we visited was in good condition.
Our time with this particular farmer highlighted some of the changes that will be needed to shift our food system from its current high-input industrial model toward a model built on agroecological principles. First, we as consumers will need to accept seasonality as a dietary constraint, not just for things like produce but also for milk and other foods. A latte may become a drink for the shoulder seasons.
Second, low-input agroecological farms can be environmentally and economically beneficial, but dietary change will be needed to allow this model to achieve scale. Consumers will need to purchase (and waste) less milk and meat, compensating by paying more for better-quality products. It does not appear likely that current levels of per capita meat and dairy consumption can be supported with low-input agroecological production methods, at least without significantly expanding the area under production. This is a topic of ongoing discussion in the research community.
I reflected on these points as we drove back toward Burlington, with the heat and humidity growing steadily more oppressive. We processed the Extension team’s samples at their lab and I headed home, watching clouds gather in the sky and hoping for rain. Later that evening, as the rain began to fall, I imagined the pasture and hay fields slowly absorbing the rain, replenishing their stock of soil moisture and hopefully allowing for enough growth to sustain 85 cows through the long, cold winter…
Michael Wironen is pursuing a PhD in ecological economics at the Gund Institute at UVM. Michael’s research will explore how ecological economics can inform sound decision-making in the management of water resources and food production systems at different scales.