Dairy & Agriculture
Sen. Bernie Sanders believes that small, family farms are of fundamental importance for Vermont and America as a whole. Family-based agriculture not only helps support the economies of our rural communities but it also preserves our open spaces and provides fresh, locally-produced and safe food for consumers. In his more than two decades representing the Green Mountain State in the House and Senate, Sen. Sanders has worked to promote Vermont's dairy industry, sustainable and organic farming, farm-based alternative energy production and agritourism. Nationally, he has supported initiatives to make sure that farmers are paid enough to cover their cost of production, that they operate in fair and competitive markets and that young people are encouraged to enter farming as a career and supported when they do so.
Sen. Sanders strongly believes that the dairy industry has been, and remains, a vital part of the fabric of Vermont's communities and a central part of the state's rural economy. He is committed to the proposition that if family-based dairy farming is to continue in any significant way in our state and throughout the country, America's dairy farmers must receive a fair price for the milk they produce.
In recent years, dramatic prices shifts for milk have created a crisis for farms in Vermont and throughout the nation. Unfortunately, a large number of dairy farms have gone bankrupt or closed down. In 2009, Sen. Sanders sponsored an amendment that gave $350 million in emergency assistance to struggling dairy farms, though the senator knew that long-term reforms were also needed.
The recurrent crisis faced by dairy farmers has been caused by two critical factors. First, the dairy market is dominated by two wholesale buyer corporations, leaving farmers little choice about where to sell their milk. The dominance of a small number of dairy processors has worked to the disadvantage of dairy farmers. Sen. Sanders believes that farmers - rather than middlemen - should be receiving most of the money that consumers pay for milk. He has spoken out strongly against the domination of milk prices by the large dairy processors, who have little regard for either family farms or consumers.
The second reason for the crisis that dairy farms face is that the price for milk has encountered wild swings in prices. The average price paid to dairy farmers for their milk dropped from 2008 through 2009 from $19.30 per hundredweight (11.6 gallons) to as low as $11.30 per hundredweight. (It costs farmers at least $18 per hundredweight to produce milk.) After stabilizing around $20 per hundredweight in 2011, milk prices again dropped in 2012 below the point where Vermont's dairy farmers can break even.
Far too often, prices have been driven down by overproduction, as farmers - in order to be able to pay their bills and the loans they take out to buy tractors, feed and new barns - have increased output when prices they are paid for milk drop. Obviously, greater production when prices are dropping only drives prices even lower.
To counter this phenomenon Sen. Sanders, working together with Sen. Leahy and Rep. Welch of the Vermont delegation, introduced groundbreaking legislation that should protect farmers from price swings by reducing the tendency for overproduction. The aim is to stabilize the milk market, smoothing out the huge swings in pricing that have wrought havoc among farmers. The Dairy Market Stabilization Act, introduced in 2010, was the first major piece of legislation to address ‘supply management' as a solution to the dairy crisis. Although the legislation itself did not come to the floor of the Senate or House, its major provisions were included in the farm bill passed by the Senate and the House in the summer of 2012. The dairy section of the farm bill creates an insurance program that protects farmers against declines in milk prices while encouraging farmers to cut back production when supply is too great. This legislation has gained the support of farmers from around Vermont. It should significantly reduce milk oversupply and the large price swings which have been the major cause of the decline in family dairy farms.
Sen. Sanders is proud of the pioneering work of Vermont farmers in making the state a leader in the movement toward local, sustainable agriculture. Provisions in legislation that he has co-sponsored and advocated for successfully include increasing the viability of farmers markets and making federal funds available for better quality meals in schools. Sen. Sanders has passed legislation to protect small farmers from regulations aimed at agribusiness, and has co-sponsored and supported legislation encouraging "value added" production on local farms. In addition, Sen. Sanders introduced legislation to promote Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), and successfully advocated for an increase in support for CSAs, food hubs, farm stands and other direct marketing entities in the farm bill.
In order to help students understand where their food comes from and to promote healthy diets, Sen. Sanders successfully introduced legislation enabling a number of states to sponsor school community gardens. This program, which was modeled on efforts in Vermont schools, has played an important role in changing attitudes about fresh, locally grown produce in communities around the country.
Sen. Sanders supports the rights of consumers to know what is in their food. In June 2012, Sen. Sanders introduced an amendment to the farm bill that led to the first Senate consideration of consumers' right to know about genetically modified foods. His amendment affirmed a state's right to require labeling on food with genetically engineered ingredients. Though the amendment did not pass, it was supported by senators from both sides of the aisle, and Sen. Sanders looks forward to further debate and eventual adoption of the legislation.
"All over this country, people are becoming more conscious about the foods they are eating and the foods they are serving to their kids, and this is certainly true for genetically engineered foods," Sen. Sanders said. "I believe that when a mother goes to the store and purchases food for her child, she has the right to know what she is feeding her child."