At Montpelier Rotary: Update from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture

by Will Kyle

MONTPELIER — What do you call a cow with no legs? Ground beef.

The joke was met with laughs and a few groans when it was told by the Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, Anson Tebbetts. He was speaking at the Rotary Club meeting held in the Capitol Plaza hotel on Monday, July 24.

Tebbetts is a native Vermonter who grew up on a dairy farm in Cabot. He has held the position of secretary of the agriculture agency since Governor Phil Scott appointed him in January. Tebbetts previously was the news director at WCAX-TV. Tebbetts spoke about the agency before answering several questions from the audience.

His presentation began by describing the four primary responsibilities of the agency. The first is to ensure that agricultural animals in the state are healthy. The agency investigates reports of diseases and works with veterinarians.

The second is to inspect weights and measures in the state. The agency inspects every gas pump in Vermont at least once a year to confirm that they are producing the volume of gas that they claim. The agency also checks scales, cash registers  and scanners to make sure everybody is playing by the rules.

The third responsibility is to monitor the insurance services involved with Vermont agriculture to make sure insurers are providing what they claim to provide.

The fourth primary task of the agency is to maintain water quality. The agency uses $5.2 million a year from its budget to fund water projects for farmers. Private investment from the farmers goes toward the projects as well. The agency aids operations of all sizes and aims to clean up Lake Champlain and the waterways of Vermont.

Other projects

The Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, Tebbetts says, works within Vermont to promote economic development. The agency helps local businesses grow. This includes offering grant money and assistance in writing business plans.

The agency is also working on initiatives to improve agricultural literacy in the state, attempting to improve knowledge about produce and where the food Vermonters eat comes from. Tebbetts told an anecdote about a colleague, a produce inspector, who was in a supermarket. While she was in line waiting for the cashier, the person in front of her was trying to buy beets, but the tag had fallen off. The shopper and the cashier were both stumped about what the vegetable was called, until the cashier said “Oh, those are radishes.”

The agency has been working with schools in farming communities to provide agriculture education to students. It has also helped set up “farm-to-school” systems for feeding school children with locally grown food.

Tebbetts praised the Montpelier farmers market as one of the best in the state, and he commented at length on the impending move of Vermont Spirits to Montpelier. The move, he says, will bring people to the city.

State of the Agency in 2017

The Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets has a $22 million budget and employs 132 Vermonters. The agency is fortunate to operate out of a “gorgeous” building, the original National Life building, at 116 State Street in Montpelier.

The agency recently opened a second office in Williston for the Water Quality Division, where 15 to 20 people are employed. The location in Williston is closer to some of the biggest farming communities in the state, including Vergennes and Missisquoi.

Questions from the Audience

The first question from the audience was how President Donald Trump’s immigration plans were affecting migrant labor in Vermont.

There is some fear among Vermont farmers that the Trump administration may begin to conduct raids on farms, said Tebbetts, but so far there have been no changes in policy.

Over a hundred farms in Vermont depend on migrants. A study conducted by the University of Vermont found that over 700 farm workers in Vermont are Latino, said Tebbetts. Some are legal, he said, and some are illegal.

The next question, along with follow-up questions from various members of the audience, asked how the milk industry was doing in Vermont.

“The problem is too much milk,” said Tebbetts. “We can’t drink our way out of it.”

There are 850 dairy farmers in Vermont. They have been struggling in recent months.

The supply of milk in Vermont has been too high for demand, which means farmers can’t sell their milk. The solution is not as simple as lowering their prices. The federal government controls milk prices, and the system is complex. “Only about five people in the country understand milk pricing,” said Tebbetts.

Dairy farmers don’t know the price they will receive for their milk until about a month after the milk is sold. Foreign markets also affect the instability of milk prices, said Tebbetts, because “one out of seven of those big milk trucks is headed out of state to a foreign market.”

Twenty-five percent of dairy operations are organic, which provides more stability for farmers because they produce on a two-year government contract. These farmers know exactly what they will be paid for two years, which enables them to plan their business decisions. They receive a “significantly higher price” for their milk than other dairy operations, but the overhead costs are high for an organic producer.

Alternatives to the American dairy industry system in other countries, such as New Zealand, Norway and Canada, are examples that could provide more price stability for farmers.

The Vermont Agency of Agriculture has been working with dairy producers to develop a “value-added” industry. Close to 100 milk processors now make cheese, butter, ice cream and yogurt. These operations have helped grow and stabilize the dairy market here in Vermont.

The final question asked how the agency has been affected by changes to the Environmental Protection Agency under the Trump administration.

The federal agency provides water quality funding to Vermont, said Tebbetts, so he and his agency are “watching the situation.”  The Vermont Agency of Agriculture is also keeping an eye on federal pesticide regulations, said Tebbetts. Not much has changed so far.