MONTPELIER, Vt. - Consumers will pay a little more for coffee and chocolate to ensure the farmers who produce those foods get a fair wage, so why not ask them to pay more for milk?
That is the notion behind a program designed to raise money for struggling New England dairy farms while educating consumers about those family businesses. Keep Local Farms urges colleges, universities and other institutions in New England to charge a little more for milk, with the extra money going to farmers in the region.
It is among a number of nongovernment programs being set up to try to preserve small, family-operated farms as consolidation continues in the dairy industry. While Vermont is best known for its milk and cheese products, dairy farms stretch across New England. But two-thirds have closed in the past 30 years because low milk prices have made it hard for farmers to cover their feed, fuel and labor costs.
Some supporters are trying to help save the rest by borrowing a page from the fair trade movement. Consumers who buy products labeled as fair trade pay a little bit more to provide workers with decent wages and sound environmental practices. Coffee and chocolate are among the most common fair trade items.
Keep Local Farms- set up in 2009, a year of record low milk prices paid to farmers - figured the same idea could work in the dairy industry
Six colleges and universities signed up, including Harvard and the University of Vermont, which contribute 10 cents for every single-serving container of milk sold. Boston Medical Center, Ski Vermont, some Ben & Jerry's scoop shops and others also contribute to the program, while others, such as Roche Brothers and Hannaford supermarkets, have displayed signs about the importance of local dairy farms to local economies, tourism and in providing land for recreation.
"It's really from whole cloth. This didn't exist. There isn't really an example of this kind of program for dairy at least," said Diane Bothfeld, deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, which worked with the New England Family Dairy Farms Cooperative and the New England Dairy Promotion Board to launch the program.
In Wisconsin, another top dairy state, Family Farm Defenders sells fair trade cheese for about $6 a pound, guaranteeing that the farmers who provide the milk get paid $3 for every pound sold. The farmers set the price to cover the cost of production plus a living wage.
The group sells $30,000 to $50,000 worth of cheese each year, providing about 30 farms with an estimated $500 to $1,000 a year, executive director John Peck said. The challenge is expanding the sales, he said.
In Vermont, where farming is tied to tourism, residents want to help farmers, said Marie Audet, who with her husband owns Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport. Their farm was one of the first in the state to produce electricity from methane gas from cow manure.
Green Mountain Power customers who want to support such renewable energy projects pay a premium on their electricity bills, with the money going to help dairy farmers buy generators that run on methane.
"They don't have to do that, but they know that part of being in Vermont is the open working landscape," Audet said.
The public also rallied to help Vermont farmers after flooding from Tropical Storm Irene last August ravaged farm fields and carried away feed and even some cows. People donated money to help farmers rebuild and volunteered their physical labor.
Still, Robert Cropp, a dairy marketing specialist and professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, doubted most people would pay more for milk or other products to support family farms.
"Most consumers are far removed from the farm," Cropp said. "They don't understand agriculture and how food is produced and things of this sort."
Keep Local Farms raised $220,000 over two years. After paying taxes, it sent $100 checks to 1,370 farms - or about 75 percent of the dairies left in New England. It's rethinking that approach after hearing from farmers, and might provide grants that could help multiple farms rather than individual payments.
"We had far more success than we expected, and yet it wasn't enough to be meaningful to the pockets of dairy farmers on a long-term basis," said Gary Wheelock, executive director of the New England Dairy Promotion Board.
He added, "What we heard over and over ... was we want to enhance public understanding about who we are and what we do. The money's great, but if we don't have a license to farm, if people don't understand who we are, and our ability to farm in our local communities is reduced, it threatens the viability of our farms."