Owner cites pandemic’s effects on demand, state offers farmers relief
By LEE J. KAHRS
RUTLAND TOWN — The COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect the already hurting dairy industry in Vermont and small dairy farms are feeling it the most.
A recent decision by Thomas Dairy to reduce the amount of milk it buys from local producers can be traced directly to the effect the pandemic has had on demand for dairy products in the area.
Now in the fourth month of of the coronavirus pandemic, demand is down even more as the hospitality and tourism sectors struggle to survive under lockdown and then phase II re-opening regulations. In response to falling demand, Thomas Dairy had to terminate contracts with some small dairy farms.
That decision was met with some backlash on social media, accusing the venerable dairy of choosing to buying milk from larger, commercial farms, but co-owner Christa Thomas said the decision to cut back on supply is the nature of the dairy business.
“With the virus, the market is down and we can only buy as much milk as we need,” she said. “We need to let farmers go if we can’t use their milk. The law is that we have to give them 90 days notice in order to find another buyer.”
The dairy on Route 7 in Rutland Town has been in business since 1854. Thomas said that buying from larger producers has never been in the Thomas Dairy business plan.
“We buy all of our milk from small farms within a 35-mile radius,” Thomas said.
One of those small farms belongs to Ed Eugair of Florence. He said he was fortunate to still be selling milk to Thomas Dairy.
“I’ve sold milk to them for the last three to four years,” he said. “They’ve been a good company to work for. That’s the way the business is right now with the virus.”
While the goal of any business is to balance supply and demand, that hasn’t been the case in the dairy industry for years. Demand for milk and milk products has steadily declined over the last decade and the dairy industry is still heavily subsidized by state and federal governments as milk prices continue to fall.
That said, Gov. Phil Scott announced Tuesday that there is $25 million in grant funds now available to Vermont dairy farmers and producers. In the announcement, Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts noted the toll of the pandemic on Vermont’s dairy industry.
“Every dairy farmer and processor should look at this grant opportunity,” Tebbetts said.. “COVID-19 has hit our dairy industry hard. These assistance dollars will help our dairy businesses recover from staggering losses due to this pandemic.”
Although Thomas would not say how many small farms were notified that their contract was terminated, all indications via social media indicate that at least four to five small farms in the Castleton and Poultney area were given notice of termination.
Thomas also confirmed that the dairy lost a chunk of its market due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced restaurants and bars to close and halted tourism in Vermont for the last four months.
But Thomas also said her dairy is merely a microcosm of a nationwide dairy issue, and that it’s a business decision that has been made before and comes with the territory. She added that it’s fortunate the dairy still sells milk to Cabot Cheese and other producers to keep the business going.
“We’re a small, little dairy so we have to balance,” she said. “Sometimes we have too much, sometimes not enough. Nationally, the fluid milk business is declining and we’re not immune to that. And, we don’t know what’s going to happen with the pandemic.”
The Vermont Agency of Agriculture will oversee the dairy relief grant applications, which are open to applicants who can demonstrate economic losses and costs incurred since March 1, 2020 that are related to the COVID-19 public health emergency.
For details about the relief dairy grant application process, requirements and qualifications, and to apply beginning Friday, July 17, visit https://agriculture.vermont.gov/covid-19-information/vermont-covid-19-agriculture-assistance-program.