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Vermont family farmers look to organic for survival

(Saturday, Jan. 18, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- via Agnet, January 17, 2003 from a press release MONTPELIER, Vt., -- In testimony before the Vermont House and Senate Committees on Agriculture held in the Senate Chamber tonight, Vermont dairy farmer Travis Forgues, a member of the Organic Valley Family of Farms cooperative's Vermont pool, called on Vermont "to become a champion of the new organic era."

"Consumer demand for organic milk is booming and Vermont should step up to the plate to meet this demand. Organic can be a lifeline for Vermont's struggling family farms. It can bring our children the future we want to them to have," said Forgues, 29, a father of two, who milks 70 cows in partnership with his father, Henry, on 240 acres in Alburg, VT.

In his testimony on "The Current Status of Agriculture in Vermont," Forgues announced record pay prices for the members of his organic pool. "Organic Valley's Vermont pool members are getting an average of $23.36 per hundredweight of milk, well over the conventional farmer pay price of $11.85* per hundredweight," said Forgues. "In 2002, our Vermont pool sold 18 million pounds of Organic Valley milk and 9.5 percent of it went into our own locally- produced line, Organic Valley's New England Pastures."

Consumer Demand Drives Sales

Regional consumer demand for organic milk is strong and growing. In 2002, consumer demand for organic milk grew 28% to $10 million in the Boston market and 20% to $3 million in the Hartford/Springfield market, the two major markets in the region.

Similarly, Organic Valley grew 75 percent to $1.8 million in the Boston market and 40% to a 7.6% share in the Hartford/Springfield area.

The organic category has been growing steadily at 20 percent, and organic milk, with a 27+ percent annual growth, is driving the growth of the category. The implementation of the National Organic Program in the U.S. this October further established the organic market as one that is here to stay.

"The ultimate support for organic is coming from consumers who want organic products for their families. Parents in New England know that choosing organic is an easy way to protect their children --- just like seat belts or bicycle helmets," said Forgues.

Strong consumer demand has prompted great growth for Organic Valley in New England. In the last year alone, the co-op brought on 12 farms in Vermont and 10 in Maine, for a regional total of 61 organic farms; added 940 cows being raised organically for a regional total of 2,575 cows; and added 2,350 acres in organic production for a total of 6,525 acres in the region.

Forgues emphasized that sales and pay price cannot be Vermont's only measures of success and he recommended following the Organic Valley model:

"Vermont should measure success by looking at how many farms we've been able to save, how many acres of land we've gotten into the organic system, how many jobs we are supporting in rural communities, how many rivers we've helped not be polluted with agricultural run-off, and the health and environmental benefits of not using pesticides, hormones and antibiotics."

Organic: Saving America's Family Farms

The viability of organic as a solution for small family farms has a number of proponents. Among them is Willie Nelson who was interviewed in the Fall/Winter Rootstock, Organic Valley's grassroots magazine.

Said Nelson, "Organic farming is the ultimate answer... I think organic farming is the only way out for us because we have to get rid of the pesticides. We need to get rid of the chemicals. We have to go back to Mother Nature's way of doing things, and until we do that we're going to continue to go down in every way possible. In farming, if it's not sustainable, we shouldn't be doing it."

Similar support was generated by environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the son of the late Senator, who said: "Organic farming has the vision for building the sustainable, rural communities our nation needs to protect our natural resources. As industrial agriculture destroys our rural communities, organic farmers offer a true return to community centered food production. They buy locally and reinvest in their communities. Thriving farms and town are essential for the protection of the local environment. Organic Valley provides a market for independent organic farmers, increasing their ability to survive in today's economy."