Saving America’s Family Farms: How Much More Are You Willing to Pay for Milk?

In efforts to raise money for local dairy farmers, New England states have partnered on a campaign that asks area colleges, universities and other institutions including the Vermont-based ice cream shop Ben & Jerry’s to charge more for milk. The “extra” money is being routed to the region’s struggling dairy farmers to help them stay in business.

Keep Local Farms began in 2009 when milk prices paid to farmers hit an all-time low. Designed to support the bucolic small-scale farm most Americans visualize when they think about where dairy comes from, many of the farms are actual tourist destinations in the region and an integral part of local commerce. In the last three decades, more than two-thirds of the region’s dairy farms have closed due to rising operation costs and low milk prices.

The Keep Local Farms idea stems from the popular Fair Trade model that is typically employed in the developing world. Farmers and suppliers are paid a higher premium for commodities including coffee, tea, grains and bananas. They’re empowered not only by the higher wages, but also because many Fair Trade projects include environmental stewardship that protects the regional land, which in many cases, is razed by corporations for larger scale agricultural models that can devastate small farming communities. Consumers have embraced the model, including paying a higher price for these items, because beyond the ethical incentive, a higher quality product comes with the package.

In New England, some institutions are charging as much as 10 cents more for every serving of milk. According to Vermont’s Daily Record, it’s not just New England, either: “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.”

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Image: bethany.egan