VTC Farmstead May Have To Close

Front Page / Jul. 22, 2010 1:28pm EDT

By Katie Jickling

The University of Vermont made news last week when it announced it is selling its 225-Holstein dairy herd, in favor of faculty research on area farms.

Vermont Technical College in Randolph could be next.

VTC, which began its life as an agricultural technology school whose students were called “Aggies,” still has a herd of 83 Holstein and brown Swiss dairy cows.

But with low milk prices and high costs, the existence of the farmstead is threatened. And so is much of the Agriculture Technology program.

Chris Dutton, the acting dean of academic affairs, who also runs the agriculture program, is worried but grimly determined that the program keep its head above water if at all possible.

“We’re looking at a significant budget deficit in 2012,” Dutton told the Herald last week. “We’re looking at four or five more years of running deficits like this before we’d have to shut down.”

When Dutton took over the program in 2004, the school decided to cut down on outsourcing and keep the work contained within the school system.

“We switched back to doing everything ourselves; there’s a greater educational value that way,” he explained.

Unfortunately, it was also less cost effective.

In addition, the struggling economy, cutbacks in state funding, low milk prices, and other expenses have combined to leave the dairy program on a tenuous footing.

“The economic factors have shot us in the foot,” Dutton continued, noting “the price of corn has doubled.”

Now, the program is losing somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000 a year.

If finances do not improve and the herd has to be sold, “It would crush me personally,” confessed Dutton, who has brought new energy to the VTC dairy program. “It would deflate everything I’ve worked for. The state needs a teaching dairy program.”

Most likely, he conceded, loss of the cows “would kill the dairy program. I don’t see how we could continue our program without a farm.”

As to the steps the college would take to shore up other agriculture courses, he said, “It would depend on the Diversified Ag program at the time, whether we could still keep the profitable aspects.”

But, he clarified, “We’re not interested in profit, we’re interested in turning whatever we gain into a really vibrant program.”

Off-Site Opportunity?

Dutton warmed slightly at the prospect of sending students off-site, to dairy farms in the community. Already, he said, there are eight or ten farms where students work or that consult with the program.

“That’s another strategy to limit the damage,” Dutton remarked. But he also noted that it’s impossible to guarantee the same educational quality when the school doesn’t have full control over the students’ experience.

“To deliver the dairy program really well,” he concluded, “we’d have to have cows on site. Students who didn’t grow up on farms can have their farm here.” For farms looking for employees, “those students are not good hires now, but we make them into good hires.”

Uphill battle

To try to offset the steep costs, Dutton said, “We are aggresively pursuing other opportunities” within the Agriculture Technology Department, “diversifying like crazy.”

For instance, the apple orchard is a fairly lucrative endeavor, and pick-your-own blueberries will soon be opening up for the season. VTC is marketing more maple products and vegetables and currently runs a farmers’ market on Wednesday evenings and a CSA.

Earlier this year, the school purchased a house on Water Street and trades housing for labor on the farm. Because the money stays within the school, Dutton hopes that it could cut the losses in half.

Dutton is also looking into more atypical strategies such as pursuing partnerships with businesses in the private sector, particularly in the cheese or milk industry.

A complication, he said, is that “We’re obligated to do things extremely safely and well. Some farmers could say that the heifers don’t need bedding. We can’t do that, it’s the state’s cows.”

The program is looking to selling milk directly to VTC and to other state colleges. Lyndon State may be interested and perhaps others as well.

One possible solution, Dutton said, is to process the milk at VTC.

“We could buy a $500,000 bottling plant and hope that people will buy our milk. But I want to find a market, then take that to the taxpayers.”

In addition, the time to navigate through all the technicalities of these ventures, is limited.

“My first job is educating students,” Dutton explained. “I only have a little time in the summer to pursue other options.”

Through it all though, the school has been “very supportive,” he emphasized.

State Colleges Struggle

UVM plans to sell its 255 Holsteins and continue the faculty research on area farms. Other land-grant state universities have also struggled to sustain their dairy herds. University of Kentucky has downsized from 140 to 100 cows and Universities of both Michigan State and Minnesota will sell one of three herds.

Eight years ago, New Jersey’s Rutgers University combined its herd with University of Delaware’s and now raises the heifers for the shared program, before transporting them back to Delaware. With the switch, says the director of Rutgers Cooperative Extension, the program is finally close to breaking even.

Meanwhile at VTC, Chris Dutton is grasping at every opportunity he can think of, and he knows they may or may not materialize. But for farmers these days, that may be the only way to gain ground.

“Right now,” he noted, “we sell our milk to Booth Brothers. We like them, but we get commodity pricing. We need someone who can pay as much as it costs to produce.”

But despite the uncertainty, Dutton stays optimistic.

“Vermont’s a great place for agriculture, I think Vermont will always be a place where it’s profitable to produce food, at least in the long term.”

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