I came of age in Burlington, VT when Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield were on a mission to take over the world with premium Vermont ice cream. I remember distinctly my first taste of real Vermont Sharp Cheddar Cheese. For breakfast, I grew up lapping up bowls of Cheerios and whole milk, the same as my own children do today. I have always been a purist when it comes to butter, the quote that hung in a Barre diner was my mantra… “I trust cows more than chemists.” In my adulthood, I have tried to drift away from ‘too much dairy’ and have attempted dairy and lactose-free diets, but to be totally honest, my fridge feels empty without a gallon of fresh milk, Vermont Premium Ice Cream and yogurt, and those irresistibly smooth Vermont butters and cheeses.
In 2013, I accepted a position with the Friends of Northern Lake Champlain (FNLC), a local non-profit working on water quality issues for Lake Champlain. Our group has balanced the tension between lakeshore owners and farmers in Franklin County for over a decade, and with others has been effective in implementing projects and developing solutions. This past summer, the conversation intensified due to the toxic blue-green algae blooms that appeared in late June and never went away. The topic of ‘dairy vs. water’ escalated to heightened proportions, making me question my love affair with Vermont dairy products, which brought me to the question looming before me today – “Can I Love Vermont Dairy and Love the Lake?”
The dairy industry is a 2 billion dollar industry in Vermont. Nowhere, is that figure more apparent than in Franklin County. The St. Albans Dairy Co-op sits in the center of our downtown, near the ball fields and school, trucks come and go transporting the county’s most precious commodity – Milk!
Travel in Franklin County will put you on roads that wind through acres of hay land, corn fields, and green pastures before reaching a destination. Depending on the time of day or season, your trip may be slowed by a hay wagon, a manure truck, or milk tanker. If you expect this, you can actually enjoy the slower pursuit of travel in our region.
I currently travel these roads weekly, as FNLC is committed to working with farmers, individuals, and municipalities to implement solutions that will help resolve the issues of too much phosphorous in our watershed. As I meet with farmers, landowners, selectboards, etc., I hear everyone’s frustration over water quality issues, and their desires to be part of the solution. The level of frustration escalates because no one has a magic bullet, no easy answers, sometimes the conversation moves to question what the guy down the road is doing, and whether or not that is factor.
Because of my work, I know that many of the farmers in Franklin County and other parts of the Lake Champlain Basin have invested a great deal of time and money in conservation projects, specialized equipment, and improved practices. There are efforts taking place by the Champlain Valley Farmers Coalition, the Farmer’s Watershed Alliance, the milk cooperatives, Ben & Jerry’s, the Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets, and Green Mountain Dairy; they are working towards water quality solutions in their industry and bringing people into the fold. They are stepping up and recognizing that they are part of the problem, and therefore MUST be part of the solution.
We know that we have a long road ahead of us, and I believe it will be much better for the farmers, and the people of Vermont if we can work together on this issue and all come to the table to work on behalf of Lake Champlain and our statewide water resources. I love Lake Champlain and I love Vermont Dairy – I just hope we have the strength to make the right decisions now, so that my children can say the same.
Denise Smith is the Executive Director of the Friends of Northern Lake Champlain. She has spent most of her life in the Champlain Valley. She currently resides in St. Albans, Vermont with her husband and three small children.