Shelburne Farms, NOFA-VT, 2020

A milker in the dairy barn at Shelburne Farms gets the cows set up for the afternoon milking. 

BURLINGTON – In response to a growing concern from dairy farmers and farm workers about what will happen if they get sick and cannot work due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT) has created a database of “Relief Milkers”—people with authentic experience milking cows—who are willing and able to step in on short notice to help keep farms in business if needed.

Within a day of the message being sent out last week via email and social media, NOFA-VT received more than 80 responses from experienced milkers who are willing to help. The résumés of the relief milkers are varied: from farmers who have managed their own herd of 300 dairy cows, to folks who’ve worked part time on a farm long ago, but are willing to relearn.

“The responses have come from every county in Vermont,” said Bill Cavanaugh, a Farm Business Advisor at NOFA-VT who is tasked with keeping the database, and eventually matching people up with farms in need. “I’ve been totally blown away by the number of people who are willing to help,” he says.

So far, the database hasn’t been put to use, but the resource is in place and ready to go when needed. This is vital preparation, because milking is not the type of work that can pause for a week or two.

The average age of dairy farmers is almost 60 in Vermont, putting these crucial food providers at increased risk of the disease. Many dairy operations are run by one or two farmers, often in the same family, and dairy farmers are already economically stressed. Farm workers are also at risk and need to be supported in taking sick time in the event that they get sick. NOFA-VT will make funds available through our Farmer Emergency Fund to pay the relief workers. Donations are always needed for this fund, which will be used for this Relief Milker program along with funds for other natural disasters that occur on farms, such as flooding. There is more information and online donation information for the Farmer Emergency Fund at https://nofavt.org/farmeremergencyfund

This pandemic exposes the economic precariousness of many small and mid-sized farmers, whose crucial, life-giving labor is vastly undervalued. Farmers and farm workers, along with people working in food service, are often paid hourly, without reliable health coverage or paid sick leave. To address the issue, NOFA-VT is helping to grow a resilient, regional food system that will help keep us healthy and connected into the future.

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