Tisbert fighting for the future of farmers as Vermont Farm Bureau president


Courtesy of Anne Tisbert

Joe Tisbert and his daughter Becky picking kale

The Vermont Farm Bureau, which was founded in 1915, is the state’s largest non-profit trade association of agricultural producers. They now have over 4,000 member families from 14 counties throughout the state that work together to solve problems within the agricultural community and are considered its “voice of agriculture.” Their mission is to serve and advance their community throughout the Green Mountain state.

The current Vermont Farm Bureau president is Joe Tisbert, who owns and operates the Valley Dream Farm in Cambridge with his family, which was profiled in our last issue. Earlier this year, he was given the John C. Finley Award by the Vermont Dairy Farm Industry Association in recognition of his character, dedication to Vermont agriculture and education and accomplishments. He was also appointed by U. S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to serve on the Vermont USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) state committee.

“We’ve been involved in the Farm Bureau for a long time,” said Tisbert, when asked how he came about his title. “I was working with a bunch of people that wanted farm diversity in the Bureau, and being an organic farm, I got on the board there. So, one thing led to another and I became vice president. After serving as vice president for a couple of years, the president came to me and said, ‘Well, it’s your turn, you’re president.’ My advocacy had grown to a point where I was being more active than the president and he thought that I deserved a chance at the job. I’m now starting my fourth year in the role. It’s a yearly term.”

As president, Tisbert works with the state and federal governments by representing and advocating for the interests of farmers. “We work to set up policy with farmers, trying to figure out what’s the best route for farmers through regulations that will make it easier for them to survive, especially with the climate and pricing making it so difficult to be in agriculture,” he said.

During each legislative session, the Vermont Farm Bureau has a representative at the Statehouse full time. Tisbert himself visits a few times a week to lobby on their behalf, as do a few interns.

The major issue right now for Tisbert and his organization is whether or not supply management should be a part of dairy policy right now, which could be necessary to save the dairy industry in the state. “What do farmers want and what do they think?” he said. “Do they want a supply management, and how do we pass that to the federal government? That would have to be passed federally. A lot of people talk about how we should do it on a state level, and it’s just not possible. The way the Farm Bill is being negotiated now, it’s a little late to be getting supply management into it. So, it would take an act of Congress to do it. If enough people get on board to say they want it, it could happen, but it’s kind of unlikely.”

One option for supply management could be a quota system similar to the one Canada has in place. The government controls the pricing and the volume of milk each farm is allowed to ship, so the market is never in danger of over-saturation. They also don’t allow any kind of dairy product to be imported into the country.

But regardless of any potential changes in supply management, Tisbert thinks that pricing must change for dairy to stay afloat. “Pricing would have to get into the 21st century,” he said. “The way milk has been priced over the years, it’s been the same for 50 or 60 years. Back in the day it might have worked, but it doesn’t work so well today. The consumer is going to have to start paying more money if we’re going to continue to have farming in our country.”

According to Tisbert, the biggest challenges farmers are facing today are over-regulation and the aforementioned pricing, and there will be changes coming in regard to water quality and the regulation surrounding it.

“Farmers are doing great work in the name of water quality, but over-regulation and the cost of the water quality projects are very expensive,” he said. “Funding for water quality is one big issue. All Vermonters are going to have to pay for it at some time, because it’s not just farmers; everyone contributes to water quality. It’s the interpretation of wetland rules and exemptions that agriculture has and trying to get exemptions taken away. For instance, if you have hydraulic soils that are considered wetland and have been farmed forever, you can now be charged a fee if you make a roadway go through it and your exemption is now gone. Another big issue this year is tile drainage, which are pipes that go underground through the fields that suck the water in and out of a pipe instead of running across the top of the ground. Some groups that really don’t know any better want it to be banned or mapped or both, and quite frankly it’s one of the best things you can do in the name of water quality.”

Although he is always operating on behalf of farmers of all types, Tisbert is fortunate to be able to also impact legislation that affects his own farm, which produces organic vegetables, hay and grain. In the past he was involved in federally funded irrigation, which they have on the Valley Dream Farm, and more recently he has been lobbying for more processing ability within the state.

“This farmer is bigger than his acres at Valley Dream Farm,” said John C. Finley about Tisbert at his award presentation. “He represents and has the respect of a larger community of agricultural stewards, some organic, some conventional, some producing milk or maple, beef or berries, apples or alpacas. He represents them all. He is a caretaker of Vermont agriculture, supporting our current farmers and protecting our future ones.”

Tisbert is very proud of the work the Vermont Farm Bureau does and views it as an integral part of contemporary farming. “I think without it, you wouldn’t be able to farm today,” he said.