Dairy Support Programs Could Take A Hit In Budget Reductions

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(Host) Vermont dairy farmers will not see substantial federal payment reforms until their counterparts around the country unite behind a proposal.

That’s the word from a top federal official who was in the state this week.

Agriculture Undersecretary Michael Scuse said farmers still appear divided over a supply management system that creates incentives to hold down milk production.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) At a time of great uncertainty and political turmoil over the federal budget, Undersecretary Michael Scuse says one thing is certain: everyone will take a hit, including dairy farmers.

(Scuse) "There’s going to have to be shared sacrifice across all of government."

(Dillon) Scuse says it’s too early to predict what a new special Congressional committee will suggest for deficit reduction. But farm programs, including one that serves as a safety net for dairy farmers, will be in the mix. (Scuse) "We don’t know what the outcome is going to be. We hope the USDA is going to be part of those discussions. … I can’t tell you what our ’12 budget will ultimately look like. Right now, it’s very difficult for us at USDA to look down the road even a couple of months."

(Dillon) Many Vermont farmers are urging the USDA and Congress to rewrite dairy programs so that milk supply is in better balance with milk demand. The basic concept is to limit over-production by paying farmers less for milk that’s produced over a set amount.

Although they voted narrowly in favor of the proposal, Under Secretary Scuse says the Obama Administration will remain neutral on the idea.

(Scuse) "If you ask 10 dairy farmers, I think that you’ll probably get maybe 10 different answers. There are those that are strong proponents of supply side management. But then there are those that don’t want supply side management. You know, let the market dictate the price."

(Dillon) Amanda St. Pierre runs a large dairy farm with her husband in Richford. She says there’s more unity around supply management than the U-S-D-A gives credit for.

St. Pierre is with a group called Dairy Farmers Working Together that has pushed the issue for years. She points out that legislation for next year’s farm bill includes supply management provisions.

The bill was drafted by Minnesota Congressman Collin Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee.

(St. Pierre) "I see that as a victory in that the mainstream dairy industry has accepted that in order to go forward they must have a production management piece which looks at the marketplace, which allows farmers to produce to the market and shortens these vicious cycles that have been plaguing our industry, and really cut our industry more than half."

(Dillon) St. Pierre says it’s ironic that the USDA wants unanimity from farmers on dairy policy, when it’s hard to reach political agreement on anything in Washington these days.

(St. Pierre) "I find it hard for our dairy industry to be held to this much higher standard, when I’m not seeing it anywhere in any industry on any piece of legislation going forward."

(Dillon) Vermont Congressman Peter Welch is a member of the House Agriculture Committee. A spokesman said Welch will meet with farmers next week to get their input on dairy policy.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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