Farmers meet, discuss solution to milk pricing

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(Host) Against a backdrop of low milk prices and increasing consolidation in the industry, dairy farmers from Vermont and New Hampshire met Tuesday to talk about the causes and the solutions.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports:

(Zind) About 200 dairy farmers converged on a West Lebanon, New Hampshire hotel to compare notes and listen to a panel of experts talk about the state of New England farming. There were sometimes conflicting opinions about the reasons for low milk prices, but there was agreement on the severity of the problem, which they say threatens to drive more farmers out of business:

(Alice Allen) “I don’t think it’s a dairy crisis anymore. I think it’s a dairy disaster, as far as the pricing goes. To be receiving as low a price as we’re receiving and our expenses being has high as they are.”

(Zind) Alice Allen is a dairy farmer from Wells River. Allen says farmers need to organize and work together to resolve their problems. But she acknowledges the difficulty of doing that. There are competing regional interests and there’s disagreement over what to do.

A succession of speakers listed a variety of reasons for low milk prices. The recession, the death of the Northeast Dairy Compact, alleged price manipulation by large New England retailers, increasing milk imports and overproduction were all cited as factors.

More problems lie ahead, they were told, with the proposed merger of two large milk processors. They said the merger would mean one company would control more than ninety percent of the New England fluid milk supply.

University of Connecticut dairy economist Ronald Cotterill has studied milk pricing in New England. Cotterill says large supermarkets are gouging consumers by paying low prices to farmers and selling milk for artificially high prices. He suggested a law that ties the price the farmer receives for milk to the price the retailer charges.

(Cotterill) “Why don’t we call it something like the farmer’s fair share law? Why not hitch the farmer’s wagon to the retailer horse? It’s an idea.”

(Zind) Cotterill says national farm policy favors large western dairy operations with thousands of cows. Cotterill says when milk prices rise, large farms add tens of thousands of cows, driving prices back down; too low for New England farmers to operate.

Bob Wellington is vice president of Agri-Mark, the Massachusetts based dairy cooperative. Wellington says without controls on milk production, prices will continue to fluctuate wildly. Ironically, he says, milk production drops and prices rebound because small farmers are being forced out of business:

(Wellington) “It’s a very crude and cruel way of solving this problem. And we’re going to have fewer farmers tomorrow than we have today and those farmers don’t come back even when the prices come back.”

(Zind) Wellington says he thinks the situation with milk prices is so bad now, that large producers may be willing to work with small farmers to come up with a solution.

Throughout the afternoon, Ryegate dairy farmer Bill Nelson sat near the back of the room listening. Nelson says he’s concerned about the next generation of farmers. Looking around the room, Nelson said he didn’t see as many young faces as he’d like.

(Nelson) “There’s a few and I hope they aren’t discouraged. It’s tough because a lot of these things are out of your control.”

(Zind) Farmers say their best hope is an agreement similar to the now expired Northeast Dairy Compact. They say the way the existing price support program is designed, it doesn’t help enough farmers.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in West Lebanon, New Hampshire.

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