Farmers, officials discuss low milk prices

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(Host) State agriculture officials from throughout the Northeast met last week to search for a regional solution to low milk prices. The officials heard that many dairy farmers are on the brink of survival because their milk checks no longer cover their costs of production.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) A year ago, milk prices paid to farmers dropped by $4 a hundredweight. The dramatic plunge has left many farmers short of cash and forced others out of business. Vermont Agriculture Commissioner Leon Graves says the situation is getting desperate:

(Graves) “Farmers are selling assets in order to meet current expenses. Families are stressed and in some cases breaking up. Many farmers are consuming equity or falling behind $5,000 to $30,000 per month.”

(Dillon) Graves invited his counterparts from throughout the Northeast to discuss how the states could work together to boost milk prices. They met in a South Burlington hotel conference room and heard from farmers and dairy economists.

The news was bleak. Dairy farmer Bob Oliver from Franklin County, New York says he’s made his operation as efficient as he possibly can:

(Oliver) “There does come a point in time where a person says look, I can’t cut no more corners. I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve got to do with. And if I try to cut any more corners here, am I going to jeopardize my family? Am I going to jeopardize my animals? So it comes down to the point where you’re saying, this is best I can do. Now I need more money for my product, regardless if it’s my calves, my beef, my milk – which is our dairy, our dairy’s our biggest business. And it’s got to come soon!”

(Dillon) But relief isn’t expected until next summer at the earliest. That’s when economists predict that the milk supply will tighten and wholesale prices will rise. The economists warned that even tiny changes in supply will send prices plummeting again. The state agriculture officials are struggling to find a way to stabilize the market.

New England states did have price-setting authority through the Northeast Dairy Compact. But the compact expired last year and advocates failed to find enough votes in Congress to renew it.

At last week’s meeting, the officials discussed using the compact without the Congressional authority. But the U.S. Constitution prohibits states from regulating interstate commerce. The compact – because it was sanctioned by Congress – addressed this legal issue. The compact language says specifically that it can only take effect when Congress gives its consent. And that consent has now expired. New Hampshire Agriculture Commissioner Steven Taylor says there are no easy answers:

(Taylor) “I don’t have a solution, I’m sorry. I sit here and feel like a fool. There should be, there should be readily apparent and easy solutions, but there aren’t. This is probably more intractable and difficult to get your arms around than I’ve ever seen it. And I’ve been on the fringes of the dairy business at least for 35, 40 years.”

(Dillon) The state officials called on dairy co-ops to work together for higher prices. They also vowed to limit imports from Canada that are blamed for lower milk prices.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in South Burlington.

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