Farmers Testify to Hardship Without Dairy Compact

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Milk prices are falling fast and Vermont dairy farmers lack a safety net. That was the underlying message from a hearing on dairy policy Tuesday night. Dozens of farmers and their supporters gathered at the Statehouse to ask for help. But the news from Washington was not encouraging.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) The state of the farm economy can be told in numbers. Here are a few of the grim statistics:

¿ Milk prices fell 25% in December.
¿ Economists predict nearly 400 jobs will be lost if prices continue to fall.
¿ In six of the last 11 years, half the dairy farms in the state lost money.

The farm crisis is also revealed by the human stories. A dairy farmer’s son or daughter may look at the numbers and decide to avoid a career in agriculture. A farmer who’s borrowed hundreds of thousands of dollars may find the milk check doesn’t cover what he or she owes.

Mark Rogers who farms in Glover says his farm is very efficient. His 100 Holsteins each produce about 27,000 pounds of milk a year.

Still, his farm lost 8,000 dollars in December when milk prices fell:

(Rogers) “And it really doesn’t matter how efficient you are. Eight thousand bucks is a lot of money to a two family operation¿. And that’s a difficult thing to swallow.”

(Dillon) Rogers says he now finds it tough to suggest to young people that consider a career in dairy farming:

(Rogers) “¿you almost can’t in good conscience. With the price of milk and the future we’re talking about¿ how can we recommend to younger people to continue in this business?”

(Dillon) As witness after witness came before the committee, the hearing became a wake of sorts for the Northeast Dairy Compact.

Regional pricing went into effect in 1997. Under the compact, a commission made up of farmers and consumers set a minimum price on milk. The money came from dairy processors, not the taxpayers.

Farmers, bankers and economists all told the committee that the compact stabilized farm income and smoothed out the wild gyrations in milk prices.

The compact expired last year. Staff for Vermont’s congressional delegation were not optimistic that the compact would be renewed.

Susan Boardman Russ is the chief of staff for Senator James Jeffords. Russ says she realizes that it makes no sense that a program that doesn’t cost the government a dime can’t get passed in Congress:

(Russ) “It is not something that we aren’t aware of. This seems incredible that something that works and costs the federal government nothing is not accepted and cannot win the votes. But that is the reality.”

(Dillon) Next week, the US Senate will take up farm legislation that includes a provision to help dairy farmers. The program would cost the government around $2 to 3 billion. But the congressional staff says there’s no guarantee that this provision will stay in the final bill.

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

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