Negotiations on Dairy Bill Shrink Benefits to Farmers

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(Host) Negotiations are under way in Congress on a subsidy program to help dairy farmers in Vermont and around the country. The subsidy plan is meant to replace the Northeast Dairy Compact that expired last fall. But not everyone is satisfied with the concessions made in the negotiations, as VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) In the hard bargaining between the House and the Senate on the farm bill, the dairy subsidy plan has shrunk. The original Senate proposal was to use $3 billion in taxpayer-funded subsidies to prop up dairy farmers in the Northeast and around the country. At first the plan called for farmers in the twelve northeastern states to get more money. That idea was dropped last week.

Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy is one of the lead Senate negotiators. His staff says Leahy has agreed to extend the same payments to all farmers across the country. Bob Gray is a lobbyist with the northeast dairy co-op and has tracked the talks closely:

(Gray) “Initially in the Senate plan, the twelve northeast states did get more. But as they’ve worked on this plan, they’ve tried to equalize payments across the country and get them closer. Of course when you do that, since the payment level in the Northeast was better, that adds more cost. The question is, how if you’re trying to trim, how can you achieve both of those goals?”

(Dillon) The total amount of money in the dairy program also seems to be getting smaller. According to Bobby Starr, a North Troy Democrat who has followed the negotiations, the $3 billion dairy program has now been whittled down to about $1.3 billion.

Starr says $1 billion was removed to fund conservation programs. He says he’s also learned that another $700 million may go for commodities like cotton and peanuts, instead of dairy:

(Starr) “Not only is it bad for our dairy farmers, it’s bad for our consumers and it’s bad for everyone involved.”

(Dillon) Starr was the original author of the dairy compact. He’ll go to Washington this week to meet with Senator James Jeffords to argue that the compact idea should be resurrected. He notes that the compact didn’t cost the taxpayers anything. Instead, the money to boost milk prices came from the dairy processors.

(Starr) “If they’d a spend as much time trying to pass the compact as they have putting this Mickey Mouse program together that’s not going to benefit anyone, I think at the very least we could have gotten our Northeast Compact reauthorized.”

(Dillon) Congressional staff members say the chances of the compact getting passed at this point are very slim. They say that Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has promised the Vermont delegation that they’ll get a dairy support program that’s roughly equivalent to the compact.

Starr says that plan now is inadequate. He says Jeffords and Leahy should demand that Daschle deliver with a new dairy compact.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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