No agreement on how to raise milk prices for farmers

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(Host) A series of meetings between a group representing more than 3 hundred Vermont farmers and several large dairy cooperatives has failed to produce agreement on how to raise milk prices for farmers.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind) When Dairy Farmers of Vermont organized a year ago, the price farmers were receiving for milk had dropped perilously – while retail prices remained stable.

After a round of meetings between the group and dairy cooperatives, there seems to be little agreement on how to increase milk prices to farmers. The co-ops told the group they can’t raise the amount they pay because they don’t control retail prices. Peter Sterling is with Dairy Farmers of Vermont.

(Sterling) It was interesting to hear how powerless the co-ops actually feel in all this. They feel like they’re at the mercy of a couple of large processors who can definitely tell them how much they can get for their milk and, of course, these processors feel like they’re beholden to the ever decreasing number of supermarket chains.

(Zind) Sterling says his group is pushing for several other solutions to low milk prices. In the long term, Dairy Farmers of Vermont plans to press for legislation in the six New England states and New York that would tie the farmers price to the retail price of milk. That’s called price collaring.

The group also wants the co-ops to join them in urging processors and retailers to return more money to farmers.

In addition, they’re asking the co-ops to drop what’s called the stop charge. This is the fee farmers pay each time the milk truck stops at their farm. Sterling says stop charges can cost several thousand dollars a year. Robert Wellington is a Senior Vice President of Agri-Mark. Wellington says he doesn’t think co-ops will be willing to make that change. He says even if they did, the costs would simply be shifted and farmers would still end up paying them.

(Wellington) If you were to eliminate that charge, the cost would still be there. There’s no pot of money sitting out there in never-never land where you can just take the money from. Co-ops are owned by their members.

(Zind) Wellington says he doesn’t think price collaring has support in most of the region’s state legislatures. And he says Agri-Mark will not join Dairy Farmers of Vermont in pushing processors and retailers for a higher price.

Wellington says he favors state programs in Maine and Pennsylvania that have helped cushion some of the effects of low milk prices.

He says a plan initiated by the nation’s co-operatives to cut milk production and boost exports is also showing promise.

Peter Sterling of Dairy Farmers of Vermont says ultimately, farmers would be better off if they controlled the processing of their milk and marketed it as a premium Vermont product. Discussions are under way to do that by purchasing an idle processing plant in Springfield.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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