Senate Agriculture Committee holds first field hearing

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(Host) The Senate Agriculture Committee went on the road today to begin rewriting the 2007 Farm Bill.

The committee held its first field hearing in Montpelier, where farmers sought help for the state’s struggling dairy industry.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Mark Magnan of Fairfield ships his milk to the St. Albans Co-op.

He says his bills are going up much faster than his paycheck.

(Magnan) “We have a much higher cost of feed due to the craze in ethanol. Farmers are on the tailwind of that issue. We have much higher cost of sawdust, fuel, fertilizer, many insurances. And the problem is all these costs are escalating higher and at a much faster rate than the cost of milk.”

(Dillon) Magnan and other dairy farmers would like Congress to reauthorize a program that pays a base amount when prices drop below a certain level.

But this program – called the Milk Income Loss Contract – is set to expire in September, before the new Farm Bill takes effect.

Senator Patrick Leahy warned that it would be hard to find additional funds in the current climate in Washington.

(Leahy) “So we start with a baseline which is very little funding available for dairy programs in the next farm bill. It’s a difficult challenge.”

(Dillon) Vermont farmers also want the Senate to consider a regional approach to dairy pricing, because the cost of production in much higher in the Northeast than in other parts of the country.

Farmers are looking for ways to manage the supply of milk as well. Mark Magnan:

(Magnan) “I’m a proponent of establishing regions in our country and mandating a supply control mechanism to manage milk supplies within the established region. We recognize our prices reflect the laws of supply and demand and we as dairymen can control the supply.”

(Dillon) The hearing brought out Vermont’s entire congressional delegation, and Governor Jim Douglas.

Senator Bernie Sanders said many farmers would like to see the Northeast Dairy Compact restored, since it did not use money from taxpayers to support prices. But he pointed out that the Bush Administration and milk processors successfully opposed the compact.

Sanders asked the governor – who recently spent two nights at the White House – if he could use his influence with Republican leaders on dairy policy.

(Sanders) “And maybe the White House, as to how we could get them on board, the idea of regional compacts – and what kind of pressure and help we could solicit from them?”

(Douglas) I don’t know if I can answer the latter question, senator. But certainly happy to continue to voice my views to the executive branch in Washington as I’ve done for a number of years now.

(Dillon) The Farm Bill is a massive piece of legislation that includes anti-hunger programs, money for farm energy projects and rural economic development.

One witness told about excessive red tape in trying to get money for a methane digester to produce electricity on his farm.

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

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