Welch says government should help dairy farmers

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(Host) Vermont Congressman Peter Welch says if the government can bail out banks, it should be able to help the region’s hard-pressed dairy farmers.

Welch and a bipartisan group of congressmen have re-invigorated a dairy farm caucus that was disbanded last year after Congress passed the Farm Bill.

As VPR’s John Dillon reports, the goal is to provide immediate relief for farmers, and to work on long-term reform of the milk pricing system.

(Dillon) Welch says it’s an uphill fight to get help for dairy farmers who have seen their income cut almost in half since last year.

Regional differences and party politics have doomed many dairy reform efforts in the past. But Welch says the dairy caucus may help, because it includes members from large dairy producing areas such as California and the Midwest.

(Welch) "This division between the large and the small dairy producers, the Midwest and the East – it’s been a real problem to get a sensible, sustainable dairy policy. Farmers understand that they’ve got to get together and one of the reasons is this collapse in the price, whether you run 5,000 head or you have 150 milkers in Franklin County – you’re losing money."

(Dillon) The caucus has two goals – an immediate increase in government payments to farmers, and long-term reform of the pricing system. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture says it can’t spend more money on dairy farmers without cutting an equivalent amount from other programs.

Welch says government has to be creative and find the money.

(Welch) "What I’ve seen here in Washington is if you create enough attention and get people focused, then they find a way. Just take a look at the bank bailout. Goldman Sachs was bailed out so they could fight another day. Well, last quarter they made a couple of billion dollars. They’ve paid back their TARP money. Why couldn’t we take the interest they paid on that and make it so our farmers can fight another day."

(Dillon) The price collapse comes as Vermont farmers faced unrelenting rains this summer that damaged feed crops. Bob Parsons is with the University of Vermont Extension Service.

(Parsons) "In a year when farmers are already losing money hand over fist, and they’re trying to make better use of their forages to feed their cows, they’re getting hit with poor forage yields. And that’s going to clobber them."

(Dillon) Parsons said much of the nitrogen fertilizer that was spread in the spring washed away in the rain.

(Parsons) "And so the corn is not going to be able to catch up when you get to this time of year because now we’re getting into August, the days are getting shorter every day now."

(Dillon) Congressman Welch says he can’t promise when farmers will see help from Washington.

(Welch) "I can’t give a prediction. And whatever the odds are of our being able to be successful we have to make the best effort that we can, and that’s the commitment that those of us in the dairy caucus have made."

(Dillon) Vermont’s two U-S senators also met with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to advocate for a higher federal support price.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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