Doubts over dairy bill linger

MIDDLEBURY — A dairy reform bill in the U.S. House of Representatives is causing some local concerns among the very people it seeks to help.
When farmers gathered in Middlebury on Monday for the annual meeting of the Addison County Farm Bureau, all eyes were on a bill that seeks to stabilize the dairy industry and milk prices.
Patricia Coates, state director for Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, told the farmers gathered at the American Legion that there’s momentum in Congress for reform of this type.
“A lot of folks are interested in doing something to help dairy farmers attain security,” Coates said.
As the bill currently stands, however, Bob Foster of Foster Brothers Farm in Middlebury and regional director for the Agri-Mark milk cooperative, told the local Farm Bureau that he has some grave concerns about the bill at this point.
Built into the bill is a supply management program, which would include a trigger that forces farmers to cut back milk production if milk prices fell below a certain level. A decline in national milk production would, in theory, bolster milk prices. And once they had risen by a certain amount, the trigger would be lifted and farmers would be free to once again increase production.
But Foster said that supply management is currently optional in the bill, which would mean that farmers that haven’t opted in would be free to continue upping production while others are forced to cut back.
“If the program is optional, dairy farmers will reduce their supply and others will expand to fill that reduction. That way, we’ll never trigger out of the program,” Foster said.
During the 2009 dairy crisis, this is exactly what happened — farmers, faced with falling prices, increased milk production, sending milk prices spiraling downward.
“We can’t go through another 2009,” he said. “There’s not enough equity left for many (dairy farmers).”
Addison County Farm Bureau members approved recommendations for a national dairy market stabilization plan, which seeks to address the problems Vermont dairy farmers may have with the bill that’s currently on the table.
The recommendations specify that any supply management plan must be either mandatory or require most producers to participate, or that it must bar dairy farmers who opt out of the supply management program from participating in any other federal program — including a margin protection program that would be established as part of the bill as compensation for catastrophic loss.
And the recommendations stated that any new safety net implemented must meet or exceed benefits provided to dairy farmers in the Northeast over the last nine years, under the existing Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) program. Farmers and lawmakers alike are concerned that once the MILC program expires next year, the margin protection program implemented in its place will not provide adequate safeguards for small farmers in the case of another dip in milk prices.
The dairy policy resolutions, along with a 17 others that the county Farm Bureau approved at Monday’s meeting, will go to the Vermont Farm Bureau for inclusion in its own policy recommendations.
Clark Hinsdale, president of the Vermont Farm Bureau, was at the meeting to hear the group’s policy resolutions and to seek opinions on the current status of the federal dairy bill.
“We aren’t in favor of what’s currently there — we need to do some tweaking,” Foster told Hinsdale.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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