Editorial: Look beyond patches in dairy crisis solution (Burlington Free Press)

The effort by Vermont's congressional delegation to boost the minimum price paid to struggling dairy farmers is just one more patch to a pricing mechanism so full of leaks that it threatens to sink a whole system of family farms.

Sen. Patrick Leahy's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing scheduled for Saturday in St. Albans focuses on one important aspect of the dairy crisis -- the state of competition in the industry.

The nation's dairy policy requires a delicate balance between the goal of keeping staple food prices affordable and ensuring regional production of milk, in the interest of food security and local economies.

Given the twin objectives, managing the supply of milk makes sense to smooth out the sharp price fluctuations typical in the market and the equally acute swings in production -- a price increase followed by a glut that brings prices down below production costs.

Those who object to any measures -- either by the government or the industry -- to manage supply must recognize that the market in which milk flows already bears the mark of heavy government intervention, both through the nation's food policies and through administration of the pricing system.

The current system has meant that dairy producers -- especially small family operations least able to absorb losses -- have been asked to bear the cost burden that allows consumers to enjoy relatively low and stable prices.

The market is already dominated by a relatively small number of buyers and processors. If the milk industry continues on its current path, the nation's milk market will be dominated by a few big dairy operations.

The over-consolidation of the food chain goes against the national interest. Experience has taught the nation about the perils of over-reliance on food shipped long distances to centralized processing and packaging plants -- think recent scares involving spinach and beef.

In many rural communities, the loss of family dairy operations could have an economic impact proportional to the loss of a small manufacturing plant in a Midwest town. Add to that Vermont's commitment to dairy farms as one way of preserving the open, working landscape that has become one of the hallmarks of the Vermont experience to visitors and residents alike.

Preserving competition, the diversity of our food supply and open lands requires a milk pricing system that allows dairy farmers to make a living at what they do.