Sanders, Leahy lead call for farm assistance
WASHINGTON — Senators from Vermont and other dairy states are pressing for additional federal price supports for the dairy industry, saying a temporary boost in the floor price for milk and cheese would provide short-term emergency relief for struggling farmers.
Meanwhile, Jericho dairy farmer Gary Davis waits and watches. Well, waits.
“I have honestly tried to close my eyes to what we’re getting,” said Davis, a third-generation farmer whose 95-cow dairy farm has been losing money since March. “It’s been pretty pathetic.”
At a Tuesday news conference in the nation’s capital — complete with a live cow named Maggie — seven senators and the president of the National Farmers Union urged passage of a measure by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to provide $350 million more to increase the price the government pays for surplus dairy products.
Sanders’ provision passed the Senate 60-37 in August but was not included in the House version of next year’s agriculture spending bill. The senators, including Sen. Patrick Leahy, along with Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., are gathering signatures from lawmakers for letters urging congressional negotiators to include the measure in the final bill.
“The federal government can play a major role in the midst of this crisis, helping family farmers stay afoot ... until we see prices rise,” Sanders said. “We need to do some bold thinking so that we don’t continue to have the kind of volatility that we have seen for so many years, which has resulted in the demise of thousands of dairy farms all over this country.”
Increased production costs and declining milk prices are forcing dairy farmers into bankruptcy and debt after generations in the business. Vermont has lost more than 200 dairy farms in the past five years, leaving a little more than 1,000 still in business.
Leahy said the Department of Agriculture’s July 31 decision to boost the dairy floor price for three months — a move estimated to increase dairy farmers’ revenue nationwide by $243 million — will help, but not enough.
“It may have helped stop some of the downward slide,” Leahy said. “Dairy farmers are still hurting.”
Davis can attest to that. Since it’s a grazing farm, the cost of production at Davis Farm is slightly lower than other Vermont dairy farms, but the price of milk remains well-below his break-even point of about $1.38 a gallon. After hauling charges and promotion costs are deducted from his milk check, he says he has been receiving about $1.03 a gallon.
“When you open the milk check and actually see that price, it’s real,” he said. To make ends meet, he is borrowing money on the equity of the 225-acre farm. “We get behind on our grain bills... and other bills,” Davis said.
Daniel LaCoss, of LaCoss Farm in Barton, said he has contacted Sanders “to see how we could, as dairy farmers, be active in the process to find some kind of reform.
“What we really need is an overhaul of the entire milk pricing system,” he said. “It’s an outdated system.”
LaCoss is also pushing for a supply management system that would prevent the over-production of milk, which undercuts the price dairy farmers receive. “We need to keep our supply in balance with demand,” he said.
His sense is the majority of dairy farmers in New England would sign on to such a plan, but farmers in other regions of the country are hesitant.
More than 200 National Farmers Union members are in Washington this week to lobby Congress for greater support.
“We have an industry that is in very dire need of some money right now,” said Roger Johnson, the union’s president. “Prices have collapsed. They are dramatically below cost of production and have been now for some time. And we have dairy farmers around the country that are going out of business at a very rapid rate of speed.”
SENATE HEARING IN ST. ALBANS
Sen. Patrick Leahy will convene a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Saturday in St. Albans to examine the state of competition in the region’s dairy industry.
Sen. Bernie Sanders will join Leahy at the hearing titled, “Crisis On The Farm: The State Of Competition And Prospects For Sustainability In The Northeast Dairy Industry,” at 10 a.m. at St. Albans City Hall.
Witnesses will include the new head of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division, Christine Varney.
“Vermont dairy farmers are hurting and there may be anti-competitive forces that have contributed to this crisis,” Leahy said in a news release. He said the hearing will focus on “anti-competitive issues in the Northeast dairy market. Examining this in the context of the current crisis may illuminate any structural problems that are contributing factors, making them easier to see and diagnose.
“Bringing this hearing to St. Albans will ensure that Vermont’s voice and Vermont’s experience will help inform Congress about these issues.”
Sanders blasted dairy giant Dean Foods for making “record-breaking profits” and paying its CEOs more than $100 million in the last five years at the same time smaller farms are suffering. A Dean Foods representative did not respond to a request for comment.
Three Vermont farmers will also testify, as well as an economist with Agri-Mark dairy cooperative, and the chief economist of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Others are encouraged to attend and to submit written testimony for the record. This can be done at the hearing, or digitally before or for one week after the hearing by sending comments to Dairy_Hearing@Judiciary-dem.senate.gov.