WASHINGTON, September 30 – Senate and House negotiators have agreed to provide $350 million for hard-pressed dairy farmers, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) announced today. The funding was first included in a Sanders amendment to the Department of Agriculture appropriations bill.
Sanders welcomed the agreement that he said “came at a time when Vermont's dairy farmers are struggling hard to stay in business with record-low milk prices.” He added that “this is a good step forward but we need to do much more if we are to preserve family based dairy agriculture in Vermont and America.” Leahy, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee which handled the Senate’s work on the bill, said he hopes the aid will “offer relief to Vermont’s dairy farmers and small businesses that are struggling to stay afloat,” and also pledged to seek additional relief.
Congressional conferees agreed to retain the $350 million figure first included in Sanders’ amendment that the Senate passed on August 6 by a vote of 60 to 37. An earlier House version of the Department of Agriculture appropriations bill did not include any extra dairy funds.
Under the language that Congress still must approve, $290 million would be provided in direct support to dairy farmers using guidelines to be determined by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack under an expedited process. Another $60 million would be used to purchase cheese and other dairy products for food banks and nutrition programs, spurring prices for raw dairy products by drawing down supplies of the commodity.
“Vermont's dairy farms are an integral part of our economy and our way of life. We've got to do everything we can to preserve them. While this funding will provide some much needed emergency relief, we must also develop some long-term policies which will provide fair and stable prices for dairy farmers," Sanders said.
Leahy said, “I have talked with hundreds of Vermont farmers, from one end of the state to the other, who are faced with a crisis of epic proportions. We have a dairy industry on the brink of total collapse and this could not come at a better time. I welcome this announcement today and thank the Senate and House negotiators for retaining this important funding.”
The average price farmers received for their milk fell in the past year to $11.30 per hundredweight, down from $19.30 in July 2008. It costs farmers at least $18 per hundredweight to produce milk. As prices plunged, family dairy farms in Vermont and around the country went out of business.
In addition to securing the funds in the Agriculture Department spending bill, Leahy and Sanders also have put a spotlight on the record profits of Dean Foods Co. and other giant dairy processors that dominate the milk market in New England and the rest of the country.
The Justice Department's top antitrust enforcer at a September 20 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in St. Albans, Vt., told a packed hall of dairy farmers that increased concentration in the dairy industry merited a closer look by the department. Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney said the department is reviewing market concentration, the relationship between dairy co-ops and milk processors, “and how we've evolved to the point where the co-ops are basically captive of one distributor. I want to understand how we got there and what kind of competition exists."
Dairy farmers got a temporary boost from the Agriculture Department last July 31 when Secretary Vilsack – after meeting with the senators from Vermont and other dairy states – approved a three-month price hike that was expected to increase farmers’ revenue nationwide by $243 million.