Statement of Senator Bernie Sanders at the Senate Agriculture Field Hearing in Montpelier, Vermont

As many of the people in this room have heard me say in the past, preserving geographically-dispersed, family-based agriculture in this country is a critical priority from an economic standpoint, from an environmental standpoint, from a food safety and nutrition standpoint, and from a national security standpoint. Certainly with respect to dairy, and in the case of many other commodities as well, we have to do far more at the federal level and at the state level if we are to achieve this goal.

Let me begin by thanking Senator Patrick Leahy for chairing this important hearing on the next Farm Bill. I am also pleased that we are joined by Congressman Peter Welch. People in this room should know that in all my time in Washington, there has been no issue that has united the Vermont delegation more than the need to protect Vermont's agricultural sector in general, and family dairy farming in particular. That was certainly true when Senator Jeffords was part of the delegation and it remains so with Congressman Welch. I know I speak for all three of us when I say that we are deeply aware of the crisis facing dairy farmers here in Vermont and in many other parts of the country as well as producers of other commodities. We are also extremely concerned about the broader economic problems in rural America. And I can assure each of you that, as a delegation, we will continue to push as hard as we possibly can to bring some relief. As many of the people in this room have heard me say in the past, preserving geographically-dispersed, family-based agriculture in this country is a critical priority from an economic standpoint, from an environmental standpoint, from a food safety and nutrition standpoint, and from a national security standpoint. Certainly with respect to dairy, and in the case of many other commodities as well, we have to do far more at the federal level and at the state level if we are to achieve this goal. I know the problem in dairy is clear to those here but let me lay out some facts that really drive the point home. According to the USDA's July 2006 backgrounder, since 1980, the number of dairy operations in the United States is down by 75% and the number of milk cows is down 16.5%. Of course, dairy is not alone. In 1950, there were over 5.3 million farms of all kinds in America. In 2002, only 2.1 million remained. Put another way, we lost 60% of our farms in this country in just half a century. Farmers in all commodities are also being squeezed by the continued consolidation at the processor and retailer level. A single dairy processor now controls 30% or more of U.S. fluid milk - with regional control by a single dairy processor estimated in some areas to be as high as 80%. Likewise, the University of Missouri reports that in commodity after commodity a small number of companies dominate. The February 2005 report found that the top four beef packers control 83.5% of that market. Among pork packers, the top four control 64%. The top four flour millers control 63%. 41% of ethanol production is in the hands of only four companies. And just two companies control 60% of the U.S. corn and soybean seed market. This same kind of consolidation is happening at the retail level where just five companies control 46% of supermarket retailing in the United States. This consolidation puts agricultural producers - the people who actually raise and grow our food - at the mercy of ever fewer and fewer buyers who have greater and greater power to dictate prices. It is in this economic environment with these substantial imbalances of power between the producer, the processor and the retailer that we are working to develop a Farm Bill that at least gives producers a fighting chance to get a fair price for the wholesome food they produce. In terms of dairy, we in the Vermont delegation are once again working furiously to develop a federal response that will maximize assistance to farmers in Vermont. As you know in the last Farm Bill we were able to create the MILC program as a result of a new multi-regional coalition we formed with members of Congress from the Upper Midwest and the Southeast. While we understand the shortcomings on the MILC program, it did provide over $2 billion in assistance targeted to small and medium-sized dairy producers across the country and brought in over $50 million to Vermont alone. As we continue discussions in Washington about how to proceed, one option that is obviously on the table in Congress is to continue the MILC program, or an improved version of it, that could possibly include a higher cap, a higher price, and/or changes to reflect the multi-family farms we have here in the Northeast. My office is also looking at the viability of the National Dairy Equity Act, a bill that represents a hybrid between the MILC program and regional pricing proposals. While this program would get much of the extra money for farmers from the market, it provides equitable treatment for dairy producers regardless of the utilization of their milk. However, it is strongly opposed by the commercial processors and by others who opposed the Northeast Dairy Compact and who, misguidedly in my view, continue to be leery of regional pricing programs even where equal treatment for all regions is guaranteed. In the end, each of the three of us is committed to getting the best deal for Vermont dairy farmers that can be achieved. Beyond the traditional dairy pricing programs, we need to look at other ways we can increase farm income or lower farm costs. I currently sit on both committees in the U.S. Senate that have primary jurisdiction over energy issues. Everyone understands now that global climate change is a mounting crisis. I firmly believe that America's farmers and foresters will have to play a major role if we are to solve the problem of global warming and if we are going to break out dependency of foreign fuel sources. We need to move ahead aggressively to identify and implement biofuel strategies that are appropriate for Vermont. The northeast is behind right now in this respect but we are looking to add opportunities for this region of the country in the 2007 Farm Bill. I know that we will hear some testimony about methane digesters. That technology makes sense in terms from both an energy and environmental point of view. We need to make that technology affordable to more farms. In addition, we need to explore other policies that can work for farmers here in Vermont. That includes increased support for specialty crops, assistance for those farmers who want to transition to organic, and a renewed commitment to innovative initiatives like agri-tourism. Finally, we have to help groups of farmers who want to engage in value-added enterprises. I believe that this should be done as part of a much more aggressive and coordinated marketing of Vermont-branded products. Success in this area is going to take new thinking on the part of both the private and public sector. We are going to have to forge new kind of public-private partnerships to make these efforts successful with resources and active involvement coming from both the federal and state governments. Let me conclude by saying this. There is no single solution out there that is going to solve the current agricultural crisis - and it is indeed a crisis. We are all going to have to think outside the box if we expect to preserve family-based agriculture in our great state. We need a strong federal countercyclical payment program for dairy but we also need to engage in new ways of processing and marketing agricultural food products as well as other agricultural products like energy if we are to be successful. I look forward to hearing the testimony of the witnesses and to working with Senator Leahy, Congressman Welch and people across Vermont to make sure the Farm Bill addresses our needs.