June 24, 2013

Milk price proposals miss mark for Maine

Congress weighs a change that ends U.S. subsidies, but farmers here prefer a plan that could cost consumers.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 2)

Today's poll: Milk prices

Should the federal government replace milk price subsidies even though an alternative could cost local consumers more?

Yes

No

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Filler operator Chris Roberts keeps a eye on controls at the Oakhurst Dairy plant in Portland.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Tom Brigham, co-president of Oakhurst Dairy in Portland, gets "quite involved" in dairy policy at the state level but not as much with federal policy. He said there is a consensus among Maine farmers that reforms are needed.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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"It's not a question of whether these (policies) are beneficial to anyone," James said. "The question is whether it is appropriate that the government should be doing this and whether it is constitutional that the government is doing this, and I would argue no."

Farmers and others within the industry in Maine would not go that far. But many are arguing for a system that moves away from federal subsidies and more closely links the price paid to farmers with the price of milk in the marketplace -- a system that could also cost consumers more.

"The reality is, farming in this country is kind of an uphill battle, and with the system the way it is now, farmers have very little ability to affect what they are being paid," said Julie-Marie Bickford, executive director of the Maine Dairy Industry Association. "What we are saying is the system needs to be more equitable and balanced."

Oakhurst's Brigham said he gets "quite involved" in dairy policy at the state level but not as much with federal policy, although he said there is a consensus among Maine farmers that reforms are needed.

"The best solution, we believe, would be an improvement to the federal (pricing) system such that the farmers receive a price that is more in line with the costs of producing milk," Brigham said. "The second-best solution is a regional program."

REFORM DIFFICULT, BUT PUSH CONTINUES

Yet as events last week in Congress demonstrated, reforming a federal dairy-pricing system often described as "incomprehensible" or "archaic" is rarely easy.

Farm bills used to be fairly noncontroversial stuff. The current attempt to draft a new five-year Farm Bill has been dogged by controversy, however, over cuts to food stamp programs, crop subsidies and, most recently, dairy policy.

On Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner and others managed to remove part of the "margin insurance" program that would have required participating farmers to limit milk production when too much supply drives prices down. But the loss of support of lawmakers from dairy-rich states, combined with anger over food stamp policies, led to the defeat of a new five-year Farm Bill.

"I've been at this a long time, and it's pretty difficult to get anyone to agree with anything," said Smith, the Vermont-based consultant.

Smith has personally felt the sting of regional politics when it comes to dairy policy. In the 1990s, he was the key architect and later executive director of the Northeast Dairy Compact, a program that allowed the New England states to set milk prices.

The program was widely popular with New England farmers during its four-year run. But Congress allowed the program to expire in 2001 at the behest of industry representatives from other regions who argued it would drive down prices nationwide because of overproduction and who were frustrated by the higher prices paid to New England farmers.

"It came apart not because it didn't work, but because everybody else around the country was jealous," Novakovic said. "It's a real testament to Sen. (Patrick) Leahy that he managed to get it (reauthorized) so many times."

Leahy, D-Vt., remains a powerful voice in Congress for New England's dairy industry. Other prominent northeastern voices, such as former Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, have left Washington.

Smith, for one, believes today's deeply polarized Congress is often less willing to delve into complicated issues. Staffers with expertise in dairy who can advise lawmakers on policy are in short supply, he said.

"I'm not being disrespectful, but you can't find any staff now," Smith said.

Still, northeastern farmers and lawmakers continue to push for broader dairy reforms.

The Senate version of the Farm Bill that passed that chamber earlier this month would require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to hold public hearings around the country to solicit suggestions on other types of long-term dairy policy reform. The language was co-sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

"That way, everybody has the potential to have their point of view heard," Bickford said. "We don't think we have the only ideas out there. And if there is a better idea, that's great; let's hear it and flesh it out." 

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

kmiller@pressherald.com

Twitter: @KevinMillerDC

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Today's poll: Milk prices

Should the federal government replace milk price subsidies even though an alternative could cost local consumers more?

Yes

No

View Results