WASHINGTON – Dairy farmers in Maine and the rest of the country may be eligible for relief from low milk prices last fall, federal agriculture officials announced Wednesday.

The additional payments were welcome news to Maine’s struggling dairy farmers, but several people in the industry said much larger reforms are needed.

“It’s a brief moment of sunshine on a very cloudy day,” said Walt Whitcomb, commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

Dairy farmers were concerned after Congress allowed the previous Farm Bill to expire Sept. 1, taking with it the Milk Income Loss Contract program, which helps cover some costs when the amount paid to farmers for milk drops below a set price.

Congress subsequently extended the Farm Bill, retroactively reviving the program. And Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced plans to pay participating farmers 59 cents per hundred-weight — the standard measurement — for milk produced in September.

“It’s fortunate that we are able to go back and pick up that month … and issue payments to some people who definitely need it,” said Ken Gustin with the USDA’s Farm Service Agency in Bangor.

Maine has about 300 dairy farms, ranging froma handful of cows to more than 1,500. Recent studies estimate that the industry employs 1,400 people directly and generates more than $570 million in the state. Another 2,600 people work at processing plants or other businesses directly tied to the dairy industry.

Rising fuel and feed costs have outpaced the amount farmers receive for their milk under the federal pricing system, so many farmers lose money on every gallon they sell.

Dale Cole, a farmer in Sidney who is president of the Maine Dairy Industry Association, called the Milk Income Loss Contract program an important safety net for some farmers.

But he said that, in his case, the 59 cents per hundred-weight will equal just a little more than $1,000, not nearly enough to cover the losses that month.

He said a new regional system is needed for dairy pricing and payments.

Members of Congress from Northeastern states have been pushing for years to overhaul the federal dairy pricing and safety net system. House and Senate versions of a new Farm Bill would have replaced the Milk Income Loss Contract program, but the House never acted on a bill.

Whitcomb, a dairy farmer, said he and others will continue to push for changes, through Congress or regulations. Meanwhile, the revived payments will provide temporary assistance.

“It will be a very helpful check for that month, but then it rapidly disappears,” he said. “The tragedy is that the Farm Bill didn’t do anything to ensure the stability of the milk industry in this region.”


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