Connecticut dairy farmers lose their safety net

Correction: The final paragraph in an earlier version of this story should have said that dairy farmers are paid per 100 pounds of milk. The present version uses the correct unit measure. 

Washington – Because Congress failed to act on a farm bill before its summer recess, Connecticut’s dairy farmers lost their federal assistance over the weekend.

Connecticut farmers received about $1.2 million last year in payments from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Milk Income Loss Program, or MILC, and much, much more during years when milk prices were lower.

But the MILC program was phased out Sunday, a month before all other farm programs are set to expire because Congress has failed to pass a new, five-year farm bill. 

“There is no safety net now, and milk prices are expected to fall, ” said Peter Orr, owner of Fort Hill Farms in Thompson. “I am very concerned.”

The MILC program gave Connecticut farmers a subsidy when Northeast milk prices dipped below $16.95 a hundredweight and/or feed prices spiked.

But Congress has been unable to agree on a new farm bill that would keep subsidies to dairy producers –- and other farmers -– flowing.

The Senate was able to approve a farm bill earlier this year. But Republicans in the House were split on how much to cut the food stamp program, a big component of the farm bill. The House ended up passing a bill that would reauthorize all farm programs –- making a major change in the dairy title -– and did not include any nutrition measures.

The House balked at trying to negotiate a final farm bill with the Senate, so nothing was done before Congress left for its August break.

The big question now is: Can a final farm bill be approved when Congress returns Sept.9?

The food stamp program is an entitlement, so it will be funded at last year’s level if Congress does nothing. But the other programs need reauthorization to continue.

“A five-year farm bill allows farmers to plan their business, but right now we are in limbo,” said Orr, who milks 200 dairy cows.

Henry Talmage, executive director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau, said the uncertainty is hurting all farmers.

“We really don’t know what is going to happen,” he said. “It’s really a crapshoot as to where it all will end up.”

Congress could decide to “kick the can down the road,” as it did last year when it could not agree on a farm bill, and approve an extension of the legislation set to expire at the end of the month. 

But Connecticut’s dairy farmers oppose that. They're hoping that the new farm bill will replace the MILC program with one that is more market-oriented.

The “Dairy Producer Margin Protection Program” would give participating farmers a payout when there’s a large gap between milk prices and feed costs. Dairy farmers could also buy additional “insurance” to increase the amount of their margin payments.

In the Senate bill, all dairy farmers who sign up for the margin program would automatically be enrolled in a “stabilization program,” which pays farmers to pull back productions when prices fall too low.

“The general consensus in the dairy community is we welcome the new program,” Orr said.

The House bill does not contain the stabilization program. That’s another contentious issue that must be debated if the House and Senate agree to negotiate a final farm bill.

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, blames House Republicans for the quagmire.

“Everybody knows the Senate passed a comprehensive farm bill farmers would be happy with,” he said.

Since proposed food stamp cuts were the hang-up in the House, Rory Cooper, spokesman for Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., said he expected the House to try again.

Cooper said the House would take up a nutrition bill in September that “makes much-needed reforms to the food stamp program, that adds work requirements for able-bodied adults, ends abuses and protects it for the children, seniors, disabled, and families that most need it.”

But tightening eligibility requirements to cut the amount of money in the food stamp program would lose the support of most Democrats and some Republicans who either oppose the cuts or think they aren’t deep enough. That means a fight over food stamps could continue to stall approval of a final bill.

Ben Freund, owner of Freund Farm in East Canaan, is frustrated by Congress’ inaction.

“We’re a long-term business,” he said of dairy farmers. “We can’t deal with this uncertainty.”

Freund also said dairy farmers benefit from the USDA’s conservation programs, which provide incentives for ecological farming practices. Funding for the conservation program will end Sept. 30 unless Congress acts.

Freund, whose 800-acre farm contains 270 cows, said Congress, and the American public, don’t care about the farmers’ plight.

“People take for granted consistently good food policy,” he said.

But consumers could take a big hit if the farm bill issue is not resolved soon.

If not settled by the end of the year, the nation will fall over what’s been called the “dairy cliff,” and prices for milk and other dairy products could double.

Without a farm bill, all federal farm programs would return to a 1940s-era law that would nearly double the price of milk. Those laws would put prices at $38 for 100 pounds of milk, compared with about $20 for 100 pounds of milk farmers currently receive.

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