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Farmers financial stresses topic at legislative breakfast

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February 22, 2007

By ANDY KIRKALDY

BRIDPORT — A heartfelt debate on the pros and cons of a bill in the Legislature that would stop the practice of Vermont dairy farmers paying milk hauling fees enlivened Monday’s Legislative Breakfast, which was held at the home of the series’ sponsor, Bridport Grange No. 303.

The bill, now in the Senate Agriculture Committee, would make it illegal for farmers to pay “hauling and stop” charges to the companies that deliver their milk, as has been the practice for decades. Essentially, farmers, who are facing growing financial pressures and historically low milk prices, are the ones who pay to have their milk picked up when they sell it, not the companies that buy it.

Sen. Harold Giard (D-Addison County and Brandon), a former dairy farmer and a backer of the bill, said that practice is unique to the dairy industry and costs Vermont farmers about $14.6 million a year.

Giard said while milk prices are at the same levels they were 20 years ago, the time is right for Vermont to make a statement.

“Legislation sends a message, and we’ve seen this not only in Vermont in terms of what I’m attempting to do with hauling and stop charges … but also in Minnesota, Wisconsin, the states that all have small dairy farms. They’re all saying, ‘Wait a minute, what can the states do?’” he said. “Frankly I think the states can do a great deal and one thing is to howl and scream.”  

But New Haven farmer and milk co-operative board member Andy Dykstra presented a differing view of the bill to the 20 citizens and half-dozen legislators gathered.

Dykstra said he would love to save $1 a hundredweight in hauling charges at a time farmers are only getting $13.46 per hundred pounds (about 5 cents a gallon in hauling charges) for their milk. But he believes if Vermont acted alone without the support of the dairy sectors in New York and Pennsylvania that the tactic could backfire.

“I appreciate, Harold, what you’re trying to do with the hauling and all that. That’s great if we can do that. But I feel you’ve got to be very careful to do that as a state thing. I mean we are one of the three biggest milk-producing states in the Northeast, but we’ve got two huge ones in New York and Pennsylvania,” he said.

“And if we can’t get them in the fold in this hauling issue and stop charge issue …  it’s very easy for these processors to say we’re not going to pay that extra dollar for that commodity … And that could put us at a huge disadvantage. I think it’s a great idea, don’t get me wrong, but we have to be very careful that it’s not going to hurt us.”

Instead, Dykstra suggested state officials should lobby for federal action.

“I think that’s where we’ve got to go, and I think the governor agrees with that. The state can only do certain things. And we, and as a farmer I hate to say it this way, I hate to be a welfare recipient from my fellow state or town people. I think we work hard for our money, and we should be paid fair. And again, I think it’s got to come off from the federal side, not from the state,” he said.

But Giard said looking to federal lawmakers and the United States Department of Agriculture for help has already proven fruitless.

“We waited through five farm bills for Congress to recognize that the price of milk to dairy farmers is not OK. It’s totally unacceptable. Five farm bills. They’ve done nothing. We’ve waited for USDA to provide some leadership on this. They’ve done nothing,” Giard said.

Giard also said the state’s dairy sector may have more leverage than it realizes, and that changing the hauling fee practice may show that to be true. 

“I hate it because every time in agriculture when we try to do something, we’re threatened with ‘We’ll take away your market.’ Every time you attempt to get the farmer a better price out of the marketplace, there’s this enormous threat that the Green Mountains will crumble and Lake Champlain will dry up,” Giard said.

Giard believes there is enough money in the food chain to pay farmers a fair wage. He said if Vermont doesn’t “stand up and fight” the state will not have a dairy sector in 25 years.   

 “The average block of cheese from Cabot sells for $13,046 a ton … The milk that went to make that was $2,256. Somewhere in there there’s a difference of $10,000 and something,” Giard said. “I don’t understand why the dairy farmer should have to pay the hauling on that. I don’t understand why the dairy farmer should have to subsidize Ben & Jerry’s ice cream when they’re owned by Unilever.” 

Giard’s remarks, which also included remembrances of what it was like to be a financially struggling farmer, were greeted by applause, including from Dykstra.

But Dykstra then also asked Giard to be mindful that a collective approach might also bear fruit. 

“Could you work with the legislators of New York and Pennsylvania and discuss this situation? Because you know now we are kind of way up here (north). Our consumer base is not here. And I think, Harold, you should realize, too, we’ve got to do this united,” Dykstra said. 

Rep. Will Stevens (I-Shoreham), a member of the House Agriculture Committee, said overtures are being made in that direction.

“We’re aware of unified legislative opportunities at the Agency of Agriculture, and our committees are working on them with New York and Pennsylvania, specifically,” Stevens said.

Rep. Chris Bray (D-Weybridge) also said legislators do not believe that there is a “silver bullet” solution to farm problems, but are instead taking a “silver buckshot” approach. One such approach is to create a Vermont “Fair Trade” system that would guarantee that consumers buying Vermont Fair Trade Certified products would know that “a larger share of the extra money you’re paying goes back to the farmer.”

Stevens also outlined items in the agriculture bill the house committee has passed, including provisions to help market Vermont products, ease permitting restrictions on smaller energy-generating projects, and encourage more crop research at the university level. 

Bray also said the bill includes $3.2 million of immediate assistance to the dairy sector, and Giard added lawmakers will decide this week if some of that money can be earmarked toward helping the dozen farms that lost barns during last week’s blizzard.

 

SUE, PLEASE RUN THIS IN A BOX AS A SIDEBAR

hed: Feb. 19 Legislative Breakfast

 

BRIDPORT — In addition to their discussion on Vermont agriculture, local lawmakers at Monday’s Legislative Breakfast addressed other topics including the following:

• Rep. Chris Bray (D-New Haven) said he voted in support of the Vermont House resolution favoring withdrawing troops from Iraq at least in part because of the $4,000 per citizen expense of the war, which means it has cost New Haven about $7.1 million, Bridport $5 million and Weybridge $3.4 million.

• Lawmakers said there should be money in the budget for controlling mosquitoes this year.

• Rep. Greg Clark (R-Vergennes) said the House Education Committee is urging school districts to standardize accounting practices to allow state officials to better track statewide education spending; looking at different ways to deliver education, including trimester systems; and looking at Education Secretary Richard Cate’s proposal to consolidate supervisory unions.

Legislators were generally lukewarm to that last suggestion, except that it might ease the burden on volunteers around the state.

“There’s a sense there that we’re willing to hear more, but I don’t think anybody’s kidding themselves into thinking this is a big cost-containment idea,” Clark said. “The commissioner’s idea behind this, at least what he said to us, is it’s the amount of human resources being used.”

• Rep. Steve Maier (D-Middlebury) said local legislators were working together to oppose a proposed outpatient eye surgery center in South Burlington, on the grounds that it would duplicate services already offered in Addison, Chittenden and Franklin counties.

“We’ve been putting together a letter expressing our concern about this proposed facility. We think we already have that well in hand. The need is addressed,” Maier said.

• Sen. Claire Ayer (D-Addison County and Brandon) said one of her committees is looking into creating a statewide energy efficiency fund that would be supported by a surcharge on home energy bills. The money would be used to help homeowners afford energy-efficiency projects, she said.

In response to a question she said the Senate is also considering a two-part bill that would provide simple preventative health care and state identity cards to migrant farm workers.

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