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Farm Bill could offer Vt. farms a safety net

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October 11, 2007

By CYRUS LEVESQUE

MIDDLEBURY — Congressman Peter Welch this week in Middlebury voiced concerns about some parts of the 2007 Farm Bill, but he said that the parts most important to Vermont’s agricultural community, such as the Milk Income Loss Contract, were preserved in the version of the bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives.

“The first job was to keep that safety net part of the Farm Bill,” the Vermont Democrat said at the annual Addison County Farm Bureau meeting on Monday.

The Farm Bill recently passed by the House and now awaits discussion by the Senate agricultural committee. The 2002 Farm Bill was set to expire last month, but was extended until November.

Details of the bill will have a significant effect on the agricultural community, and Welch said the bill could affect the rest of the state nearly as much. “A lot of the benefit is that those of us who live in Vermont … get the collateral benefit of this local, cultivated land,” Welch said, referring to side benefits like tourism dollars. “The more there is local agriculture, the better.”

However, there were some portions of the House’s version of the bill that Welch disapproved of, such as a price support program for commodities like wheat, corn, rice and other staples. He argued that too often the program wound up funding farms that didn’t need any extra help.

“These programs should basically be a safety net. I don’t think it should be an ongoing subsidy,” he said.

IMMIGRANT FARM LABOR

Immigration was another issue about which the Farm Bureau members were concerned, although it is not part of the Farm Bill itself. Some at the meeting said a too-restrictive immigration policy may make farm workers hard to find, and already poses a problem for some. Middlebury resident and farmer Bob Foster argued that national security concerns could be addressed relatively easily.

“If (workers are) identified, there’s no security problem,” he said.

Some asked Welch about identification programs that are developing at the state level in other places. Welch was not familiar with those proposals, but he said that such proposals might avoid overly broad or unnecessary requirements, which he said were likely with a federal approach.

“You’re going to get a one-size-fits-all approach in Washington,” he said.

Identification requirements were also debated among farm bureau members later in the meeting. Premise identification and animal identification proposals that could require tagging individual farm animals with computer chips are in the works at both state and federal levels, partly out of concern of a disease outbreak. But many farmers around the country are concerned about how stringent the requirements would be and exactly what animals they would apply to.

A resolution was proposed at the meeting that in the event of a disease outbreak where indemnification is owed to the animal owner, payments should only be made if the owner has both registered premise ID and animal ID.

Some objected, but Jane Clifford of Starksboro argued that a system like that would be better than any other system likely to be put into effect. “If we’re going to be leaders of the industry and do something before it’s mandated by Wal-Mart, or mandated by McDonald’s, I think it’s a good idea,” Clifford said. In the end, the resolution passed unchanged.

Despite these concerns, the agricultural industry has done relatively well overall in 2007, especially compared to last year. “There wasn’t any part of the country that felt like they could live through another 2006,” said Whiting’s Kylie Quesnel, of the low milk prices farmers got last year.

Andrea Ochs, secretary of the farm bureau until new officers were elected at the meeting, said that the financial difficulties of farmers were reflected in the farm bureau’s membership, and were not limited to Vermont.

STRUGGLING FARMERS

“All the New England states (were) losing members, either because members are going out of business or because they were trying to tighten their belts.” The membership dues for the Addison County Farm Bureau are $75 per year. Ochs said that it has not increased in recent years, but if something has to go, it’s easier for many to stop paying the membership fee than to stop paying another bill.

In Vermont in 2006, bad weather, high production expenses and low milk prices combined to cause a crisis for the state’s dairy producers, driving the price of milk below $14 per hundredweight and prompting an emergency state allocation of $8.6 million to help struggling dairy farmers. This year the price of Boston blend milk reached $22.94 in August.

New officers of the Addison County Farm Bureau board of directors were elected at the Monday meeting. Bill Scott of North Ferrisburgh was elected president, Andrea Ochs of Orwell was elected vice president, Sean Stearns of Cornwall was elected treasurer, and Bill Paine of New Haven was elected treasurer.

 

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