Dairy woes detailed in crowded hearing

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(Host) The dismal state of the Vermont dairy industry took center stage Thursday night at the Vermont Legislature. An overflow crowd packed a joint hearing of the House and Senate Agriculture committees. They heard dairy economist Robert Wellington tell lawmakers that milk prices are the lowest they’ve been in almost three decades:

(Wellington) “Our farmers are trying to live on Jimmy Carter prices in a George W. Bush world, and it doesn’t work. That’s what they’re facing. The last time we faced these prices was in 1978. And we can ask consumers, what was your salary in 1978? Okay, and that’s what farmers are trying to deal with today.”

(Host) Wellington predicts that prices will probably rebound next summer and fall, but there’s bad news in that forecast as well. He says the improvement will be based on a tighter milk supply as more and more dairy farmers go out of business.

The economist says what’s needed is a program like the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact. Before the compact expired two years ago, it allowed New England states to set wholesale prices above the federal minimum. Farmers say says the compact smoothed out the wild, roller coaster of high and low milk prices.

But staff for Vermont’s congressional delegation told the lawmakers not to get their hopes up. Ed Barron works on the compact for Vermont independent Senator Jim Jeffords:

(Barron) “I have to be very frank with you, and I want to make this very clear. If we had a vote in the United States Senate today on the dairy compact, we would likely not get even 40 votes. As you know in the U.S. Senate because of the filibuster rule, which would be required to stop debate, we need 60 votes to win. That is a major problem.”

(Host) The congressional staff says Vermont’s delegation is working on many fronts to improve milk prices, including legislation to limit dairy imports.

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