Emergency assistance package may save dairy farms

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(Host) Governor Jim Douglas urged the Legislature on Thursday to quickly pass an emergency financial assistance package for dairy farmers. The administration is concerned that hundreds of farmers could be forced out of business by the end of the year if they don’t receive some assistance in the near future.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) Many Vermont dairy farmers are facing a very difficult situation this spring. Milk prices are at their lowest levels in over 20 years while production costs have continued to rise. It’s clear that the demise of the Northeast Dairy Compact, a program that established a floor milk price for farmers, is having a major impact on Vermont’s agricultural community. Agriculture commissioner Steve Kerr says he’s concerned that as many as 400 farms, a number that represents more than 25% of all dairy farms in Vermont, might be forced out of business this year if no steps are taken in the near future.

The Douglas administration is asking lawmakers to quickly pass legislation that essentially does two things. The bill will allow a number of farmers to postpone up to $100,000 in loan payments for a nine-month period to make cash available for planting and operating costs this spring. Two-and-a-half million dollars will be available for this purpose. The second part of the bill establishes a $20 million low interest loan program to help farmers restructure their debt. Commissioner Kerr says the program is needed to help some farms to stay in business:

(Kerr) “Our policy goal is not to pretend that we can stop the loss of every a single farm. Obviously in a perfect world we wish that were the case. It is our goal to make sure we lose as few dairies in the next nine to 12 to 15 months, while we hope the commodity markets recover. We’ve not seen this kind of a recession in dairy prices in quite a long time.”

(Kinzel) Kerr says the program is a realistic short term solution to some of the problems facing Vermont dairy farmers:

(Kerr) “This isn’t a messianic crusade, believe me. It’s a loan program that’s designed to give those who have the management ability, those who have repayment history – strong repayment history – the opportunity to get through this drought, this price drought. In the hopes that national markets turn around and, or this national program that the cooperatives are developing kicks in, reduces supplies, and moves prices back up.”

(Kinzel) The bill is being put on a legislative fast track because the administration wants the money to be available to farmers by the end of the month.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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