House and Senate seek relief for farmers

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(Host) The Legislature has taken an early and intense interest in the crisis facing Vermont dairy farms. A resolution taken up by the House calls on the attorney general to investigate a planned merger between two large milk processors. And a bill introduced in the Senate would authorize teams of financial experts to help struggling farmers.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Franklin County Senator Sarah Kittell warns that unless the farm economy improves, the state could lose 150 to 250 farms later this year:

(Kittell) “It’s our rural economy here in Vermont. It’s a generation of farmers. They’re young people. Many of these folks having the hardest times, I would say, might be some of the youngest farmers just getting started.”

(Dillon) Kittell chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee. Last week, the committee heard that wholesale milk prices are at their lowest levels since 1978. The price farmers get paid is now below what it costs most of them to produce the milk.

Kittell says there’s not much the state can do to raise wholesale milk prices. But she says it can provide emergency technical and financial assistance to struggling farmers:

(Kittell) “At a state level, what we need to do is something now. And we need to make sure that all our agricultural resources are put together and that they’re made available to all the farms in Vermont.”

(Dillon) Kittell’s legislation would create an emergency family farm stabilization program. It would use business management specialists, UVM extension agents, veterinarians and others to guide farmers out of financial trouble.

Over on the House side of the Legislature, lawmakers have called on the attorney general to investigate a planned merger between HP Hood and National Dairy Holdings. Representative Bobby Starr (D-North Troy) warns that the merger would leave just two companies in control of the New England milk market. He says that after the merger, Hood would be required to buy all its milk from Dairy Farmers of America, a giant dairy co-op based in Kansas City:

(Starr) “So what could happen is that our two main cooperatives that we have grown to know and respect very well – AgriMark, who owns Cabot and St. Albans Cooperative – could basically be squeezed out of existence and be forced to join Dairy Farmers of America.”

(Dillon) On Wednesday, the House unanimously approved the resolution.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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