Lawmaker proposes temporary state payment to help dairy farmers

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(Host) A leading lawmaker has proposed a temporary state payment to help Vermont’s struggling dairy farmers.

The Douglas Administration says it’s actively considering the idea.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) Eighteen years ago when the Vermont farm economy was in crisis, the state legislature provided some quick financial relief.

Lawmakers approved a temporary payment to farmers to help tide them over a period of record low prices. The payment was capped at $5,000 dollars per farm.

Bobby Starr, a North Troy Democrat, was chairman of the House Agriculture committee at the time. Starr, who has since moved to the Senate, says the state needs to help once again.

(Starr) “This has got to be done soon, real soon. Or the papers are going to be full of auctions.”

(Dillon) The state has a $35 million dollar budget surplus. And Starr says a short-term emergency relief program for farmers could cost around $5 to $7 million.

The Douglas Administration has called for an emergency dairy summit. Governor Jim Douglas also sent his agriculture secretary to Washington to work with the congressional delegation.

Starr says more help is needed for farmers battered by low prices, high fuel costs and weeks of rain.

(Starr) “The administration has got to belly up to the plate on this is. Lip service is great about telling about going to Washington. That’s all fine and dandy but it isn’t putting a bit of bread on anybody’s table.”

(Dillon) Administration officials say they’re working on a number of fronts to help the state’s remaining 12-hundred dairy farms.

Administration Secretary Mike Smith says Governor Douglas is looking at a temporary state milk premium to help farmers.

(Smith) “Our plans are to put together a proposal for the Emergency Board in mid-July. Right now, we’re examining all options, looking at premium assistance.”

(Dillon) Smith points out that the emergency board which includes legislative representatives and the governor cannot appropriate new money in the budget. But it can move funds around.

So the board could redirect some money to an existing farm assistance program.

(Smith) “We are looking at that. We ‘re looking at what sort of funds are available if they’re surplus funds, if there are some funds that can be used for this purpose.”

(Dillon) Starr said farmers have faced low milk prices in the past. What’s worse this time, he said, is the very high price of fuel and the punishing weather which hasn’t allowed farmers to harvest hay or plant their corn.

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

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