Dairy Farmers in Dire Situation

September 9, 2013

Dairy cows at the Woodstock Fair.

Since I was elected into office back in 1993, Connecticut has had a steady decline in working dairy farms. According to the State Agriculture Department in 1940 there were 6,233 working dairy farms around the state. In 1990, around 500 and now there are 212. Sadly in Tolland County there are only 15.

Federal law governs the price paid to dairy farmers for the milk but not the price stores may charge for the milk. Critics of this pricing system argue that the price set by the federal government does not reflect the cost of production for the gallon on milk, especially in higher cost regions such as New England. In 2007, the State Department of Agriculture estimated that Connecticut dairy farmers lost $1 for every gallon of milk produced. And that was before gas prices escalated.

Recently, the dairy farms that remain were handed another blow – congress did not act on the latest farm bill. This inaction means the farmers will not be receiving government support for the milk they produce. Farmers fall victim to sudden spikes in feed prices when bad weather causes a poor crop year and high hauling prices as fuel prices increase.

The hang up in Washington D.C. is apparently over the federal food stamp program that is tied into the farm bill. Some lawmakers want it stripped out and others want the food stamp program – an entitlement – kept in with restrictions. Unfortunately, the bickering is affecting not only the families who use the food stamp program, but the farmers who need the milk subsidy.

According to published reports, Connecticut farmers received about $1.2 million last year in payments from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Milk Income Loss Program, or MILC. The MILC program gave Connecticut farmers a subsidy when Northeast milk prices dipped below $16.95 a hundredweight and/or feed prices spiked.

An approved farm bill would have set the table for the next five years. That allows for farmers to plan ahead. These dairy farmers are some of the hardest working people I know. While they fall victim to weather, spikes in feed prices and fuel prices setting a farm bill will allow them some stability to make the right decision for their business.

Meantime, there is also talk of replacing the MILC program with a Dairy Producer Margin Protection Program. This new program would reportedly give participating farmers a payout when there’s a large gap between milk prices and feed costs. Dairy farmers would also be able to purchase “insurance” to increase the amount of their payments. Many farmers are in favor of this change.

Congress is expected to return the week of September 9th. Unlike entitlement programs that will remain funded despite passage of any new bill, the farm subsidies need to be reauthorized by Congress, or the money will not get to the farmer.

Even those of us that don’t farm can appreciate the land being worked and kept as open space instead of being built upon. And we understand more than ever the growing number of reasons for our food to be produced close to home. Let us hope the bickering can stop in Washington and the people’s business can move forward.

Senator Guglielmo represents the 35th district towns of Woodstock, Vernon, Ellington, Ashford, Union, Stafford, Hampton, Willington, Chaplin, Coventry, Tolland, Eastford and Pomfret.