• Vermonters watch for farm bill
     | January 01,2013

    Cassandra Hotaling Hahn / Staff file photo ¬ A cow is shown in a field in Rutland County.

    Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said he hoped to get a chance to vote on a new farm bill before the year came to an end.

    As The Times Argus’ print deadline loomed Monday night, no such vote was materializing. Welch said House Speaker John Boehner disliked the bill and had not yet allowed it onto the floor for a vote.

    “The one thing we cannot defend is not voting on it,” Welch said, noting that the bill, which includes a provision creating a new safety net for dairy farmers, passed the Senate and the House Agricultural Committee with bipartisan support. “There’s never, in the history of the House, been an agriculture bill that’s been passed in committee and not gone to a vote.”

    Should the year end without the House passing anything, Welch said, the current system of price supports for milk will expire and federal law will revert to a 1949 law, potentially driving milk prices up to $7 or $8 a gallon.

    How that would happen is based on changes in milk production over the past 60 years.

    Leon Berthiaume, CEO of the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery, explained that modern dairy techniques lead to a significantly higher per-cow output than existed in the 1940s, so prices, when adjusted for inflation, were much higher then.

    Indeed, Berthiaume said the 1949 law included a provision adjusting for inflation. Under existing policy, the government helps stabilize prices by paying a minimum of $9.90 per hundredweight. The 1949 law would put the minimum at $38.

    Berthiaume noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture sets grade and packaging requirements and would only buy milk products produced after Jan. 1 at the new price, so dairies would not simply be able to start selling to the government at the higher price, but there would still likely be an impact on consumer prices. However, he said he expected Congress to act before that happened.

    “Farms have been challenged when you look at the price of milk they’ve been achieving versus the cost of their inputs,” he said. “It’s not just about the price of milk. It’s farmer margins.”

    Welch said the new bill includes an insurance arrangement that farmers and the government would pay into and from which farmers would receive payments when dairy prices drop.

    “We could always act next year,” Welch said. “Congress is always in a position to act, but we would have to start over again.”

    gordon.dritschilo @rutlandherald.com

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