Maine Dairy Farmers Ask Lawmakers to Approve Higher Milk Prices - Cowsmo

Maine Dairy Farmers Ask Lawmakers to Approve Higher Milk Prices

Dozens of Maine dairy farmers packed a legislative hearing Wednesday to call for lawmakers to approve higher milk prices set under a state relief program.

The boosted price levels are sorely needed, particularly after higher inflation during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to farmers. That came amid historic struggles in Maine’s dairy industry, which has dwindled from 4,600 farms in 1954 to less than 150 now on the heels of major closures over the past few years.

While agriculture committee members signaled support Wednesday for his bill, the budget panel will need to approve the measure from Rep. Bill Pluecker, I-Warren, which is estimated to cost about $33.7 million this fiscal year but boost revenue by the same amount. Increasing payouts to farmers will require additional state money, according to the Legislature’s fiscal office.

Lawmakers are being asked to increase the minimum milk production prices that are reviewed every three years by the Maine Milk Commission. It affects the Dairy Stabilization “Tier” Program, a relief program for farmers that was established in 2004 under former Gov. John Baldacci as a first-in-the-nation effort to help ease price fluctuations.

It provides funding to farmers when the rates they receive from the market fall below the cost of milk production. The current prices range from $23.05 per 100 pounds of milk for the smallest farms in Tier 1 to $20.21 per 100 pounds of milk for the biggest Tier 4 farms that typically have more than 300 cows, said Heath Miller of the Maine Dairy Industry Association, who runs Green Valle Farm in Newburgh.

Last year, Maine’s agriculture department and milk commission completed a survey of dairy farmers to capture break-even costs from 2022 and recommend new price levels. The updated rates under the relief program should become $28.90 for Tier 1 and $26.87 for Tier 4, with different rates for mid-sized farms.

“This might be the most urgent time [for the new prices] because of the huge increase in inflation we had during the pandemic,” Miller said in an interview.

The Maine Milk Commission and the administration of Gov. Janet Mills are officially neutral on Pluecker’s bill to enact the new price levels, but commission and department leaders joined numerous farmers Wednesday in sharing how dairy farms support a broad range of additional businesses and industries in the state.

More than 50 farmers filled the Legislature’s agriculture committee room in the Cross Office Building and an overflow room to follow Wednesday’s hearing. U.S. Sens. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, and Susan Collins, a Republican, noted last fall Maine dairy farmers and creameries provide roughly 4,700 direct and 10,000 indirect jobs while generating about $1.9 billion in economic benefits.

Though inflation has slowed and American consumer sentiment has brightened, challenges for Maine farmers have included labor shortages, increased prices for fuel and various inputscorporate consolidation and contamination from toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS.

Pluecker, who lives with his family on their Warren farm and has sold vegetables for about two decades, called the tier program “deeply invaluable.” Past studies from researchers at the University of Maine and other institutions have found Maine’s tier program has prevented dairy farms from closing at a faster rate.

The relief program has also faced scrutiny at times. Former Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, mentioned the program during a forum during his 2022 campaign against Mills, a Democrat. He sparred with farmers there, saying milk prices are “artificially boosted” by the system.

Carmen Fisher, part of the fifth generation behind Fisher Farms in Sabattus, pushed back on critics who argue farmers need to simply produce more milk or diversify and said that is not economically feasible for many local operations. She mentioned growing up with four dairy farms in Sabattus and how only her family’s operation remains.

“We should be able to do more than survive,” Fisher said. “We should be able to thrive.”

Source: Bangor Daily News

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