ANNAPOLIS – Maryland lawmakers said Wednesday that a plan to let state dairy farmers set minimum milk prices is all but dead this year, after a decisive defeat by a Senate committee.
“I don’t see the votes there now” for a companion House bill to let Maryland dairy farmers join the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact, said Del. Paul Stull, R-Frederick.
Opponents lauded the defeat of a bill that they said “would have created a price support system that would have sent milk prices spiraling upward,” costing Maryland consumers as much as $70 million more per year.
But Thurmont dairy farmer Harold Lenhart said the apparent defeat of the compact bill “is going to put a lot of us out of business.”
“What I’d like to say, you can’t print,” he said. “We’re surviving, and that’s about all.
“We don’t buy any new equipment, new machinery, anything you don’t absolutely, positively have to have,” he said.
The Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee voted 8-3 Tuesday against the bill, a margin of defeat that Giant Food lobbyist Alan Rifkin hoped “will be persuasive to other committees of the legislature.”
Stull said Wednesday that he thought that it would.
“It wouldn’t be politically smart for them to stick their necks out and vote for a bill that’s already been voted down in the Senate,” he said.
“We’ll just have to come back next year with something different,” he said after consulting with other members of the Western Maryland delegation, which introduced the House bill.
Del. Ronald A. Guns, D-Cecil and chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, agreed that trying to pass the bill now would be a “further uphill battle.”
Ray Feldmann, a spokesman for Gov. Parris Glendening, said the governor supported the compact and “will continue to support our farmers in other ways.”
Supporters said they need the compact to rescue Maryland dairy farms, which have seen their number fall by 25 percent since 1991, with 82 farms failing last year alone.
Opponents said the industry is to blame for its plight because of inefficiency and overproduction. But dairy farmers dispute that, saying they compete in a “sell it or smell it” market that is not as easily managed as other areas of farming.
Farmers say the compact would have helped by stabilizing wholesale milk prices.
The federal government now sets those prices according to conditions in the Upper Midwest and on the West Coast. The compact adjusts the federal price to reflect local conditions.
Since July, it has added monthly premiums to the federal price to maintain a price of $16.94 per hundredweight in the Northeast. In July, that premium added about 26 cents per gallon to the federal price. By February, the federal price had risen so that the compact price was only 3.5 cents more per gallon.
Dan Smith, executive director of the Northeast compact commission, conceded that wholesale milk prices could rise if Maryland joined the compact. But he said the move could reduce retail prices in the long run by stabilizing the wholesale milk market.
“A 5-cents-a-gallon increase is not a big price to pay for keeping those dairy farms,” Cecil County dairy farmer Phyllis Kilby told the Senate committee at a hearing last week.
Sen. Clarence Blount, D-Baltimore and chairman of Economic and Environmental Affairs, remained unconvinced.
“Baltimore City is already paying a higher price for milk than anything else, and I can’t sit here and vote for something that raises it even higher,” Blount said after Tuesday’s vote.