WASHINGTON – Eighteen months after the Maryland legislature voted to join the Northeast Dairy Compact, the state’s dairy farmers are still waiting to make the move they say is crucial to their survival.
But time could be running out. The dairy compact is set to expire Friday and Congress has so far balked at requests to extend the life of the multistate organization that sets minimum prices for milk.
A federal judge in Vermont bought some time for compact supporters this week when he issued a temporary restraining order blocking imposition of federal milk-pricing regulations that would have taken effect if the compact expired. That order effectively extended the life of the compact for 30 days.
“We desperately need the compact,” said Myron Wilhide, a fifth-generation dairy farmer and president of the Maryland Dairy Industry Association. “It will give us a minimum price and help us to make it a viable business.”
Before that can happen, however, Congress will have to reauthorize the compact and then allow the addition of Maryland and four other states: Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. Supporters are trying to insert language in the agriculture appropriations bill that would re-establish the compact and allow the five new states to join, but the bill is stuck in conference committee.
That help could come too late for some Maryland dairy farmers.
Wilhide said the past five years have been a disaster for the state’s dairy farms. Next year does not look good either, he said, because there is an abundance of milk in the market.
“[Dairy farming] goes with Mother Nature, you cannot turn things on and off,” Wilhide said. “Retailers and processors control things, they can get that prices.”
The compact, created in 1996 to support New England dairy farms, establishes a price for fluid milk above the federal price. Processors pay the compact the difference between the federal and the regional prices, and that money is distributed to dairy farmers based on their production.
In New England, milk prices rose an average 15 cents per gallon after the compact was established, said Consumer Federation of America Assistant Director Art Jaeger.
But besides driving up costs to the consumer, Jaeger said, the compact does not help small farmers as much as it could because of the way the compact redistributes proceeds.
“The bulk of benefits go to larger dairy farmers,” said Jaeger. If benefits were limited to small dairy farmers, the compact would be worth whatever it costs consumers, he said.
After a legislative battle between consumer groups, grocers and dairy farmers, Maryland lawmakers voted in 1998 to join the compact. But the federal farm bill that established the compact in 1996 required that member states be contiguous, meaning Maryland could not join until other states between here and New England signed on.
New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware voted to join within the last year, clearing the way for Maryland.
“The compact is critically important,” said Valerie Connelly, director of government relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau. The state has about 800 dairy farmers but loses about 10 each year, she said.
“They can’t afford to stay in business,” Connelly said.
Frederick, Carroll and Washington are the top dairy counties in Maryland, and together produced 65 percent of the state’s milk in 1998, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture. But Maryland herds have been diminishing for a decade, from about 105,000 head in 1989 to 86,000 head in 1998.
That decrease is especially vivid along Keysville Road in the Carroll County community of Detour, where the Wilhide farm, Key-De-Blue, has been producing milk for the past 150 years.
Fifteen years ago, 14 dairy farms thrived along the 4-mile country road, Wilhide said. “Now, there’s three,” he said.