WASHINGTON – State dairy farmers said the expiration this week of the Northeast Dairy Compact thwarted years of efforts to get Maryland included in the organization, which sets minimum milk prices in some states.
Maryland farmers were “holding out hope that the dairy compact would help them remain economically viable,” said Valerie Connelly, director of government relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau.
Without the support of the Northeast compact, which expired Sunday, farmers here say more and more dairy farmers will be forced out of the business and their farms will be sold off for development.
Grocers and consumer groups disagree.
“It has been demonstrated already that it does not work and all the compact has done has been to increase milk prices to the consumer,” said Barry Scher, vice president of public affairs for Giant Food. “There are other alternatives available that will help dairy farmers without penalizing consumers.”
Although milk prices are high now, however, there is no guarantee that they will continue through the winter months, Connelly said. State agricultural officials said there are indications that milk prices could drop in the months to come.
Maryland has been trying for years to join the New England compact, along with Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. That effort was dashed when the compact expired Sunday. But farm groups and some legislators hope to revive the issue during debate on the farm bill, which is before the House of Representatives this week.
Midwestern dairy farmers oppose the continuation of the compact, which they say artificially inflates milk prices on the East Coast. While that helps small East Coast farms, which mostly sell fluid milk, it hurts Midwesterners, who see much of their milk used to produce cheese and dry milk.
Patrick McMillan, special assistant to the Maryland secretary of agriculture, said that the expiration of the compact would have no immediate effect on Maryland, but the hope that the state would eventually join was encouraging in bad times.
“It could potentially close that option,” he said. “However, we have every expectation that there will be an opportunity in Congress to renew that compact.”
Members of New York’s congressional delegation were expected to introduce an amendment to extend the dairy compact, a move Midwestern lawmakers are likely to try to block using House rules.
Paul Weller, executive director of the Maryland Dairy Industry Association, said the compact’s price supports would provide smaller Maryland dairy farmers with the profits they need to stay in business.
There is a lot of “economic pressure to sell out to developers,” he said. “It’s a tough business to be in.”
Weller was raised on a Western Maryland dairy farm, but his parents sold it in the 1970s because it was too small to be competitive, he said.
“That’s what’s happening all over Maryland,” Weller said.
Scher agreed that Maryland’s small farms and development pressures in the state are driving dairy farmers out of the business, along with the younger generation’s lack of interest in farming. But he noted that those reasons are unrelated to milk prices that the compact would support.
Still, the Maryland Farm Bureau is concerned that if the compact isn’t renewed with Maryland as a member, the state’s dairy farmers will be more discouraged than they already are.
“I think we’ll see a whole lot of farmers considering leaving the business,” Connelly said.