Dairy relief board asks Legislature for $3.6M amid drought

  • Sprinklers irrigate cabbage fields at Manheim Farm in Whately. RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

Monitor staff
Published: 10/11/2016 9:56:55 PM

A heavy burden – the potential future of the state’s dairy industry – now rests on the shoulders of the New Hampshire Legislature.

The Milk Producers Emergency Relief Fund Board met for the second time in as many weeks Tuesday and recommended that legislators approve a $3.6 million one-time payment to the state’s dairy farmers in response to this year’s drought.

The recommendation, one of three included in the board’s annual report, will be passed along to Gov. Maggie Hassan and House Speaker Shawn Jasper on Wednesday. Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley serves on the relief fund board, and already has the report.

The board hopes the Legislature can address the issue, perhaps in a special session, before Dec. 7. That’s when newly elected legislators are sworn in.

“Drought is a significant problem,” said Rep. Bob Haefner, the board’s chairman, Tuesday. “We don’t have enough feed at a lot of the farms to get through the winter.”

The $3.6 million payment was calculated based on average 2015 regional feed costs and milk production per state county. The board suggested farms in the four counties most affected by the drought (Merrimack, Strafford, Rockingham, and Hillsborough) receive payments for 35 percent on their estimated feed costs, or just under $2.1 million.

As for farmers in the other six counties, the board recommended they receive payments covering 10 percent of their feed costs, or about $1.5 million.

“The goal is to help the drought people more than anybody else,” said Fred Sullivan, a board member and former dairy farmer. He said that the farms in the southern part of the state, where the drought has been most severe and where many tourists enter New Hampshire to see agriculture there, are the priority.

“If we lose them, (the land) is going to be developed,” said Sullivan. He added that the drought disaster declarations granted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for nine New Hampshire counties this summer are not adequate by themselves.

“These are loans, which farmers do not need any more of,” said Sullivan.

The state’s dairies have been particularly strained during 2016 – 19 of 120 have closed down since January, twice as many that closed in the previous four years combined.

And as the relief fund board’s report notes, the drought has exacerbated tough conditions for dairy farmers but, it is not the only issue. Milk prices fluctuate frequently and have dropped by almost 50 percent over the past two years – they are just beginning to climb back up this autumn.

The federal Margin Protection Program went into effect with the 2014 Farm Bill and is supposed to make payments to cover the feed-production gap during times of price reductions, but only 13 New Hampshire farms have recieved a payment, the board’s report said.

To address these longer term issues, the board made two more recommendations. One, to approve Hassan’s proposed $2 million per year for the agriculture department’s emergency relief fund for budget biennium 2018-2019, and to keep the fund between $2 million and $6 million at all times.

Thus far, the relief fund – created in 2007 and put into effect in 2008, the same year the state made its last one-time payment to help dairy farmers in crisis – has held just $1 year after year.

With a functioning Milk Producers Emergency Relief Fund, the board report said, New Hampshire would join Vermont, Maine, Connecticut and Massachusetts, all states that have safety net programs for dairy farmers.

The last recommendation the board makes to the Legislature is to ask the federal government to fix its Margin Protection Program and address general milk market program provisions.

While the board and dairy farmers wait for the Legislature to act on these recommendations, state Agriculture Commissioner Lorraine Merrill said she had one good piece of news: Cuzin Richard Entertainment of Portsmouth asked to donate a certain percentage of ticket sales at an upcoming show toward the relief fund, which can accept donations.

“It’s not going to be an enormous amount of money, but it’s going to be a vote from the public of, you want to support farmers,” Merrill said. “We could end up with more than a dollar.”

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