Elected officials consider dairy farmers’ request for help

  • Marston Farm currently has 39 milking cows at its Pittsfield barn. The farm is one of 101 remaining dairies in the state. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Tom Marston stands for a portrait with his dairy cows at Marston Farm in Pittsfield on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2016. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Bill the cat wanders outside the dairy barn at Marston Farm in Pittsfield on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2016. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Pittsfield dairy farmer Tom Marston goes inside his milk house on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2016. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Pittsfield dairy farmer Tom Marston leans against his milk tank on Tuesday. Marston started a conversation with state officials in hopes of getting help for his dairy farm and others in New Hampshire. ELODIE REED / Monitor staff

  • Brown grass patches line the field outside Tom Marston's Pittsfield dairy farm on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2016. The patches, he said, were due to the summer drought. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Some of Tom Marston’s 120 or so cows stand in a field at his Pittsfield dairy farm on Tuesday. ELODIE REED / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 10/19/2016 12:11:20 AM

When state Rep. David Bates heard about the possibility of a multimillion-dollar bailout for the New Hampshire dairy industry, his ears perked up.

“It got my attention,” the Windham Republican said.

Bates, a third-term representative serving on the House Commerce and Consumer Affairs Committee, followed his curiosity to the final meeting of the Milk Producers Emergency Relief Fund Board last week.

The board approved a report recommending the Legislature appropriate $3.6 million for a one-time handout to dairy farmers. In addition to suffering low milk prices for two years, dairies have suffered significant feed losses due to the summer’s drought.

The money, the board argued, would help farmers get feed for this coming winter and preserve the state’s milk industry.

So far in 2016, 19 of 120 dairy farms have shut down milking operations. Those farms often switch to growing just forage or specialty crops, or, in the worst case scenario, sell off the land for housing developments.

Bates sat in the back row of the meeting and listened skeptically.

“I have a real aversion to the idea of bailing out,” he said. Bates added that he understood the industry was experiencing trouble, but he wanted to stick to free-market principles.

“Are we going to start bailing out ski resorts?” he asked. “I know there are a lot of legislators who have similar reservations.”

Pittsfield dairy farmer Tom Marston, however, would point out that dairy and other farming operations are at a disadvantage compared with businesses operating in the free market. The federal government sets dairy prices based on a complicated formula for supply and demand in a global market.

And as of late, those prices have fluctuated far more frequently and violently than in the past, Marston said. Between the spring of 2014 and 2016, prices fell about 40 percent.

“If they would price our products by its value, it would work out just fine,” he said. “We have no control over our pricing.”

Federal frustrations

In response to a tough summer for New Hampshire dairy farmers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture held a special forum for dairy producers Monday. The event was closed to the news media, officials said, in order to evoke “candid” and open discussions with the farmers.

Martson attended the meeting and left unimpressed. “Basically it was the same conversation we’ve had every time we’ve had a meeting with them,” he said.

Though the USDA granted drought disaster declarations for the state’s ten counties, the funds freed up come in the form of loans, which most farmers – Marston included – are not eager to take on. The department has announced it will purchase $20 million of surplus cheddar cheese from dairy farmers to donate to food pantries, too, though that money is spread nationwide.

As for the federal Margin Protection Program, the federal farmer insurance program has been criticized in this region as inadequate. Only 13 New Hampshire dairy farmers have received payments this year to cover the gap between milk and feed prices.

Marston was not among them despite paying MPP premiums. “Absolutely not,” he said.

U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen attended the meeting three days after sending a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee. She and other New England senators asked that in addition to exploring improvements to the MPP, restrictions be lifted on the secretary of agriculture to decrease supply or lift prices for dairy farmers.

USDA Agricultural Marketing Service Administrator and New Hampshire native Elanor Starmer said in a phone interview that Monday’s discussion was helpful to hear directly from farmers.

She said that though the dairy forum covered some serious issues, an afternoon session on local and regional food systems shed light on the overall positive direction for local food in New Hampshire.

“There’s some really exciting pioneering,” Starmer said. “And consumers who value it.”

State appeal

Exactly how much New Hampshire consumers and their elected representatives value locally produced food is being put to the test.

The call for help originated at a July meeting of the Merrimack County Farm Bureau Board of Directors, where Marston said he got up to express his frustration at the state of things: the low milk prices, the drought, the feed losses and the little help.

“I spouted off for about 15 minutes,” he said. That, he added, was what began the events leading up to requesting emergency funding from the state.

“They’re never going to help if you don’t ask for help,” Marston said.

Gov. Maggie Hassan has proposed $2 million appropriations each for 2018-19 to the state Milk Producers Emergency Relief Fund. Dairy farmers are also waiting for the decision on the $3.6 million one-time recommended appropriation.

Relief fund board member and Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley said Tuesday he expected a task force on the issue to be announced soon.

“We know its an emergency,” Bradley said. But, he added, “there is without a doubt an education process that’s going to have to happen.”

In its report to the Legislature, the relief fund board pointed to the benefits of having dairy in the state: preserving open land for environmental and tourist benefit, supporting other agricultural businesses like tractor supply stores, and encouraging local food – 30 percent of milk consumed in New Hampshire is produced here, too.

New Hampshire agriculture commissioner and dairy farmer Lorraine Merrill has repeatedly emphasized the place dairies have in the community, too.

Marston’s farm, for example, sits a mile down a back road that opens just across from a Blue Seal feed store. His 39 milking cows produce milk picked up by the Concord Hood plant, later sold on local supermarket shelves.

Leaning against his truck outside the milk house Tuesday, Marston – a school bus driver, state plow truck driver and former town official – waved to every truck that drove past.

On a misty, quiet afternoon, a pheasant flew over the cow field, squawking. Marston said he lets Fish and Game stock pheasants on the farm’s 300 acres, one of the few places left available for hunting the bird.

(On a recent morning, he said hunters lined the road with cars. At daybreak, Marston added with a chuckle, “It sounded like World War III”).

In a perfect world, Marston said that government assistance wouldn’t be necessary for dairy farmers, who do the job not for the money, but because it feels right.

“We do this because we feel it’s our job to feed the people,” Marston said.

Wearing a shirt reading, “It’s a cow thing . . . you wouldn’t UDDERstand,” he added that the thought of stopping milk production is difficult to grasp.

“I can’t bear the thought of it,” he said.

He and his brother Samuel – both in their 60s – are the ninth generation for the 1734 farm. The dream, Marston said, is to see it continue and be passed down to his 19-year-old son, Ben.

“All we want is a fair shot and a chance to pay our bills and live a reasonable life,” he said.

(Elodie Reed can be reached at 369-3306, ereed@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @elodie_reed.)

See also:

“Ayotte addresses New Hampshire’s struggling dairy industry” from Sept. 8

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect that 10, not nine, counties in New Hampshire have received drought disaster declarations, and that Gov. Maggie Hassan proposed funding for the 2018-2019 budget. 

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