Amended dairy farmers relief bill heads back to Senate

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

  • Yeaton Farm in Epsom is one of the many struggling dairies in New Hampshire. Just this year, 19 of the state's 120 dairy farms have closed due to continued low milk prices, now compounded by this summer's drought.

Monitor staff
Friday, March 24, 2017

Dairy farmer relief funding is one step away from Gov. Chris Sununu’s desk. 

Despite some legislators’ opposition to the idea of a “bailout” for one industry and not others, the House approved $2 million in funding for drought-affected dairy farmers, 257-96. Since it passed with an amendment Thursday, it will head back to the Senate, which passed the original version 19-3 last month. 

The bill has come almost full circle after legislators approved the floor amendment proposed by dairy task force member Rep. Neal Kurk. He suggested a formula, and not an evenly divided $2 million appropriation, to be used to distribute funds.

Kurk’s amendment now institutes a mechanism assessing each of the state’s 115 dairy farmers, their feed losses and their resulting milk production due to the 2016 drought.

The formula also takes into account federal funding a dairy farmer may receive to avoid what Kurk characterized as “double-dipping.”

While there was a similar funding mechanism in the initial bill drawn up by the dairy task force committee last fall, Sen. Jeb Bradley switched it to the simpler $2 million appropriation when he introduced the bill to the Senate. His intention was to expedite the process.

Kurk did his own bit of speeding things up Thursday when he used a House rule to decline referring the dairy bill to the House finance committee before it headed to the other chamber.

Prior to the change, the bill had faced plenty of opposition. Rep. Peter Hansen said it “picks winners and losers” and told his House colleagues that it violated the state’s constitutional provisions of equality and a government not catering to private interests.

Due to the drought, he said, “the Christmas tree growers (farms) have lost hundreds of trees and likely a whole lot of sales.”

Of the pumpkin farmers, peach growers, apple orchards, Hansen added, “Where is the conversation? Where is their justice? Where is their safety net?”

Rep. Chris True suggested the various opinions on the dairy funding bill might be “homogenized” by his proposed amendment: using donations and gifts to raise and appropriate funds for the farmers’ relief.

“Let’s stop milking the New Hampshire taxpayers for money,” he said.

But Rep. John O’Connor, the chair of the House Environment and Agriculture Committee, didn’t approve of True’s amendment or the lightness with which he and others treated the issue.

“I take this seriously, and I’m disturbed at the joking manner the other side has presented,” he said. “Some will say this is a bailout. … I will say this is not the case.”

Unlike other types of agriculture O’Connor pointed out, milk isn’t a directly marketed product. Dairy farmers have their prices set by the federal government.

And due to the mixture of several years of low milk prices and what O’Connor characterized as one of the six worst droughts since 1895, he said, “Spouses have taken on second jobs to sustain them and they have done all they can to get through the winter.”

“By not supporting this bill, we’ll have a serious impact on the future of the dairy industry,” O’Connor added.

The bill was filed after New Hampshire agriculture commissioner Lorraine Merrill reported a high rate of dairies stopping operation in 2016. State licensing data shows that during 2016, New Hampshire went from 123 to 115 farms distributing milk.

Enough legislators apparently agreed this was an issue, as the House voted to pass the bill.

Gov. Sununu is of the same mind – he said Thursday that he recognized the “severe impacts” of last year’s drought and would sign the bill if and when it gets to his desk.

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