Dairy drought relief program proposal goes to Legislature

  • Leanne, Jacob and Jim Downs, who run Downs Dairy in Loudon, chat after the last Dairy Task Force meeting in Concord on Monday. Elodie Reed / Monitor staff

  • State representatives Tara Sad, a Democrat from Walpole, and Neal Kurk, a Republican from Weare, talk following the final Dairy Farmers Task Force Monday, Dec. 5, 2016. Sad voted to file legislation creating a drought relief program for dairy farmers, and Kurk - despite helping come up with the proposed formula for the program - voted against. Elodie Reed—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 12/5/2016 9:27:47 PM

The state’s Dairy Farmers Task Force demonstrated a herd-like quality when it voted to propose a dairy producer relief program to the Legislature on Monday.

The decision was made with a 5-1 vote in a mere 15 minutes. The odd man out was Weare Republican Rep. Neal Kurk, who said that even though he helped design the relief program formula, he couldn’t support the idea.

“The problem is not the drought – the drought exacerbates the problem,” Kurk said. “The problem is low milk prices.”

Because those prices are set at the federal level he said “it requires a federal solution.”

Hudson Republican Rep. Bob Haefner said that a federal fix could take a long time, too long for dairy farmers to wait with reduced feed stores, stretched loans and equipment in need of repair.

State dairy licensing and permitting data show that New Hampshire had 123 farms shipping milk in January, which then got reduced to 115 by October.

Rep. Tara Sad, a Walpole Democrat, said, “We deserve to have local milk.”

In an effort to try and prevent any more dairy shutdowns, task force member and Republican Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley will file a Senate bill with the proposed drought relief program. The bill is expected to be expedited similarly to drug legislation that was passed last session.

No specific funding amount is attached to the bill, though the state Milk Producers Emergency Relief Fund board recommended in October for $3.6 million in one-time grants be given to dairy farmers to make up for feed losses.

Going forward, legislators will assess the formula created by Kurk and former Farm Service Agency State Executive Director Jay Phinizy. The relief program, as it currently stands, proposes assessing dairy farms based on need and what aid they are already receiving.

Bradley suggested Monday that this be done on a farm-by-farm – and not a county-by-county – basis.

With 100 or so potentially eligible farms, he said, “I don’t think we are asking a huge administrative burden.”

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The proposal designates the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets and Foods as the administrator of the program. State veterinarian Steve Crawford said that though the agriculture department is happy to provide the service, it won’t be without its challenges.

“We don’t have an economist or an accountant or anyone who does anything with economics,” Crawford said. “(It’s) a small staff.”

He said that hopefully, through the legislative process, this and other points will be clarified.

Also expected to attend those hearings is Pittsfield dairyman Tom Marston, who brought the drought and milk price issue to elected officials over the summer.

“I want to see this thing through,” he said. Marston has said in the past that in addition to drought relief, he’d like to see legislators appropriate funds into the Milk Producers Emergency Relief Fund.

The fund started in 2007 but has been empty since then. Both the relief fund board and Gov. Maggie Hassan have recommended $2 million appropriations each for the 2018 and 2019 budget years.

Loudon eighth grader Jacob Downs was at Monday’s meeting to complete a school project – to look at the pros and cons of an issue – and get a glimpse into his future. He would like to be the seventh generation to run his family’s dairy farm.

His mother, Leanne Downs, said that’s currently up in the air.

“I think we’re all teetering on the edge,” she said.

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

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