N.H. farmers face uncertain times during government shutdown

  • Ryan Morrill gets ready to clean out a barn at the family's Morrill Dairy Farm in Penacook on Friday, December 4, 2018 as his parents were talking to U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen at the Farm Bureau about the effects of the government shutdown on farmers. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Holstein calves at the Morrill Dairy Farm in Penacook. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Ryan Morrill cleans out a Holstein calf hutch at the Morrill Dairy Farm in Penacook on Friday. The sons were working the farm while their parents were talking to U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen about the effects of the shutdown on the farming industry. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • A black and white Holstein milking cow stands ready as Kevin Morrill of Morrill Dairy Farm in Penacook starts the milking process on Friday, January 4, 2018. Morrill says the cows know when it's time to be milked and will line up to come into the milking room. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen meets with farmers concerned about the government shutdown at the N.H. Farm Bureau Friday afternoon, including dairy farmers Sherri Morrill (second from left and Bob Morrill (third from left) of Penacook. Ethan DeWittMonitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 1/4/2019 5:43:26 PM

Dairy farmers Rob and Sherri Morrill are no strangers to slim margins and the struggle to get by. Low milk prices, shrinking demand, and a tangle of tariffs have taken a toll on their Penacook dairy farm, as they have at small farms across the country.

The Morrills received a ray of good news last month with the passage of the 2018 federal Farm Bill, which increased financial assistance to dairy farmers suffering from low-profit margins.

Then the government shut down.

As a result of the impasse between President Donald Trump and Democratic Congressional leaders over border wall funding, portions of the federal government have been shuttered since Dec. 22. That includes the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency tasked with creating the rules and regulations to allow the new insurance to take effect. Until the government reopens, the program, “Dairy Margin Coverage,” can’t pay out any of the money to farmers.

For the Morrills, that could mean losing out on assistance just ahead of the spring, when key payments to vendors arrive.

“That insurance money is helping to just pay everyday operating expenses,” Sherri Morrill said. “For a lot of us, it’s helping to cover payroll. It’s paying the electric bill.”

Farmers across the country have taken a hit from the government shutdown, which entered its 14th day Friday. For some around the country, the new freeze on loans has made it difficult for them to pay off past bills and plan for the next planting season. For others, like the Morrill’s, it’s the next few months that are proving to be the most critical.

The Morrills joined a crowd of 10 farmers at the New Hampshire Farm Bureau, at a roundtable event hosted by Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. They were among of several dairy farmers at the table who lamented a years-long squeeze on their operations and were pinning hopes on the Farm Bill to get them through a crunch. 

“We need to get this going because farmers incur their cost for their seed and fertilizer starting in March and April,” said Bob Wellington, senior vice president for Agri-Mark, Inc, who estimated the subsidies account for 10 to 15 percent of farmers’ operating costs. 

“The price of milk is really low,” he said. “But cows are going to eat the same amount. The electric bill’s going to be the same. They have so many fixed costs. Where does the money come from when the price is down? It comes from the farmers’ pockets. This helps them do that.”

He pressed Shaheen to find some way to retroactively date the dairy subsidies to Jan.1 whenever the government reopened, a suggestion the senator said she would explore.

But for now, the situation in Washington appears motionless. 

On Thursday evening, House Democrats, including New Hampshire’s Annie Kuster and Chris Pappas, voted for a pair of spending bills that would reopen most of the government through the year but not give the president a requested $5 billion for the border wall. But Trump and Senate Republicans indicated they would not support the package, indicating a likely extension of the shutdown in coming days. 

Until major vendor purchases appear, Rob Morrill said, it’s a waiting game. 

“You’re shuffling weekly,” he said. “That’s what’s being done on a day to day basis. Juggling the money you’ve already got.” 

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