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Dairy farmers urge lawmakers to boost price support payments

A heifer at the Flood Brothers Farm in Clinton. Milking 1,600 cows, it is the state's largest dairy farm.
Murray Carpenter
/
Maine Public
A heifer at the Flood Brothers Farm in Clinton. Milking 1,600 cows, it is the state's largest dairy farm.

Maine dairy farmers rallying at the State House on Tuesday called on lawmakers to approve additional financial support for an industry struggling with high production costs but low milk prices.

For the past 20 years, Maine has offered a financial safety net to dairy farmers for whenever the price of milk falls below the cost of producing it. Maine's Dairy Stabilization Program provides payments of roughly $20 to $23 per every 100 pounds (or hundredweight) of milk, depending on the size of the operation.

But a recent study by the Maine Milk Commission estimated that because of inflation, those payments would need to increase by about $6.50 for every hundredweight for farmers to hit the break-even point.

Gov. Janet Mills proposed tapping some of the state's surplus to increase those payments by 25 percent, or around $1.60 per hundredweight. The Legislature's Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee endorsed the plan. But in a late-night vote last week, Democrats on the budget-writing Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee recommended limiting the increase to only 10 percent coupled with several million dollars in one-time payments to farms.

Maine had roughly 250 dairy farms about a decade ago. But Annie Watson, a Whitefield dairy farmer who is also president of the Maine Dairy Industry Association, says that number is down to just 146.

"Collectively, we must invest in this industry before it is too late. Supporting the Dairy Stabilization Tier Program and increasing the tier levels in a meaningful way is worth the investment," Watson said during a rally outside of the State House. "These farms, this land, our food security is worth protecting."

Watson and other farmers said that the governor's proposal offers better long-term support to the industry, which employs more than 14,000 people and is a critical part of Maine's agricultural and rural economy.

"Our dairies are critical not only for providing food but also for providing our health environment," said Sarah Alexander, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

Lawmakers are racing to wrap up the 2024 legislative session by next Wednesday. But partisan tensions over a budget change package increased dramatically after the late-Friday and early-Saturday meeting by the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.

In addition to proposing a smaller increase to the dairy price support, Democrats on the committee also voted to siphon off $11 million from the state's transportation fund this year and $60 million in subsequent years. Democrats on the committee also voted to reduce future adjustments to the exemption from income taxes on pensions.

Republican lawmakers strongly criticized those moves both during last week's meeting and during a press conference on Friday.

"We've lost two-thirds of our farmers in the last few years, from over 500 to less than 150," said Rep. Sawin Millett, a Waterford Republican who serves on the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee. "They are struggling to survive and they look at this program as a way of justifying continuing their way of life and supplying the milk that feeds many of Maine's citizens."