Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Farm Aid

Gina told me the other day that she heard from our friends at Riverbank Farm, in Roxbury, that our local farmers market is opening a week from Saturday, much earlier than usual. The farms must be growing more stuff in greenhouses, but whatever. Our own garden isn't producing anything but arugula and leeks and onions we planted last year, and the wild leeks (ramps) are starting to fade in the woods. The sooner the farmers market opens, the better.

Thanks to Chris Zurcher, I found this compelling plea from a Connecticut dairy farmer in yesterday's Courant. Robin A. Chesmer, who runs a dairy farm in Lebanon, wrote:

Last year alone, Connecticut lost 10 percent of its dairy farms, and we are in danger of losing our state's remaining 100,000 dairy acres to nonagricultural use.

Skyrocketing costs of production, including transportation, fuel, electricity and feed, coupled with a decline in milk prices (set by the United States Department of Agriculture), are placing Connecticut dairy farmers in a financial crisis. ...

The issue really is all about the ability to provide a continuous supply of farm-fresh, locally produced food. Connecticut residents desire a local source of milk and other farm products that haven't traveled hundreds of miles. A trip to a supermarket will demonstrate the increased emphasis that is placed on local food products as a result of consumer demand. Connecticut dairy farms provide that local source of food.

Dairy farms contribute significant benefits to our state and communities. These farms provide a source of fresh food that is produced right here in Connecticut and doesn't have to travel long distances to get to the kitchen table. Connecticut dairy farms generate $300 million in annual economic activity, employing more than 1,000 individuals on and off the farm. Dairy farms represent approximately 60 percent of all Connecticut farmland and have a significant impact on our quality of life. Finally, our viable dairy farms provide wildlife habitats, water recharge areas, green buffers, fresh air and scenic vistas.

Specifically, he wants the Connecticut legislature to help:

If Connecticut dairy farms are expected to survive, they must be able to cover their costs of production when the federal pricing system fails to provide an adequate return. The General Assembly is considering An Act Concerning Assistance for Dairy Farmers that would achieve this goal by paying farmers from a state fund when the cost of production exceeds the return on federally set milk prices.

His argument boils down to this: The government keeps milk prices artificially low to benefit consumers; that puts local dairy farmers at a competitive disadvantage with dairy farmers from farther elsewhere. So if we want local milk and if we want farms instead of subdivisions or corporate headquarters, the state needs to subsidize dairy farmers.

I'm not an economist and I'm not familiar enough with the bill Chesmer is referring to. But at the very least, the argument seems to be worth considering.



Anonymous Christopher Zurcher said...

Hey, Tom. Thanks for reference. Anything that helps build the readership I think is important. And always glad to help anyone find something in the news they might not have otherwise.


9:23 AM  
Anonymous Emmett said...

How does The Famer's Cow milk play into this? I pay extra for their CT-farmed milk at the grocery store. Doesn't that help them earn money above the federally-set milk prices? Or is the farmer from Lebanon referring to the milk (possibly those cows that use artificial growth hormones?) sold to the larger distributors? I agree, this can all get kind of confusing for those of us who are not living this stuff every day or have some kind of advanced economic degree.

11:31 AM  
Anonymous Bryan said...

On the surface, supporting local diary farmers seems like a no-brainer, and I maybe it will be as it seems now, on further inspection.

But it covers a lot of territory beyond preservation of farm land, including the USDA milk price support program. My understanding is that the USDA sets a floor for milk prices, rather than a ceiling, buy agreeing to purchase diary products at a price that, presumably in the past, we above the price of production. It sounds like the floor isn't high enough, and the diary farmers want it raised, which would seem to raise the price of milk for everyone. But that's an issue for another day or perhaps another blog.

According to links on The Farmer's Cow website, the Chesmers have already sold conservation easements on much of their land, so residential development apparently isn't a threat to them (or to their neighbors). Their ability to make a profit at the current market price for milk seems to be.

So it would come down to: (1) raise the price of milk for everyone so local farmers can make a profit and/or (2) subsidize these farmers so they can stay in business and/or (3) get more people to buy their products at a price that keeps them in business.

I wouldn't fault someone for drawing the boundary of issue around the simple question of "Do we want a dairy farm or development?" But there is always more to the question below the surface, such as, is it the best use for the property (would plain ol' open space be better?).

9:25 PM  

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