Milk-price-support bill is argued in Annapolis Backers lament the edge enjoyed in Virginia, Pennsylvania

February 07, 1997|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

A hearing on a bill designed to halt the sharp decline of the Maryland dairy industry attracted a herd of witnesses and offered conflicting testimony yesterday on its impact on the consumer price of milk.

Proponents of legislation that would allow Maryland's secretary of agriculture to set the minimum wholesale and retail price of milk pointed out that milk costs less in Pennsylvania, where the dairy industry is already protected by a state price-support program.

But the opponents, including two of the largest food retailers in the state, had their own price survey done last week that showed higher milk prices across the border.

House bill 504, which is sponsored by 30 delegates, would give Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley the authority to set the minimum price for milk received by farmers, processors and retail outlets.

Riley would be guided by a seven-member panel dominated by consumers, but it would include a farmer, a representative of a processing plant and a retailer.

A recent change in the bill would exempt the state's school milk program.

Gerald E. Evans, a lobbyist for the dairy farmers and one of 54 people signed up to testify on the bill, told lawmakers that Maryland lost 40 percent of its dairy farms and 14 percent of its cows between 1988 and 1994, and the decline continues.

This is due in part, Evans told members of the House Environmental Matters Committee, to Maryland being in the unique position of being located between two states, Pennsylvania and Virginia, that have milk-price-support programs.

It gives milk processors in Pennsylvania and Virginia a competitive advantage by allowing them to take the profits from the milk they sell in their home states and then sell their excess milk in Maryland below the price of local processors.

Opponents of the legislation cited a survey by the Mid-Atlantic Food Dealers Association Inc. showing that the average price of 2 percent milk in Pennsylvania was $2.48 a gallon, compared with $2.42 in Maryland.

They argued that passage of the legislation would raise milk prices here and do little to halt the decline of dairy farms and milk processors.

Supporters of the bill, including farmers, testified that the average price for milk in Maryland was $2.55 a gallon in January, compared with $2.41 in Pennsylvania. They used this as evidence that a price-support program would not necessarily lead to significantly higher prices at the store.

John W. Wysong, a professor of agriculture economics at the University of Maryland and a consultant to a state task force, testified that Pennsylvania and Virginia farmers receive about 50 cents a hundredweight more for their milk than do Maryland farmers.

"We are talking about $10,000 or so a year," he said. "That's enough to send a child to college for a year or two."

Pub Date: 2/07/97

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