State dairy farmers ask level playing field

February 15, 1997

YOUR FEB. 4 editorial against setting minimum milk prices in Maryland ("Milk commission does a body no good") is incomplete. As a result, your conclusion is in error. Maryland milk producers want a level playing field. As long as Pennsylvania and Virginia establish minimum milk prices, Maryland will continue to be a dumping ground with implications for her dairy producers, consumers, and the environment.

Maryland dairy producers have a proud history of providing a reliable and safe product while protecting the environment. The industry predates statehood and is part of Maryland's heritage. Maryland has lost dairy producers at a faster rate than national and regional averages. Unless an effort is made to level the playing field, the future of the industry is in question.

The future of the Maryland dairy industry is also important for consumers.

Your editorial was correct in stating that the proposed law would likely result in higher producer and/or wholesale milk prices, at least in the short run. But since a majority of the proposed Milk Commission consists of consumers, any price increases would be expected to be moderate.

The link between the proposed law and higher retail prices is less certain. In the long run, an argument can be made that the proposed law could result in lower milk prices. A viable Maryland dairy industry is one of the best guarantees against high prices.

In the absence of a strong local industry, milk prices would tend to gravitate toward the price in supplying states plus the cost of transportation. Maryland consumers also like to keep jobs in-state and may prefer that dairy bottling and manufacturing plants meet state regulations.

A viable dairy industry also enhances our quality of life and the environment. The dairy industry provides open space and tranquil settings -- detracting from our hectic urban Maryland pace and promoting tourism. Modern dairying is an animal-intensive industry requiring good environmental stewardship. Keeping the industry in Maryland allows state regulators to ensure that the Chesapeake Bay is protected.

The proposed Milk Commission would level the playing field and help keep the Maryland dairy industry viable. Its viability is important to dairy producers, consumers and the environment.

James R. Russell

Kennedyville

The writer is owner of Russell Agricultural Consulting.

In the Feb. 4 editorial, ''Milk commission does a body no good,'' missing facts and erroneous statements beg for a reply by this dairy producer who served on the Governor's Dairy Industry Task Force.

In HB 504 there is no milk commission. The proposal is for an advisory committee of seven people, which would make recommendations to the secretary of agriculture. This committee would consist of four consumers, a retailer, a processor and a producer.

The legislation has the support of the Maryland Dairy Industry Association, producer co-ops representing dairy farmers, unions representing workers at processing plants and some Maryland dairy processors feeling economic pressure from out-of-state milk being dumped in the Maryland marketplace.

This is not ''undercutting Maryland farmers'' as stated in the editorial because all dairy farmers in Federal Marketing Order 4 (Maryland, Delaware, southern New Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania) get paid the same blend price.

This ''dumping'' does undercut Maryland dairy processors who must compete on the wholesale level to maintain their sales, yet cannot sell excess fluid production in Pennsylvania at a discount due to that state's law on minimum price.

Quoting the editorial, ''. . . over half the milk products consumed by Marylanders for years have come out of state.'' The editorial would have one believe the purpose of the bill is to stop the import of milk products from other states. In fact, the cost of production ''floor'' referred to in HB 504 only addresses fluid milk -- not all milk products. The December Pennsylvania milk market survey found that the Baltimore City consumer is paying much more for milk (average $2.58 per gallon) than the rest of Maryland and more than the average price ($2.34) for the entire state of Pennsylvania.

The editorial states that the likely outcome of a ''milk commission'' will be inflated prices for everyone at the grocery dairy case. I contend that implementation of HB 504 will pressure retailers to lower milk prices in Baltimore City.

The facts that fluid milk is extremely perishable and that it plays a significant role in the diets of many are two important reasons contributing to the complexity of issues surrounding this industry. Let's give the consumer the opportunity to buy the freshest possible product produced and processed in Maryland at competitive prices.

Edwin R. Fry

Chestertown

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