Md. farmers hear milk plan Controversial proposal changes way prices set

October 25, 1997|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

MOUNT PLEASANT -- Nearly 100 dairy farmers from around the state converged on this rural Frederick County community with high hopes of finding a solution to the financial problems that have forced one out of every four dairymen out of business in recent years.

They gathered this week at the Ruritan Club hall to hear the details of a controversial plan that would give them -- not the milk processors or the federal government -- the power to set milk prices.

Although the cooperatives that purchase their milk and deliver it to processing plants had agreed the day before to pay farmers 40 cents a hundredweight, or 3.4 cents a gallon, more for Class 1 milk (drinking milk), farmers say this is not nearly enough to pay their bills.

They say milk prices at the farm level have been below the break-even point since early in the year.

What's at stake, they believe, is nothing less than the failure of the family farm.

The proposal was made by three members of the American Raw Milk Producers Pricing Association, a Wisconsin-based grass-roots organization that wants to unite farmers nationwide into bargaining collectives to demand higher prices from the cooperatives that buy their milk.

The Wisconsin dairy farmers discussed their own financial struggles, and suggested their plan could boost profits and perhaps even give dairymen here health care and retirement plans.

The group, known as ARMPPA, is attempting to gain control of 20 percent of the nation's milk supply.

Supporters say that would be necessary to influence the pricing system.

It is "time to be the price-setters rather than the price-takers," said Joe Biba, a dairyman from Boscobel, Wis.

Biba said the dairy farmers could receive $22 to $23 per hundredweight for their milk -- which would be a record high and represent about a 64 percent increase in the price of about $14 that Maryland farmers are paid now.

John Kinsman, who milks 36 cows on a 150-acre farm near Lime Ridge, Wis., said ARMPPA is seeking to follow the lead of the nation's cranberry growers "who are enjoying prosperity" because they banded together in a group that controls 20 percent of the cranberry supply.

"It's tough out there," said Joel Greeno of Kendall, Wis. "I'm a dairy farmer just like you, and I'm struggling."

The discussions became more heated when one farmer in the audience warned that the ARMPPA proposal "could backfire on us."

"The co-op might not take our milk, and we would be cut off at the knees," he said.

Dale Burrier of Frederick replied: "We have got to buck up against the co-ops. That's what they [ARMPPA] are trying to do, to get the co-ops to pay a better price."

Nola Ramsbury of Walkersville, at the meeting with her husband, Robert, criticized the group for blaming their financial problems on the co-ops.

"You are the co-op," she told them. "If you don't like the board of directors, elect someone else. I'm tired of hearing all this talk about the co-ops not looking our for us."

Myron L. Wilhide, a farmer from Detour and the interim president of the Maryland Dairy Industry Association, was shouted down when he tried to say that the industry might fare better by being a part of a newly organized 15 Southern states compact that would set the farm price of milk at a level that would make milking cows more profitable.

"Myron, who owns the milk?" Charles Serandian of Taneytown yelled from the back of the room. "We own it and we should price it. Sit down and be quiet."

After the meeting, Wilhide said he didn't want to be critical of the ARMPPA movement, because something needs to be done to make dairy farming profitable again.

"Ideally, we should be getting $22 or $23 for our milk," he said, "but realistically, it's not going to happen.

"These people think they can keep raising milk prices and the consumer will keep on paying. That's not realistic. Most dairy farmers are smart enough to know they can price themselves out of existence."

Robert Ramsbury said after the meeting, "The bottom line is that there is a surplus of milk in this country. I feel that this group is a bit radical. They have not convinced me what they are going to do with the milk. The co-op now guarantees me a market for my milk. These guys don't guarantee anything. That's my concern."

Pub Date: 10/25/97

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