Dairy farmers aim to join milk compact Md. group wants to be in Southern cartel that would set prices

Follows New England plan

Legislature's OK needed for move, seen as a financial fix

November 19, 1997|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Maryland dairy farmers have shifted direction in their search for a solution to the financial problems that have forced more than 40 percent of their colleagues out of business since 1988.

Myron L. Wilhide, president of the Maryland Dairy Industry Association, told dairymen attending the group's first meeting in Frederick yesterday that it will seek General Assembly approval for the state to become a member of an emerging Southern states milk compact.

The compact would link 15 states, stretching from Maryland to Texas, into a marketing group that would set the farm price of milk at a level that would make milking cows more profitable.

"We're going to try something different next year," Wilhide said, referring to the heated legislative battle last winter over a bill that would have given the state agriculture secretary the authority to set the minimum price of milk at the farm, processor and retail levels.

He said the Southern compact would be patterned after a similar one in New England.

The New England program became operational in May and established the price that farmers currently receive for their milk -- $16.94 a hundredweight, or $1.45 a gallon.

The compact controls only the price of Class One milk, or fluid milk that is sold in containers for drinking.

Wilhide said the New England price is nearly $2 a hundredweightabove the price that Maryland farmers receive for their milk.

General Assembly approval is just the first step in becoming a compact member, S. Patrick McMillan, special assistant to the state agriculture secretary, told the approximately 100 industry people attending the meeting.

After each state approves the plan, McMillan said, Congress would have to endorse the compact because regulating prices in a region would normally be in violation of interstate commerce laws.

McMillan said the compact organizers would like to have eight or nine states ready to join by the middle of next year. It wants to seek congressional approval in 1999.

So far, only North Carolina, Arkansas and Louisiana have passed enabling legislation. McMillan said another half-dozen states are actively working on legislation.

Leon Enfield, a dairy farmer from Brunswick, said "something needs to be done to help farmers. They are in a desperate situation and more and more of them are going out of business every month."

Enfield milks 85 cows and said that if his farm was not debt free he might be forced to join some of his neighbors who have sold their herds.

Edwin R. Fry Jr., an Eastern Shore dairy farmer who served on a legislative committee last year that examined the financial problems of Maryland's dairy industry, said General Assembly approval of Maryland's membership in the compact is not a given.

"I think it would be good for the industry," Fry said, "but realistically, it's going to be an uphill battle. My experience is that Annapolis is not sensitive to the needs of dairy farmers.

"The likelihood of getting this through the General Assembly is very slim," he said.

Fry said approval of the compact would take "strong support" from Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

In August, Glendening told a gathering of farmers in Walkersville that he would support milk price control legislation designed to stabilize the state's declining dairy industry.

Giant Food Inc., the Baltimore area's largest grocery chain, has already expressed its opposition to the compact.

Barry F. Scher, vice president of public affairs for Giant, which operates its own dairy processing plant in Jessup, said any cost increase it incurred would be passed on to consumers.

Pub Date: 11/19/97

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