A way to stay down on the farm Md. dairy operators vote to join a marketing compact

December 10, 1997|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY -- Maryland dairy farmers yesterday broadened their search for a solution to the financial problems that have forced more than 40 percent of their colleagues out of business over the past decade.

Along the way, they picked up the political clout of the Maryland Farm Bureau, the state's largest farm organization, with 14,800 members.

In a last-minute decision, dairy operators voted unanimously to join any regional marketing compact establishing an interstate milk pricing system.

Until yesterday, farmers had planned to seek General Assembly approval for the state to become a member of a new Southern states compact that would link 15 states stretching from Maryland to Texas. The compact would set farm prices at a profitable level.

"But things have changed in the past 24 hours," said Cookie Ramsburg, secretary of the Maryland Dairy Industry Association. "It's beginning to look like we can be a part of the already established Northeast compact."

Ramsburg said New York and Pennsylvania are leaning toward joining the Northeast compact, which opens the door to Maryland's membership. Because the Northeast compact is limited to contiguous states, Maryland would have been prohibited from membership unless New York and Pennsylvania joined.

The Northeast compact, which became operational in May, established the price that farmers receive for their Class One milk at $16.94 a hundredweight, or $1.45 a gallon, about $2 a hundredweight more than Maryland farmers currently receive. Class One milk is fluid milk sold in containers for drinking.

"We didn't want to limit our options," Ramsburg said, in asking the Farm Bureau to change the wording in a resolution of support.

Instead of asking for its support of membership in the new Southern compact, the dairy farmers asked the bureau to endorse its membership in any compact.

Ramsburg said there is also a possibility that Mid-Atlantic states will establish a compact that might also prove attractive to Maryland farmers.

Harold Lenhart, a dairy farmer from Frederick County, said Congress has already approved the Northeast compact. The Southern compact has to pass that step.

Congressional endorsement of all compacts is needed because regulating prices in a region would normally be in violation of the interstate commerce laws.

Maryland's dairy industry will need the approval of the General Assembly before joining any compact. Ramsburg said the milk compact bill will be introduced in the legislative session that opens next month.

Lenhart warned that the bill will likely meet stiff resistance by major food retailers.

"If we want this thing, we are going to have to work hard for it," he said. "We will have to make legislators understand why this is important."

The Farm Bureau passed the revised resolution, guaranteeing its lobbying support in the legislature.

In his farewell address to the farm group, state Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley said his only regret after six years in office is not having been able to do something to help the state's dairy farmers.

Riley said Gov. Parris N. Glendening wants to see some program to help farmers, "and I'm still confident we can come up with something."

Farm Bureau members also adopted a resolution that opposes any moratorium on the construction of poultry houses.

The farm group also opposed extending the deer hunting season to 30 days from the current two weeks. It killed a proposal that would have supported the state reimbursing farmers and other land owners for deer-related crop losses, property damage and personal injuries.

Pub Date: 12/10/97

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