Dairy legislation offered for Md. to join compact

Congressional action would let 20 states join such groupings

April 28, 1999|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- David Weitzer parked his corn planter in the field yesterday morning, put on a coat and tie and dashed off to the Capitol.

"Gotta get the corn in, but this is just as important," the 65-year-old dairy farmer from Poolesville said, standing under a towering American elm with farmers from across the country and a dozen members of Congress who were announcing the coming introduction of legislation to authorize Maryland and at least 19 other states to join dairy compacts.

Compacts are groupings of states that set the regional farm price of Class 1 (drinking) milk. The legislation, to be introduced soon in the House and Senate, is designed to slow the sharp decline in the number of dairy farms by stabilizing the price farmers receive for their milk, which can vary greatly from month to month.

Maryland has lost about 40 percent of its dairy farms over the past decade.

The situation is similar in other milk-producing regions of the country, said Sen. James M. Jeffords, a Republican from Vermont, who participated in a news conference on the Capitol lawn.

Jeffords said the legislation would reauthorize the Northeast Dairy Compact that was approved by Congress in 1996. It would also establish a Southern Dairy Compact.

If the legislation is approved, Maryland would be part of the Northeast compact. Both Maryland senators and five of the state's eight representatives are among the co-sponsors.

But Maryland's membership in the compact is uncertain. Under the contiguous-state arrangement of the federal bill, the legislatures of either Delaware or Pennsylvania would have to have approved compact legislation for Maryland to qualify.

Last week, the Pennsylvania Senate passed a bill to do so by a vote of 44-6. In Delaware, its House passed a like bill by a similar margin.

Opponents of compact legislation argue that it will increase the price of milk at the supermarkets while benefiting big farms more than the family farms that the lawmakers say the bill is trying to help.

"It may add a couple of cents to the consumer price of milk." said Rep. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, "but the alternative would be to put a thousand family farms out of business."

Schumer said the compact legislation would "give our dairy farmers a fighting chance to survive."

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said the average retail price of milk in the existing six-state Northeast compact is lower than the average for the rest of the country.

The Northeast compact includes Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Weitzer, the Montgomery County farmer, said that while the retail price of milk has gone up about 50 percent over the past 20 years, the price he gets for his milk has remained about the same.

He blamed the price of milk and development pressures for the loss of all but 11 of the county's 200 dairy farms since 1959.

Pub Date: 4/28/99

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