Maryland's entry into the Northeast Dairy Compact was assured yesterday -- assuming Congress goes along -- as Delaware Gov. Thomas R. Carper signed legislation for Delaware to join the compact.
But in order for the compact to become a reality, Congress must approve legislation reauthorizing the milk price-support plan that is designed to ease the financial plight of dairy farmers.
Under the proposed federal legislation, only contiguous states would be allowed to participate in a compact. Maryland was waiting for either Pennsylvania or Delaware to approve participation in the Northeast compact.
Compacts are groupings of states that set the regional farm price for Class 1 (drinking) milk.
The federal legislation, which was introduced in the House and Senate late last month, is designed to slow the sharp decline in the number of dairy farms by stabilizing the price farmers receive for milk, which can vary greatly from month to month.
"That's great," said Myron Wilhide, president of the Maryland Dairy Industry Association, of Carper's action. "This is very important to Maryland's dairy industry and its farmers.
"We are grateful for what Delaware did, but we are not out of the woods yet. We still need Washington to reauthorize the compact."
Jonathan Moore, assistant director of the Maryland dairy group, said Maryland and the nine other states that would be part of the Northeast compact hope Pennsylvania joins the group.
He said Pennsylvania would give the group more political clout in what is expected to be a bitter battle in Congress.
Opponents of the legislation argue that it would increase the price of milk at supermarkets, while benefiting big farms more than the family farms that the lawmakers say the bill is trying to help.
Rep. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat and one of 162 co-sponsors of the House compact bill, said the legislation could add a couple of cents to the consumer price for a gallon of milk, but would keep a thousand family farms from going out of business.
In introducing a compact bill last month, 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.
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.
Overall, 23 states, from Maine to Oklahoma, are seeking to join a dairy compact. Moore said two other states, Texas and Kansas, may also pass compact legislation.