WASHINGTON - Legislation was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday that would make Maryland and at least 24 other states part of regional dairy compacts that would set the minimum price farmers are paid for their milk.
During a ceremony held on the lawn of the Capitol, a steady stream of lawmakers came to the podium to say the legislation is needed to provide farmers a fair price for their milk and to guarantee consumers a supply of local fresh milk.
Low milk prices at the farm have been blamed for the steady decline in dairy farms across the country.
In introducing the legislation, Rep. Asa Hutchinson, an Arkansas Republican, said his state had 1,600 milk producers 25 years ago and "today, it's under 450 and falling rapidly."
The situation is similar in most other milk-producing states. Thirty percent of Maryland's dairy farms have gone out of business in the past 10 years.
"Prices are just too low; nobody is making a profit," said Lisa Schwartzbeck, a 33- year-old dairy farmer from Union Bridge, who came to Capitol Hill to participate in the ceremony. "I don't know how we can continue going on. There has to be stability in prices at some time."
The legislation introduced yesterday would reauthorize the 4-year-old Northeast Dairy compact that is composed of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut.
The bill would also bring Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey into the group.
A new Southern Dairy Compact would be made up of 14 Southern and Midwestern states.
Under the bill, the states in the compact would collectively set a minimum price that the region's dairy farmers could charge.
A previous compact bill was defeated in Congress two years ago. Hutchinson expressed confidence that this would not happen again. He said the new bill already has 155 House members signed on as supporters, including the entire Maryland delegation.
Opponents of compact legislation, including dairy processors and supermarket chains, argue that compacts actually boost retail milk prices.
More than 100 members of Congress have signed a letter to Speaker Dennis Hastert opposing compacts.
Rep. Peter Sessions, a Texas Republican, said the compacts amounted to building "trades zones within our borders," as Congress works to tear down foreign trade barriers.
"They are the antithesis of a free trade market," Sessions added.
A University of Connecticut study released yesterday blamed the supermarkets and the dairy processors for most of the milk price increases in the Northeast compact states.