The General Assembly has taken a baby step toward bringing Maryland in line with a handful of other East Coast states that have passed legislation to subsidize their beleaguered dairy farmers.
State lawmakers have given preliminary approval to the creation of the Maryland Dairy Farmer Emergency Trust Fund, but with one giant drawback -- the bill lacks funding.
The trust fund bill was designed to create a $15 million pot of money that the state agriculture secretary could distribute to dairy farmers when milk prices fell below the farmers' cost of production.
The emergency fund would seek to halt the decline of farms and ensure residents a supply of fresh, local milk.
"There was just no money in Annapolis this year to fund the legislation," said Del. Paul S. Stull, a Republican from Frederick, who was the lead sponsor.
The House of Delegates approved the bill by a vote of 139 to 0 after an amendment was added to take out the funding, said Stull.
The Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, which had previously killed the Senate version of the original bill, on Monday issued a favorable report on the House bill -- the one without funding.
"Our hope is to get the bill through this year and come back next year and get the funding," said Stull.
"We want to get the bill approved and then in better economic times, we can come back and get the funding," said Stull. "We might be able to get the funding in a year, or two years or three years."
Dairy farms, the third largest sector of the state's agriculture industry, have been disappearing at nearly twice the national average in recent decades.
In 1970, Maryland had roughly 4,000 dairy farms. At the end of last year, that number was down to 574, a decrease of about 85 percent.
As of the end of last year, five counties -- Allegany, Anne Arundel, Calvert, Dorchester and Somerset -- had no dairy farms. Three other counties -- Prince George's, Wicomico and Worcester -- were down to their last farm.
Harford County, which had nearly 600 dairy farms at the end of World War II, now has fewer than 30.
In Baltimore County, once a major milk-producing region, there are now fewer than a dozen dairy farms.
Farmers point to a number of reasons for the decline: low milk prices at the farm level, increased production costs, dwindling milk consumption and lower production costs in other parts of the country.
"We don't get paid enough for our milk to pay our bills," Chuck Fry, the owner of a dairy farm on the shores of the Potomac River in southern Frederick County, told members of a state task force last year.
He said his farm lost $40,000 in 2006 and $60,000 the year before.
Development pressures are also taking a toll on state dairy farms. Maryland has the sixth most expensive farmland in the nation. This makes it nearly impossible for farmers to expand to take advantage of economies of scale.
At least 10 other East Coast states (Virginia, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, and New Jersey) have approved tax credits or subsidies or taken other steps to help preserve their dairy industries.
Stull said the price farmers receive for their milk was up last year and so far this year, but that is not expected to last.
"History shows that prices will fall again," he said. "It scares me and it scares farmers that they don't know from month to month what they will be paid for their milk. They don't know if they will be able to survive."
Stull said the strategy of the more than 50 House sponsors of the dairy trust fund would be similar to the steps taken a few years ago to get legislative approval of another farm-related bill.
"A couple of years ago, we got MARBIDCO [Maryland Agricultural & Resource-Based Industrial Development Corp.] approved and then came back later to get funding," said Stull.
MARBIDCO is a state financing fund that provides grants or makes low interest loans or loan guarantees to farmers for use in modernizing or expanding their operations.
The Maryland Agricultural Commission will hold a public meeting on Thursday as part of its tour of Frederick County and Washington County farm operations.
The commission is a 30-member panel, representing a cross-section of the farming industry that advises the state secretary of agriculture on farm issues.
The public, both agricultural and nonagricultural, is encouraged to attend to have an opportunity to discuss issues affecting the farming community, exchange ideas, and get a better understanding of the role of the commission.
The meeting will be held at 7 p.m. at Dutch's Daughter Restaurant, 581 Himes Ave., in Frederick.
Meals will not be served at the meeting.