December 7, 2013

Milk price could rise to $6 per gallon if farm bill fails

A 1938 law requires the federal government to purchase dairy products at higher than wholesale prices if Congress can’t agree on a bill.

By J. Craig Anderson
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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Bottles of milk are lined up at Smiling Hill Farm in Westbrook on Thursday. The dairy version of a fiscal cliff looms, industry and economic experts say.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

“Or buy our own cow,” said McKeil, also of Portland.

Gould estimated that butter prices also could increase by as much as 50 percent, while cheese prices would increase by about 30 percent and ice cream would go up about 15 percent.

The more highly processed a dairy product is, the less its price would be affected by what the farmer is paid for the milk, he said.

According to a May 2013 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the amount of dairy products consumed by the average American each day is equivalent to about 1.5 cups of milk, including 0.6 cups of liquid milk.

The total U.S. dairy consumption for a year is roughly equivalent to 550 cups, or 34.4 gallons, of milk per capita.

Given that high demand, reverting to the 1938 law might sound like a bonanza for dairy farmers, but Warren Knight of Smiling Hill Farm in Westbrook said he has no desire to see the farm bill fail.

“There are a lot of things in there that farmers count on,” he said.

Those things include government-backed insurance against failed crops, Knight said. Without that insurance, farmers might not be able to obtain short-term loans to buy seed or feed. That could put some farms out of business, he said.

“It can have tremendous implications for farmers,” Knight said.

It’s possible that dairy farmers would opt not to sell their products to the government at the higher price, Gould said, especially if they believed a solution to the farm bill crisis was close at hand.

Selling to the government would require a great deal of paperwork and some retooling of processing and packaging plants to meet specific federal requirements, he said.

“Believe me, the dairy industry does not want to sell to the feds,” Gould said.

For that reason, retail prices likely would begin to climb only if the impasse in Congress dragged on for weeks or months, he said.

The House and the Senate have each passed separate farm bills, and a conference committee is now trying to negotiate a compromise before the January deadline. Democrats and Republicans disagree on two key sticking points: How much to cut from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, often referred to as food stamps, and from a program that provides certain direct subsidies to farmers. Both programs have historically been included in the farm bill.

It is uncertain whether the committee will work out a deal by the end of next week, when the House hopes to adjourn for the holidays.

Maine Sens. Angus King, an independent, and Susan Collins, a Republican, both voted for the Senate version of the farm bill.

Maine Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud, both Democrats, joined other members of their party in voting against the House version, in large part because of opposition to House Republicans’ decision to separate food stamps from the farm bill. House Republicans eventually passed a separate food stamps bill that would cut $40 billion over 10 years, compared to a proposed $4 billion cut in the Senate bill.

American Dairy Products Association board member Gary Cartwright said he believes Congress ultimately will pass a farm bill, but he is uncertain how much pain the average consumer will have to endure before that happens.

Cartwright, a professor of food, bioprocessing and nutrition at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C., estimates that the average price of a gallon of milk would increase by about $1.60 if Congress fails to act, slightly less than Gould’s estimate.

Still, Cartwright said that increase would be sufficient to make U.S. consumers angry.

“If your milk goes up $1.60 across the board, people are not going to be happy about it,” he said.

Staff Writer Kevin Miller contributed to this story.

J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 207-791-6390 or:

Twitter: @jcraiganderson

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