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Dairy farmers increase pressure for higher minimum milk price

September 9, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ For dairy farmer Jackie Clossen, this year’s depressed milk prices mean no family health insurance and a lot of headaches with bill collectors.

``There’s no more margin to cut,″ said Mrs. Clossen, who lives on a small dairy farm in Cortland County, N.Y., with her husband and four children. ``We need a minimum wage for dairy farmers.″

The Clossens and thousands of other dairy producers have been hit hard by low prices and are pleading with the federal government to set a temporary minimum milk price at $14.50 per 100 pounds.

``This could keep a family farm going,″ Mrs. Clossen said during a rally Tuesday of about 150 dairy farmers outside the Capitol.

The farmers came to deliver petitions signed by 9,000 producers around the country in support of the temporary minimum price, which Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman has said would require action by Congress and is inconsistent with the more market-oriented 1996 farm law.

That law sets a minimum price of $10.20 per hundred pounds of milk for this year and phases out the price support by 2000. The price of milk last week was $12.07 per 100 pounds, but it has been as low as $10.70 this year _ the lowest price in six years and a free fall from $16.50 a year ago.

The volatility has led some dairy farmers to slaughter their cows instead of milking them, is putting many more deep in debt and could harm small-town businesses such as feed suppliers and banks.

A sign at Tuesday’s rally said, ``Why Own the Cows When You Sell the Milk for Nothing?″

Members of Congress from key dairy states, including Democratic Sens. Russell Feingold and Herbert Kohl of Wisconsin and Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, introduced a nonbinding resolution Tuesday calling on Glickman to set an emergency higher minimum milk price.

``If ever there was a time for the federal government to step in and help dairy farmers, this is it,″ Feingold said.

Sponsors say the higher price would have little impact on consumers but would enable farmers to get a little higher return for their work. Typically, farmers get between 55 and 65 cents for every $1.89 retail half-gallon of milk.

The higher price would cut into the profits of milk processors, the companies that make butter, cheese and other products from milk. But a spokeswoman for the International Dairy Foods Association, which represents the processors, said the issue is not so much profit but allowing the free market to work its will.

``We’re in a transition period where we’re moving toward a more market-oriented system,″ said Connie Tipton, senior vice president of the association. ``I know it’s hard for people to go from a very high price to a very low price, but these are the fluctuations you get on the open market.″

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