Milk vote leaves officials wondering Future of Md. dairy farms seen as up in air; panel rejected compact; Plan would have set prices; Agriculture


A Senate committee's vote to kill proposed legislation that would have allowed Maryland to be part of a dairy compact had state agriculture officials reeling yesterday and wondering what can be done to protect the struggling industry.

"I don't understand it," Maryland's Agriculture Secretary, Henry A. Virts, said at a meeting of the state Agricultural Commission. "There's a great deal of concern that Maryland is becoming less agriculture friendly. We can pick ourselves up by our bootstraps and move on, but in what direction? I don't know."

The state Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee voted 8 to 3 Tuesday against legislation that would have allowed Maryland to become a member of the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact.

Maryland has fewer than 900 dairy farms. The state has lost 25 percent of its farms since 1991, and 82 have gone out of business in the past year.

The compact, which became operational last summer, sets the farm price for Class 1 (drinking) milk under the direction of panels made up of farmers, consumers, milk processors, and welfare officials.

The Northeast compact includes Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

New York and Pennsylvania are seeking legislation to join, and New Jersey recently enacted a compact law. Nearly every East Coast and Gulf Coast state has either passed compact legislation or has bills pending.

"What scares me," said Paul Crowl, a Harford County dairy farmer and a member of the commission that serves as an advisory group to the agriculture secretary, "is that all the surrounding states will be members of a compact and Maryland will be left out.

"Then we become a dumping ground for excess milk from out-of-state processors and our price will drop even lower," Crowl said.

Those concerns were exacerbated this week when the West Virginia House of Delegates passed a compact measure, 95-5.

Mehrle Ramsburg, a dairy farmer from Frederick and another member of the commission, said it may be too late to bring the compact bill back to the General Assembly next year.

Congress, which has the final say on all compacts, is expected to open the door for an expansion of dairy compacts later this year or early in 1999.

"We may have missed the train," Virts said.

Ramsburg also expressed disappointment that Gov. Parris N. Glendening was not more active in drumming up support for the legislation. "He said he supported the compact when he talked to farmers, but I wonder if that was just politics."

S. Patrick McMillan, special assistant to Virts and the Agriculture Department's point man on the compact legislation, said it turned into a David and Goliath issue with opponents "spending a great deal of money to defeat it."

He said the government's milk pricing program is a very complex issue dating back 60 years. He conceded that proponents of the legislation did not do a good job of explaining the issue.

McMillan said there seems also to be a split between rural and urban members of the General Assembly. "In other states there has been very little opposition to compact [legislation]. There's not a rift between rural and urban legislators. They work together."

Although Sen. Clarence W. Blount, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Senate panel, acknowledged that stores charge considerably more for milk in the Baltimore area than in rural regions of the state, he sided with the retailers and voted against the compact bill.

McMillan said the agriculture community needs to start "building some bridges" to establish relationships with the urban sector.

"We have got to get along," he said. "If we build walls between us, we won't get anything done."

Pub Date: 3/12/98

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