WASHINGTON — Senate and House negotiators agreed Sept. 30 to provide $350 million for U.S. dairy farmers.
Under the language that Congress still must approve, $290 million would be provided in direct support to dairy farmers using guidelines to be determined by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack under an expedited process.
Another $60 million would be used to purchase cheese and other dairy products for food banks and nutrition programs, spurring prices for raw dairy products by drawing down supplies of the commodity.
The average price farmers received for their milk fell in the past year to $11.30 per hundredweight, down from $19.30 in July 2008.
A new fight emerged after the agreement, however, over how the $290 million would be reallocated.
U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., requested a meeting with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to assure equitable distribution of the emergency funding.
In a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid, Boxer said, “I have serious concerns that emergency spending included in this legislation to assist dairy producers will be used in a way that discriminates against dairies in Western states.”
Boxer said she would object to any unanimous consent request to move forward on the agriculture appropriations report until she had met with Vilsack.
Congressional conferees agreed to retain the $350 million figure first included in Sanders’ amendment that the Senate passed Aug. 6 by a vote of 60 to 37.
An earlier House version of the Department of Agriculture appropriations bill did not include any extra dairy funds.
“While this funding will provide some much needed emergency relief, we must also develop some long-term policies which will provide fair and stable prices for dairy farmers,” Sanders said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who also championed the funding, called the current dairy situation a “crisis of epic proportions.”
“We have a dairy industry on the brink of total collapse and this could not come at a better time,” said Leahy, who is also a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Dairy farmers got a temporary boost from the Agriculture Department last July 31 when Secretary Vilsack approved a three-month price hike that was expected to increase farmers’ revenue nationwide by $243 million.
Leahy and Sanders also have put a spotlight on the record profits of dairy processors, and the U.S. Justice Department has indicated increased concentration in the dairy industry merited a closer look by the department.
Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney said the department launched a comprehensive review of market concentration, the relationship between dairy co-ops and milk processors.
(Updated Oct. 5, 2009, with the information regarding Sen. Boxer’s objections.)