Rendell begins court battle for dairy farmers


HARRISBURG, Pa. — Pa. Gov. Ed Rendell is taking the next step in what he believes to be a battle for dairy farmers.

Court battle

Rendell has asked a court to overturn a state board decision that ruled out an extra charge on packaged milk produced in Pennsylvania and sold in New Jersey.

The governor and Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff filed a lawsuit May 1 in Commonwealth Court that challenges a decision made by the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board April 1.

Milk marketing board

One of the responsibilities of the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board is establishing milk prices based on industry conditions to ensure that Pennsylvania farmers are reasonably compensated.

The lawsuit claims the board’s decision not to place the extra charge on packaged milk produced in Pennsylvania and sold in New Jersey was an error. The board voted 2-1 on its ruling last month.

Petition filed

Rendell said in a statement that by ignoring evidence, the milk marketing board failed to do its more important job — help dairy farmers get a fair price for their milk.

The governor’s petition contends the milk marketing board abused its discretion and violated the law when it failed to follow its legislative mandate.

Rendell and Wolff said the lawsuit shows the panel was biased in favor of milk dealers and argues the panel ignored evidence and abused its discretion.

New Jersey bound

At issue is whether to add the so-called “over-order premium fuel adjuster” on New Jersey-bound milk. The extra fee increases how much processors, the middlemen who sell to groceries and other outlets have to pay to farmers.

Only 15 percent of the milk produced in Pennsylvania is subject to the premium under the current system, according to a news release issued by Rendell’s office.

Tough times

Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff said if the Commonwealth Court would enact Rendell’s proposal, it would help bring money back to the dairy farmer.

He said Pennsylvania’s dairy producers are struggling to stay in business in a time of record low milk prices and a depressed national economy. The state’s dairy industry, he added, supports more than 40,000 jobs at a time when jobs in other industries are being lost.

“We are hoping to bring additional revenue to dairy farmers in a time in history when they have never needed it more,” said Wolff.

Flip side

Earl Fink with the Pennsylvania Association of Milk Dealers trade association feels the milk marketing board made the best decision.

“We just don’t think it’s good for farmers,” Fink said about the proposed increase. “What will be next, charging extra for milk to be shipped to Maryland?”

Fink said the milk dealers’ association has agreed with decisions made in the past to increase prices, but the association doesn’t eel this one should move forward.

“We do want to help our farmers as much as possible, when it’s reasonable,” he said.

Fink said the extra fee would put Pennsylvania dealers at a disadvantage to other states that help feed the massive New Jersey market.

Farm Bureau

Mark O’Neill, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, said the group feels the decision made by the milk marketing board was incorrect because the evidence presented supported an expansion in the premium.

He said the bottom line is the issue is moving forward in the court system.

“We are still looking for a positive outcome,” O’Neill said.

It’s estimated that the court case could take up to six months before it reaches a hearing where arguments could be heard.

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