From “cow committee” to the New Hampshire Senate floor, dairy farmers inch ever closer to receiving funds to help make up for last summer’s drought.
In a 19-3 floor vote Thursday, state senators moved forward a bill that would provide $2 million to the Milk Producers Emergency Relief Fund board to then be distributed to the state’s dairy farmers.
The board recommended that the Legislature appropriate a $3.6 million one-time payment for dairy farmers back in October. This was in response to the 2016 drought and associated feed losses, which were compounded by two years of low milk prices set by the federal government.
Over the course of 2016, the number of licensed cow dairy operations in New Hampshire dropped from 123 to 115, according to state data.
The Dairy Farmers Task Force took up the issue this past fall, a group that Senate majority leader Jeb Bradley said was fondly referred to as the “cow committee.”
The group originally recommended a complex formula calculated on a farm-by-farm basis and administered by the state Department of Agriculture.
But when the bill reached the Senate Energy and Resources Committee, Bradley proposed an amendment that simplified the process down to handing a $2 million sum for the Milk Producers Emergency Relief Fund board to disburse.
“If we want to help the farmers that need help and do it in a timely fashion, this winter, before they start to run out of money to buy the feed, this is the most expeditious way to do it, ” Bradley told his fellow senators Thursday. “I think this is a very small $2 million investment to tide people over,”
Bedford Republican Sen. Andy Sanborn, who sat on both the “cow committee” and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee, disagreed with the formula’s removal.
“I acknowledge, believe and support that there are times when our government needs to be there for people who need help,” he said. “However, that being said, I am concerned with the lack of distribution formula.”
Sanborn also raised his concerns about the dairy industry receiving help from the state when other agriculture ventures also suffered due to the drought.
“Apple production this year was down 30 percent,” Sanborn said. “Very difficult year for all farmers.”
But Bradley argued that dairy is different from other agriculture, since farmers aren’t able to set their own prices.
“There’s no other agricultural interest in the state of New Hampshire that has price control,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Jeff Woodburn went further and said there’s a deeper value to dairies worth preserving.
The industry is often cited as the basis for the state’s agriculture economy.
“Remember agri-culture. There is a culture that New Hampshire needs to protect,” Woodburn said. “It is our welcome sign.”
Sanborn and two others were in the minority as the bill passed Thursday with its amendment. Because it includes an appropriation, the dairy farmer relief bill will be examined next by the Senate Finance Committee.