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Maryland milk industry wants fairness in pricing

January 09, 1997

By LISA GRAYBEAL

Staff Writer

Maryland dairy farmers say they need fairness in milk pricing and other improvements or they risk going out of business.

Based on recommendations from a 17-member dairy task force, organizers of the recently formed Maryland Dairy Industry Association plan to lobby for passage of the Fairness in Milk Marketing Act.

In part, the act is written to give Maryland Agriculture Secretary Lewis Riley authority to establish minimum milk prices paid to dairy farmers, milk processors and retailers.

The proposal will go before the General Assembly this session, said Patrick McMillan, assistant to the state Secretary of Agriculture.

"In effect, the entire industry will benefit," McMillan said. "It'll bring more stability to the marketplace."

The association wants a "level playing field" in the milk market, said association interim president Myron Wilhide, who milks 160 Holsteins on his farm in Carroll County.

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Maryland is the only state in the country located between two tightly regulated state milk markets.

To the north, the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board creates and enforces minimum prices that farmers, dealers and retailers will get for milk produced and purchased in the state, said Don Schwartz, Washington County Cooperative Extension agent.

To the south, the Virginia Milk Commission establishes the minimum price to be paid to farmers for milk and prohibits the sale of milk below the cost of processing and retailing, Schwartz said.

Pennsylvania and Virginia milk processors, who prepare milk to be sold to consumers, can sell milk in Maryland for less than the minimums in their own states, Wilhide said.

But Maryland milk processors must sell at or above the minimum prices in neighboring states.

The legislation isn't meant to stop milk from coming into Maryland from the other states, Wilhide said. But it would require Pennsylvania and Virginia processors to pay the minimum price Maryland sets.

The Washington County Farm Bureau has gone on record against the findings and recommendations of the task force, said Bob Ebersole, Farm Bureau board of directors secretary.

"I don't see how it's going to benefit dairy farmers," Ebersole said. "I think the retailers and processors are trying to make more money."

Ebersole, who milks 50 Holsteins on his Williamsport farm, said bureau members oppose setting a minimum milk price based on the cost of production. Farmers should be able to price the product themselves, he said.

Pricing and marketing of milk is handled under a complex set of federal and state regulations, including federal dairy price supports, milk marketing orders, import restrictions, export subsidies and food aid programs.

By enacting fairness in milk prices, Wilhide said, farmers could see a slight increase in their milk checks.

Milk drinkers probably wouldn't see a price change at the store.

The dairy task force also recommends that dairy processors be allowed to determine sell-by dates for dairy products.

Association members are hopeful that the proposed legislation will keep dairy farmers in business.

In the last 18 months, Maryland lost 200 dairy farms, leaving just over 900, Schwartz said.

Agriculture is the single largest industry in Maryland.

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