Farmers seek price controls for milk

February 06, 1997


Staff Writer

ANNAPOLIS - People approach Samuel Winters Jr. all the time and ask him when he's going to sell his dairy farm.

Winters, who over the years has watched the building boom around Smithsburg inch closer to his farm, understands that developing his land could be financially lucrative.

But he wants none of it.

"I don't want to sell the farm. I just want to make a living," said Winters, 52, a fourth-generation Washington County farmer.


Making a living has become increasingly difficult, however, as retail milk prices have climbed but his own profits haven't, he said.

He and dairy farmers from across the state were in Annapolis Thursday to support legislation that would impose price controls on milk in Maryland.

The bill (H.B. 504) is sponsored by Del. J. Anita Stup, R-Frederick/Washington, who told the House Environmental Matters Committee that the bill would benefit a small business in the state.

"This is nothing more or less than we've done for any other small business in the state," she said.

Stup and other proponents of the bill testified that price controls would protect farmers and their land. Opponents said the bill wouldn't help farmers and would increase the price of milk for consumers.

The legislation stemmed from a task force study of the state's dairy industry. The report concluded that the state's dairy industry faces unfair competition from Virginia and Pennsylvania, where minimum prices are set by state milk commissions.

With prices protected in their home states, Virginia and Pennsylvania processors can afford to sell their excess supply at cut-rate prices in Maryland, hurting Maryland's dairy industry, the report said.

The panel recommended that the General Assembly give state Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley authority to establish minimum milk prices to be received by dairy farmers, milk processors and retailers.

In addition to helping the farmer, Riley said, price controls would help preserve farm land.

"Because a profitable farm is the best land preservation program we have," he said.

Alan Rifkin, a lobbyist representing some grocery store chains and processors, challenged the task force's findings with his own numbers. Those numbers, he said, showed that retail milk prices would increase with controls.

He also said the state does not offer similar regulation for other commodities.

"What makes milk so special to take an act of the General Assembly?" he asked.

Whatever the outcome, farmers said there is plenty at stake, particularly locally.

Two-thirds of the state's milk production is in Washington, Frederick and Carroll counties, according to the legislature's Department of Fiscal Services. But over the past four years, the $1 billion dairy industry lost about 20 percent of its farms, according to the Department of Agriculture.

"There used to be a time when I said, `You made a little bit of money but you had a lot of fun,'" said Jere DeBaugh, a Boonsboro dairy farmer.

"Now we don't even have a lot of fun," he said.

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