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Editorial - New milk plan a must

November 11, 1997

Editorial - New milk plan a must

A national milk-pricing system set up during the Great Depression no longer makes any sense. On that we agree with a federal judge, whose ruling voided it last Wednesday. But at least it was a system, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture needs to get cracking on a replacement that will pass court scrutiny.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge David Doty said the old pricing system wasn't based on any current reality. In brief, it held that the farther a dairy farm is located from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, the higher-priced its milk would be.

Eau Claire was chosen because it was then the nation's top dairy-producing region, and was deemed to have an advantage over other areas, which needed to transport milk longer distances to market. But California has since become the top dairy producer and farmers in the midwest have argued that the old system discriminated against them. Last Wednesday, they got a judge to agree.

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What would happen in an unregulated market? Without a subsidized price, some experts fear farmers would sell milk to cheese makers instead of dealing with the demands of the consumer market. Some farmers might conclude they couldn't compete at all, and sell their land for development.

That's the heart of the problem, and one that's of keen interest to Pennsylvania's 10,000 dairy farmers, whose state representatives are predicting "chaos" if a solution isn't found. If a farmer's only means of escape from bankruptcy is to develop his or her property, then rural areas will see additional suburban sprawl, with the costs of development - roads, schools and utilities - spread among existing taxpayers.

To forestall that, we recommend that the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture seek a stay of this ruling, to give the parties a chance to negotiate a settlement, and a new system of minimum pricing.

Because of rising production costs and farmers' inability to predict the weather, milk producers need some guarantee that they won't be in the hole after they've milked their herds. Adding a few pennies to each gallon of milk seems like the fairest and most painless way to give it to them.

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