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Editorial - After the dairy bill...

April 14, 1998

A bill to help Maryland's troubled dairy industry came back from the dead last week, after a state senate committee voted to kill it in early March. It was revived for several reasons, including:

- the need to give farmers a concession in exchange for new runoff rules they'll face,

- the fact that it's a good fit with Gov. Parris Glendening's "Smart Growth" program to discourage sprawl development in outlying areas, and

- metro-area legislators realized that not going along on this issue might cost them rural support later on bills like the $250-million-plus bailout of Baltimore City's school system.

But now that the bill has been passed, we see a need to monitor its effect on the dairy industry and not assume that all of the problems have been solved in an industry which has lost 25 percent of its farms since 1991 - 82 in the past year alone.

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In March 28 letter to the editor, Barry F. Scher, the vice president for public affairs for Giant Food and a member of the governor's Dairy Task Force in 1995 and 1996, said that the Northeast Dairy Compact had produced only $250 a month extra for small farmers in Massachusetts during its first year of operation.

Scher suggested instead that the answer is a combination of special tax relief, a subsidy fund similar to the one created for the state's horse-racing industry and low-interest loans for farmers who want to upgrade equipment.

None of this, however, addresses the issue of an aging population of farmers that sees fewer and fewer of its children willing to put up with the long hours and uncertain profits inherent in farming. And when they retire, the only people able to buy their land are developers or those who've already made a fortune elsewhere.

If citizens agree that the preservation of family farming is desirable, all involved must look at ways to provide retiring farmers a comfortable retirement without forcing them to sell to developers and aspiring young farmers a way to begin working the land without taking on a mountain of debt.

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