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N.M. action delays feds' help for milk producers

June 02, 1999|By JULIE E. GREENE

Almost 700 Tri-State dairy farmers are awaiting federal checks to help them survive sagging market prices for milk, but the checks could be delayed because of a court filing by New Mexico dairy farmers who claim they are being discriminated against.

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Some Tri-State area dairy farmers understand the New Mexico dairy farmers' position, others don't feel sorry for them, but most want their money as soon as possible.

The Dairy Producers of New Mexico claim the federal aid is discriminatory, saying it favors smaller farms. The organization has asked the U.S. District Court in Albuquerque for an injunction hearing that could delay the release of federal funds.

"For the past several years it's been a little hard for the family farm to compare themselves to the big dairy operation in places like New Mexico, Arizona," said Marlin Martin, 58, who has a dairy farm west of Smithsburg.

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Martin said he thought the federal government was right to provide a cutoff on federal aid and focus on small and medium milk operations.

Health problems caused Martin to cut back his cow herd from 90 to 70 head in the past three months, making the price drop a double whammy, he said.

The milk price was slightly more than $11 per hundredweight recently, but the break-even price for many dairy farmers is around $16 per hundredweight, said Colleen Cashell, Washington County Farm Service Agency executive director.

Martin, who is expanding his herd by 100 cows, said he thinks his farm west of Smithsburg will survive even if the federal payments are delayed a couple of months.

"Our farm is not that critical right now that $4,000 is going to make or break it," Martin said.

Although the aid amounts haven't been determined, Martin expects to receive about $4,000.

Elmer Vickers, 70, of Locust Grove Farm in Kearneysville, W.Va., said he just wants his money.

Vickers said he can see the New Mexico dairy farmers' point, but if the cap is removed it will take money away from smaller farms.

"There's only so many dollars," said Vickers, who has 140 milking cows.

Dairy farmers who produced milk during the last quarter of 1998 had until May 21 to apply for aid through local Farm Service Agency offices. Eligible farms could get up to $5,000 each from the $200 million available nationwide.

Federal aid is limited to the first 26,000 hundredweight of milk production.

The executive director for the Dairy Producers of New Mexico said the nonprofit group pursued legal action because it wants all producers to be treated fairly.

"The last thing we want to do is hurt anybody," said Executive Director Sharon Lombardi. The group represents 155 dairies in New Mexico, which is 10th in the nation in milk production.

Lombardi said Southwest dairy farmers fear that U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman might be creating a new dairy policy without authorization from Congress.

It was Congress' intent to help all dairy farmers, not just small and medium producers, she said.

The group's Ohio attorney, Ben Yale, said Tuesday he hoped to resolve the dispute quickly, but if he can't get a hearing date soon he will ask the court for a temporary restraining order to prevent distribution of the federal money.

Unless ordered to stop by the courts, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will continue to review applications so payments can be processed, said spokesman Andy Solomon.

Department officials think it is more important to focus efforts on the small- and medium-sized dairy producers with the limited amount of federal aid available, Solomon said.

Dennis Peckman, 45, of St. Thomas, Pa., said he's been waiting for federal aid since October. Peckman said the larger farms in the West that receive premiums and cost savings from high volume aren't justified in asking for a bigger share of the federal aid.

"The intention of the law is to help farmers that need it most and that's the smaller ones," Peckman said.

"I've already subsidized them (big dairy farms in the West) enough that I don't feel sorry for them," said Lester Strite, who owns a dairy farm near Huyetts Crossroads.

The pricing structure in the milk market is prorated based on the farmer's distance from major markets, so Western dairy farmers get support from farmers in the South and East, said Don Schwartz, agriculture extension agent for the Maryland Cooperative Extension of the University of Maryland.

Strite said he didn't apply for federal aid because he's a Mennonite and doesn't want a government handout.

With 80 cows Strite said he thinks he can make it through the current price decline, but doesn't want to see prices stay low much longer.

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