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Maine Dairy Farmers Anxious about Fate of Crucial Farm Bill Provision
10/02/2012   Reported By: Jay Field

A difficult year for Maine dairy farms has only grown more challenging with the recent expiration of the federal farm bill. Commercial milking operations depend on subsidies in the legislation to help them get through tough times. Dairy farmers say the rising price of fuel and grain is forcing them to sell their milk for less than it costs them to produce it. Jay Field visited one dairy farm, struggling to make ends meet.

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On this Indian summer day, Walter Fletcher's cows are contented - and quiet. "This is one of our groups, our young cow group, first calf heifers," Fletcher says.

Around 60 cows laze around inside a large barn on Feltcher's farm in Pittsfield. Fletcher, his wife Edna, their son and a small staff milk around 250 animals. The family belongs to the Agri-Mark Cooperative, which supplies the milk that makes Cabot and McCadam cheeses.

Fletcher Farm has been through tough times before. A fire two years ago destroyed one of its barns. But this year, the Fletchers have become stuck in a cycle they fear could bring down their business. It began back in April, when it started raining.

"Didn't stop 'til almost July. So we were very late getting crops in the ground," Walter Fletcher says. "Our grass crop is light and cut very late. Poor quality. So it's gonna push our feed costs up 'cause we're gonna have to buy more supplements if we're going to make any milk."

Throughout the spring, Fletcher would get his tractors and other machines ready for planting, only to have to dial back and put things on hold. The false starts have forced the farm to use more fuel than it normally does, at a time when the price of diesel has risen to over $4 a gallon.

Fletcher says the farm usually shells out between $10,000 and $12,000 annually for fuel. This year, he'll spend an additional $6,000 at a time when the wholsale price of milk has dropped to historic lows.

"Right now, we're not covering operating costs," Edna Fletcher says. She says it's been hard to sit down at the computer on a regular basis. She does the books.

"I've been ingnoring it. I tend, when things get very difficult, I put it aside and I just don't want to face it," she says. "So that's how I've been handling it and it's not a good thing."

Edna Fletcher says she's been forced to prioritize the bills. Fuel, electrcity, and breeding costs for the cows come first.
"Most of the people that we do business with know what we're going through and are very supportive, you know, letting us slide the bill to 30, 60 days.

The Fletchers are now carrying growing balances with many of their vendors. Erin Flood says many of her clients are facing the same kind of hardship. Flood, who's a large animal vet, has dropped by Fletcher Farm to check on the herd.

People are trouble-shooting things themselves, when perhaps they would have had us come look at them before," Flood says. "We'll get a phone call. Instead of a, 'Hey doc, can you come look at this cow?' It's a phone call of, 'Hey doc, can you consult on the phone with me?' Instead of coming to see her. So some people have even cut out their regular routine herd work, or cut it back, in order to save money."

It's in times like these that farmers like the Fletchers lean heavily on the Milk Income Loss Contract Program, a subsidy that's part of the federal farm bill. But the legislation has expired, so struggling dairymen will have to wait until the bill is reauthorized to get this support again. Walter Fletcher isn't sure how much difference it would make anyway.

"A lot right now depends on our vendors, how long they can work with us," he says. "They're very good to work with. Our fuel guy is good. Our grain guy is great. Those guys have limits too. They can only go so far with their businesses. We're all in this together. They need me, I need them."

With Congress now on recess, the earliest the farm bill could be reauthorized would be in the lame duck session after the election. Lawmakers, though, very well may not take up the bill until after the new year.


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