New Hampshire leaders target December aid for dairy farmers

An emergency relief fund created in 2008 to help New Hampshire dairy farmers was never funded, but state officials said Monday they want to get money to farmers struggling with low milk prices and drought conditions by December.

Nineteen of the state's 120 dairies have closed in recent months. The state had lost 10 dairies over the previous four years combined.

New Hampshire's agriculture commissioner, Lorraine Merrill, said it's time to "stop the hemorrhaging."

"We've been losing dairy farms at an accelerated pace, and we know that we have a number of them that are really kind of perched on the edge of a cliff at this point, getting bids from cattle dealers on how much they would get for their herds," Merrill said.

An oversupply of milk in the United States and around the world has caused milk prices paid to farmers to fall below production costs for months, but the drought makes the situation worse for some farmers. In New Hampshire, officials said, milk prices for farmers are 38 percent lower than a couple of years ago and farmers lost about $7 million last year.

Dairy farmers in much of New Hampshire and parts of Massachusetts and New York have been hit hardest by the drought, producing low amounts of hay and corn feed for their cows to get them through the winter. But unlike New Hampshire, those other states and others in New England provide supplemental aid.

At a milk fund board meeting on Monday, Tom Marston, who runs a nine-generation dairy farm in Pittsfield, reflected on keeping his farm and others going for the next generation.

"I don't want to be the one in charge when it has to go by the wayside," he said, calling for immediate aid.

In 2007, the state gave dairy farmers a one-time emergency payment of about $2 million for low milk prices, lessening the need for help once the fund was created a year later.

Since then, the state Department of Agriculture has included money for the Milk Producers Emergency Relief Fund in past budgets, but it didn't make it into final budget recommendations to legislators.

The board said it plans to come up with an amount by next week and help create a task force of legislators to hold a hearing on the proposal. It said the goal is to get the money to farmers by the time the Legislature is sworn in Dec. 7.

"Some of these farmers aren't going to make it to Christmas," said Republican Rep. Bob Haefner, of Hudson, chairman of the fund's board.

Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan has committed $2 million per year to the fund in the next budget, but the money would have to be approved by legislators next year.

Dairy farmer Allen Smith, of Great Bay Farm in Greenland, said people are looking at loans or selling off some animals to pay to feed others. He said he has sold some of his heifers to get enough money to buy feed.

"Everybody's like, 'You can get disaster loans,'" said Smith, whose farm has been around for six generations. "We've got enough debt. We don't need more loans. You need to fix the price of milk somehow, but that's even a harder option."

Farmers are looking to bring in hay and corn feed from other states, which comes with expensive trucking costs.

"You add that to these low milk prices, you end up with a perfect storm," said Dorothy Perkins, a food and agriculture extension field specialist at the University of New Hampshire. "You don't have the money to buy it."