WASHINGTON, Oct. 9, 2017 - Concerns about the dairy sector’s Margin Protection Program dominated the sixth farm bill listening session conducted by the House Agriculture Committee, but the lawmakers also heard appeals for increased research funding and for aid to young farmers. 

During the 2-1/2 hour-hour session in Cobleskill, N.Y.,  165 miles north of New York City, dairy producers continually complained that MPP had provided inadequate protection since the program was created in the 2014 farm bill. 

“Had the program worked as we were led to believe, we would have had considerably more dollars added to our bottom line. I feel very much duped by the federal government,” said Denise Lloyd, who milks 150 cows with her husband and son near Middleburgh, N.Y. She said the program provided little benefit even though they paid $7,000 in one year for buy-up coverage. 

Robin Fitch, a farmer from West Winfield, N.Y., also expressed a common sentiment at the listening session. "The small farmers, the big farmers, we all need a fair price for our milk,” she said. “Unless we get a fair price for milk nothing else matters.” 

Finding money to reform MPP is going to be one of the biggest challenges facing the committee as it prepares to write the new farm bill. The Senate Appropriations Committee inserted changes to the program in its fiscal 2018 USDA spending bill, but it’s not clear they will make it into the final legislation Congress sends to the White House, and the reforms don’t go as far as the National Milk Producers Federation has proposed. 

“Obviously, dairy has not worked coming out of the farm bill,” House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said as he closed the listening session. He said lawmakers were “committed to addressing that.” 

Neal Rea, chairman of Agri-Mark, a 1,000-member Northeast dairy cooperative, outlined National Milk’s major proposals, including reversing a 10 percent cut in the feed cost formula that was made during deliberations on the 2014 farm bill. Rea said premiums for buy-up coverage also should be lowered to increase participation. 

“We need to have this provision (MPP) work for dairy farmers,” he said. 

Some witnesses suggested that expanding the Livestock Gross Margin program could provide an option to MPP. Other witnesses endorsed a past proposal called the Federal Milk Marketing Improvement Act that would create a supply management system for milk.

A recent report by USDA’s Risk Management Agency said that sales of LGM coverage to dairy producers are periodically halted because of the $20 million annual funding limit on the program. Under the 2014 farm bill, dairy producers also are not allowed to participate in both LGM and the Margin Protection Program at the same time.

Eric Ooms, a dairy farmer near Chatham, N.Y., who is the vice president of New York Farm Bureau, said he is concerned that producers still won’t participate in MPP even if Congress changes it. 

“Most farmers that I know that purchase into LGM have had relatively positive experiences,” Ooms said. “If there’s a way to steer in that direction that would be fine. Either way, we need an answer on the dairy question.”

Several young or aspiring farmers said it is especially hard to get into the business in areas such as the Hudson Valley because of high land prices. Student loan debt also is a barrier, the lawmakers were told. "Finding affordable farmland has been our greatest challenge," said Sophie Ackoff, a representative of the National Young Farmers Coalition who is starting an organic vegetable farm.

Kathryn Boor, dean of Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, appealed to lawmakers to increase federal research spending. She said the United States “has already slipped from our position as the world leader” and fallen behind China, Brazil and Argentina in research spending.

“Agricultural research has a foundational role in spurring innovation and prosperity for rural America,” she said. Research spending at Cornell “returns dollars straight to our farmers’ pockets, she added.