Connecticut's Small Dairy Farmers Unsure Of Impact Of Farm Bill

It's a classic congressional cluster flop. You've got partisan political clashes; regional conflicts; huge subsidies; lobbying cash; industries fractured by disputes; House and Senate rivalries; government gridlock.

And it's all about food. And money. And saving farmland. And helping the environment.

The innocent-sounding label for this particular legislative maelstrom is "The Farm Bill." Virtually no one knows what's going to emerge from the confusion or who's going to end up being shafted.

It could be Connecticut's dairy farmers, or the urban poor, or our state's small towns looking for sewer money, or farmers trying to avoid having their land go under the bulldozer to build more McMansions.

Connecticut's shrinking cadre of milk producers - fewer than 150 at last count - is right now sitting in the bleachers, trying to figure out if they're going to survive. There have been dire (but almost certainly overblown) headlines warning of $7-a-gallon milk if Congress fails to act by Jan. 1.

The federal Food Stamp program is also at risk, caught in a tug-of-war between conservative Republicans who want $40 billion in more cuts and liberal Democrats who think the poor are suffering enough. Our state's rural towns could be cut off from federal aid for sewer projects. Money for farmland preservation in Connecticut could get chopped.

"It's been very difficult to follow," Ben Freund says of the wild twists and turns of the Farm Bill debate.

Freund's family has been working its 800-acre farm in East Canaan for more than six decades and they now have about 300 milk cows. He's a knowledgeable, thoughtful man, often recommended as a go-to guy for explanations of what's happening in the dairy industry.

Except that on this topic, he's at something of a loss, reluctant to even describe the arcane disputes between farmers and processors, giant western dairies and our small-scale New England milk producers.

"Dairy policy has always been confusing," Freund says, and now the dairy industry itself is divided over federal policy. "It's very difficult to define both sides of the question," he adds with an apologetic note.

The Democratic U.S. Senate has one version of a farm bill. The Republican U.S. House has another. Last reports had congressional leaders holed up in closed-door sessions looking for a middle ground or possibly just a way to postpone a deadline for action so we don't fall over that Jan. 1st "Dairy Cliff."

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, a Democrat representing eastern Connecticut who sits on the House Agriculture Committee, says he has no clue what's going down in those secretive meetings. The only things Courtney was hearing at the start of this week were "speculation and rumor-mongering."

"Nothing's normal in this Congress," Courtney shrugs.

A major part of the problem is that there are so many different competing interests at war over various sections of this incredibly broad legislation. Millions have been spent by Big Agriculture and Big Food on lobbyists to influence Congress.

In the "old days" (of a few years ago), liberal urban votes for a congressional farm bill were lured in with funding for Food Stamps for the poor. Lawmakers from usually conservative agricultural regions got money they wanted for farm subsidies and protection for farmers from swings in the prices for food they produced.

Now, Republican conservatives want to slash Food Stamps, and liberal Democrats are balking. The issue of how to replace farm subsidies – where farmers and corporations were raking in big cash for not growing stuff – has created deep divisions in sectors as different as sugar and milk.

The old subsidy system for dairy farmers went out in 2008 and there have been temporary fixes passed by Congress since then.

The issue of what comes next has pitted smaller dairy farmers (like ours in Connecticut and New England) against the giant milk-producing farms out West. Allied with the big dairy folks are the processors, the industrial types that bottle most of our milk and make cheese and butter and related dairy products.

Connecticut dairy farmers are backing a Senate plan to create an "insurance" system to provide federal payments if feed prices jump too high, and to get farmers to cut back production if milk prices plunge. The processors and giant farm operations claim that would mean higher consumer costs. The other side insists that wouldn't happen long term.

Courtney describes that dairy battle as "the Northeast against the world," and says the plan supported by Connecticut farm folks is an attempt to "level the playing field."