Joe Courtney

Congressman Joe Courtney says that "speculation and rumor-mongering" are rampant when it comes to The Farm Bill. (ABIGAIL PHEIFFER/Special to The Hartford Courant / December 12, 2013)

In our little state, a dairy farm with 1,000 cows is considered big. In places like the Midwest or California, there are vast ranches where 10,000 or sometimes 20,000 animals are being milked.

According to Courtney, the kind of federal policy favored by the giants of the dairy industry would "put almost impossible pressure" on small New England farmers.

The one milk-related disaster most Connecticut experts agree won't be happening is falling off that "Dairy Cliff," a move that would send milk prices through the roof. The only way that could happen is if Congress does nothing and a post-World War II federal policy to shore up milk prices is automatically revived, triggering shortages of dairy products and higher prices for consumers..

"It's not going to happen," Freund says. Courtney doesn't think it's in the cards either. He believes the "political downside of letting that happen" is so massive that even this Congress, where doing nothing is always a first option, will take some kind of action.

The Farm Bill craziness has also produced fights between sugar growers and candy makers, and battles over importation of olive oil that Courtney says had legislators from places like California and New York facing off in table-pounding confrontations.

There are a whole mess of other Food Bill unknowns hanging over Connecticut in this season of uncertainty.

Those include what happens to federal funding for things like "rural development," a program that Courtney notes has paid for sewer improvements in places like Stafford, Bolton and Putnam.

"Even the definition of 'rural' is a highly contentious issue," says Courtney. Some congressional types from the wide-open spaces of Western states insist that you can't be truly rural if your town is anywhere close to an urban center, which by their way of calculating would exclude all of Connecticut.

Henry Talmage, of the Connecticut Farm Bureau, says another question mark is what happens to federal agricultural dollars for farmland preservation and environmental conservation. This state used to get about $9 million a year for those programs, he says.

Some of that money was helping Connecticut's program to save its rapidly vanishing farmland by paying landowners to give up their development rights. Talmage warns that some farmers have been putting off decisions about joining the program because they're unsure if there will be money available to actually pay them.

Even Connecticut's organic farmers are looking warily at what's going on in Congress, says Bill Deusing. He's executive director of the Connecticut chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association.

Organic farms in this state tend to be small, boutique operations that don't get involved with the sorts of multi-million-dollar federal subsidies that have gone to large-scale crop farmers. But there is one Farm Bill provision that in the past helped farmers with costs of federal organic certification. Even that little item could get savaged out by congressional spending hawks, Duesing warns.

For you foodies out there worried about the dairy debate and what might happen to organic milk, take a deep breath. We've only got one lonely certified-organic dairy farm in Connecticut, and it's not really involved in this mess.

Richard Segalla, whose Riverside Organic Farm in Canaan has about 110 milkers, says he hasn't been paying much attention to the congressional uproar over agricultural policy. That's because organic milk prices aren't set by federal policy, they're negotiated between producers and processors.

Those prices are so much higher than regular, non-organic milk largely because it costs so much more for Segalla and others in his business to feed their cows only organic grain, grass and hay. Segalla says he's forking out about $750 a ton for organic grain.

That's more than double what non-organic dairy farms pay for their feed, according to Ed Maltby, of the North East Organic Dairy Producers Alliance. One reason non-organic grain is so cheap is that almost all of it comes out of the heavily subsidized American system of industrial agricultural, which is dedicated to production of corn and other major crops and uses genetically modified organism (GMO) seeds.

Regular dairy farmers buy GMO grains "mostly because they have no choice," explains Maltby. Since Europe and many other U.S. trading partners have banned America's GMO products, virtually all the non-genetically modified grain gets exported.

A new study out this week suggests organic milk has more health benefits because it has more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than regular milk. Whether that kind of news creates more demand for organic milk, and more organic dairies in this state, remains to be seen.

Whatever their persuasion, Connecticut farmers have plenty of reasons to be nervous about what may be cooking in the weird cauldron of politics and agricultural policy now bubbling down in Congress.

"What will happen in the end?" says Maltby. "Nobody is quite sure."

 

ghladkyj@ctnow.com

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