Critics say the compacts force consumers to pay higher prices.
By JEFF ORTEGA
COLUMBUS -- Having Ohio join a regional milk price-setting group such as the Northeast Dairy Compact would help smaller-scale dairy farmers in the state, a state lawmaker says.
"It would set a low [price] for fluid milk that it would not go below," said state Rep. George Distel, a Democrat from Ashtabula County.
"There are a lot of 'mom and pop' dairy farms that are falling by the wayside," said Distel. "This would help bring stability to these people and would help them stay in business." Distel is sponsoring a resolution that would ask Congress and the president to reauthorize the Northeast Dairy Compact, a milk-pricing agreement between six New England states that could eventually be extended to Ohio.
State members: According to Distel, only adjoining states would be able to join the compact if it's reauthorized. Distel said New York and Pennsylvania were in the process of being admitted to the compact, which now includes Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.
If the federal government reauthorizes the compact and New York and Pennsylvania are admitted, Ohio would be able to petition to join, which would require separate legislation.
But getting the compact reauthorized first is the key, Distel said.
"If the feds don't reauthorize it, there's nothing to discuss," said Distel.
According to the Ohio Department of Agriculture, the number of milk cows in Ohio increased from 258,000 in 2000 to 265,000 this year.
Wayne County was tops in the state in milk cows with 33,300 as of Jan. 1, a jump from 31,300 in 2000, the agriculture department said. Holmes County was next with 17,700 in 2001 and 15,800 in 2000, the department said, followed by Mercer, Tuscarawas and Stark counties.
The Northeast Dairy Compact-related legislation was passed in Congress and it began operation in 1997. The compact expired Sept. 30 but efforts have been under way in Congress to get it reauthorized.
Impact: Connie Finton, who with her husband owns and operates an 80-cow family dairy farm in Tuscarawas County, says she also believes compacts will help keep dairy farms viable.
"I see the compact as a price safety net for farmers to help them hold on longer," said Finton.
"When the marketplace is working adequately and the price of milk is sustainable, there is no action," Finton said. "It's only when the volatility of milk prices plays into it that the compact is there to help." The Ohio resolution is also drawing support from the Ohio State Grange, a rural and agricultural organization with 13,500 members statewide.
Based on 2000's milk production, if Ohio had been part of the Northeast Dairy Compact, Ohio dairy farmers would have received additional payments of more than $41.1 million, the Grange said.
"Stable income to dairy farmers ... has an economic multiplier effect in the rural community benefiting other farmers, agribusiness and the local tax base," Lisa Tharp, the Grange's legislative director, said in recent testimony before the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, which is examining the resolution.
Opponents of the compacts, both in the industry and in Congress, however, say the compact shouldn't be reauthorized. They say compacts force consumers to pay higher-than-market costs and that compacts only benefit dairy farmers in their respective regions.
If passed by the Ohio House and Senate, the resolution would be delivered to the president and congressional leaders.
Among the 16 co-sponsors of Distel's resolution are: state Reps. Anthony Latell of Girard, D-67th; John A. Boccieri of New Middletown, D-57th; and Timothy Grendell of Chesterland, R-68th.