MILWAUKEE (AP) - Five of Wisconsin's eight U.S. House members have signed a letter opposing a plan to limit milk production if prices fall too low.
In a letter to leaders of the House Agriculture Committee, the congressmen said the cap would punish farmers in Wisconsin if those elsewhere produced too much milk and it would be particularly harmful to small and medium-sized farms.
The Senate version of the farm bill unveiled Thursday includes a Dairy Security Act aimed at protecting farmers from the kind of crisis they suffered in 2009, when milk prices plunged, feed costs skyrocketed and hundreds were forced out of business. The act would replace current federal dairy programs with an insurance program that pays farmers when the difference between milk and feed prices shrinks to a certain point. The insurance plan is called a margin protection program.
The act also includes a market stabilization program that would require participating farmers to reduce the amount of milk they produce when prices drop too low or give up a portion of their margin protection payments. The U.S. Department of Agriculture would use the money farmers give up to buy dairy products for donation to food banks and assistance for low-income families, thus shoring up prices that way.
The margin protection and market stabilization programs would be voluntary, but farmers couldn't participate in one without the other.
The Wisconsin representatives said they support proposals to provide subsidized premiums for farmers enrolled in the margin protection program, but they oppose the margin stabilization program. They said Wisconsin's dairy industry has turned around since 2009.
"Wisconsin now needs a growing milk supply to meet our increased manufacturing and export sector demand," said the letter dated Tuesday.
It was signed by Republican Reps. Sean Duffy, Tom Petri and Jim Sensenbrenner, along with Democratic Reps. Ron Kind and Mark Pocan.
Republican Reid Ribble is the only Wisconsin representative on the House Agriculture Committee. His spokeswoman did not immediately respond to email and phone messages requesting comment.
The other two members of Wisconsin's House delegation are Republican Rep. Paul Ryan and Democratic Rep. Gwen Moore. Ryan's spokesman, Kevin Seifert, said Ryan opposes the market stabilization program. Moore's office issued a statement saying she was concerned about proposals to cut food nutrition programs also included in the farm bill but did not comment on the Dairy Security Act.
The letter from the Wisconsin congressmen said limits on milk production would hurt milk processors, cheesemakers and others. Small and medium-sized farms could find it particularly difficult to adjust production levels quickly, they said, adding, "Creating a new program that will penalize milk production in Wisconsin in order to manage overproduction in another area is unfair to our state's dairy industry."
Wisconsin is the nation's leading maker of cheese and the No. 2 milk producer, behind California.
The margin protection and market stabilization programs were included in a farm bill approved by the Senate last year. It did not come to a vote in the House.
Both programs have support from the National Milk Producers Federation, which represents 30,000 dairy farmers nationwide. The combination "is the best approach for providing a cost-effective safety net for dairy farmers," the federation said in a statement.
An alternative proposal put forward by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and David Scott, D-Ga., would provide margin protection insurance without the market stabilization program. That bill, called the Dairy Freedom Act, has support from the Dairy Business Association, which includes milk processors and food companies as well as farmers.
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