Vermont agriculture officials urge farmers to enroll in dairy price protection program

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EAST MONTPELIER, Vermont — Vermont's top agriculture officials and two congressional members are urging the state's dairy farmers to enroll in a new price protection program that pays farmers when the difference between milk and feed prices shrink to a certain level.

Minimum coverage for the Margin Protection Program costs farmers a $100 flat fee. Additional coverage costs more depending on the level of protection the farmer wants and the size of the farm.

Democrats Sen. Patrick Leahy and Rep. Peter Welch joined other officials Thursday at an East Montpelier dairy farm to urge farmers in the state where dairy farming dominates the agriculture industry to learn more about the program and sign up, even if at only the minimum catastrophic level. For a large farm that seeks the maximum protection, the cost could be $40,000 a year or more.

The sign-up period opened Tuesday. It ends Nov. 28. After that, farmers will have to wait until next year to sign up.

In Vermont, a series of October meetings are being planned across the state to help farmers understand the system and sign up for the proper level of coverage.

"I hope Vermont farmers will do it. We fought long and hard to get this through," Leahy said in front of a barn holding young cows.

Currently milk prices are high, but Vermont farmers remember that in recent years prices have sunk so low and costs gone so high it cost more to produce milk than what farmers were being paid.

The new program pays farmers when the difference between milk prices and feed prices shrink to a certain level. A previous price protection system, the Milk Income Loss Contract program, paid farmers when milk prices sank too low, but didn't account for their costs.

Mark Rodgers, a member of the Agri-Mark board who has about 200 milk cows on his West Glover farm, just above the average size in Vermont, said he would no more not sign up for the program than go without fire or automobile insurance. He said that in both 2005 and 2009 his operation lost about $250,000 due to low prices or high costs.

"I can't sustain many more quarter-million-dollar-loss years. There's a limit to have much equity you can suck out of an operation and 2005 and 2009 really tried to put me out of business," Rodgers said. "This I know will protect me from those catastrophic-type losses."

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