Block Grant Proposal Targets Dairy Producers

6/1/2013 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent

SALEM, N.Y. — The chairman of a leading Northeast cooperative says a proposed “dairy block grant program” could help farmers considerably.

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has introduced the $5 million pilot as an amendment to the Farm Bill, similar to an existing specialty crops grant program.

The goal is to help small farms in particular obtain needed expertise with things such as nutrition or business management, which they might not be able to afford otherwise.

“On the surface this appears to be a pretty good effort to support the industry in New York,” said Neal Rea, Agri-Mark chairman and owner of Rea Field Farm in Salem, Washington County.

The booming Greek yogurt industry has increased demand for milk in New York, and elected officials at both the state and federal level have introduced measures to encourage more production. The newest yogurt plant is slated to open on June 3 in Batavia.

Recently, at New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s urging, the state allowed farms to expand their herds from 200 to 300 cows without being subject to additional concentrated animal feeding operation or CAFO burdens.

Rea said he sees Schumer’s proposal as working in concert with that effort.

“It will contribute,” he said.

New York is the nation’s fourth largest dairy producer, and dairy accounts for half of all New York agricultural receipts with more than $3 billion annually.

Rea said that keeping small farms viable is extremely important in that 80 percent of all farms milk less than 120 cows.

If approved, Schumer’s pilot program would allow states to submit an application to the USDA to receive funding that could be used to provide technical assistance to individual dairy farmers.

The existing specialty crop block grant program is popular with farmers because it gives states the flexibility to spend federal money as they see fit, given that New York’s specialty crop industry is much different than that of other states such as California or even Alaska, Schumer said.

A dairy program would have similar benefits, he said.

“Upstate dairy farmers are huge contributors to the New York state economy, and my amendment to create a dairy block grant program would help make them even more productive and profitable, and would aim to find ways to better exploit the increased demand spurred by the expansion of the Greek yogurt industry,” Schumer said. “A similar block grant program already exists for specialty crops and has paid great dividends. It’s time we focus our attention on keeping the small dairy farms competitive and on the cutting-edge because they create jobs and multiply economic growth.”

He cited several examples of the type of help that block grants could provide. Such funding could allow farmers to hire animal nutritionists to customize cow feeding programs or specialists on housing and breeding, which would help boost milk production. Grants could also be used to bring in consultants on nutrient management or to help farmers write and execute business plans.

The initiative is similar in nature to Cornell University’s Pro-Dairy program, which aims to bring technical expertise to dairy farmers by increasing competitiveness. Schumer said his pilot could leverage programs like Pro-Dairy with federal funding to reach a greater number of farms across the state.

Pro-Dairy has shown that such efforts have a ripple effect by benefiting local economies. Cornell’s research indicates that one new dairy job results in an additional 1.24 jobs to local communities, and every dollar of output on a dairy generates an additional 83 cents in the economy, Schumer said.

New York Farm Bureau applauds Schumer’s proposal.

“The dairy block grants would serve an important need in New York as the state’s dairy farmers are looking for targeted ways to increase both profitability and environmental stewardship,” Dean Norton, president of New York Farm Bureau, said. “Helping the effective state programs that are already in place expand their outreach would provide greater access to this valuable expertise.”

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