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Farmers urge lawmakers to tackle milk pricing crisis

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WASHINGTON — With the congressional agenda steering toward health care reform and the war in Afghanistan, dairy farmers made a late-year pitch Wednesday for more help from this year's rock-bottom milk prices.

A handful of farmers, including two producers from Northern New York, visited lawmakers' offices to press for milk prices that more closely reflect their costs of production, which are roughly double the price farmers have received much of this year.

"We've lost more than ever before," Gerald Carlin, a dairy farmer from Pennsylvania, said at a Capitol Hill news conference.

Milk prices in New York fell as low as $11.47 per 100 pounds of milk, in August, while production costs have remained steady around $25 per 100 pounds, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported.

Congress already has enacted greater government payments to farmers to help close the gap, as well as increased government purchases of dairy products to tamp down any surpluses that could depress prices. But lawmakers have largely rebuffed more ambitious and controversial ideas such as linking minimum prices to farmers' production costs or setting a new floor on minimum prices.

Dairy economists have warned that guaranteeing farmers their costs of production would sharply increase the prices plants must pay for milk, and that those increases would be passed along to consumers.

Joining the farmers Wednesday were Bryan Gotham of Hammond and Fred L. Matthews of Depauville.

If the turnout at the press conference — one reporter — is any indication, the nation's capital has turned its attention to other, front-page issues. But farm organizations also predict that farm failures are likely in the months ahead as farmers become less able to cover expenses or obtain new credit.

In addition, farmers at Wednesday's news conference said they have put off repairs on tractors and other equipment, which hurts dealerships and, in time, can affect farm efficiency. Mr. Carlin said he bought much less fertilizer this year and kept it off some fields because he could not afford it.

"We came into 2009 in fairly good shape but we have fallen behind this year," he said. "The only way we survived is that we're always very conservative in spending."

Mr. Carlin said his family has no significant off-farm income, but increasing numbers of farms do, the USDA has reported. Another farmer at Wednesday's event, Debbie Windecker of Herkimer County, said she has a full-time job as a real estate appraiser for the New York state Department of Transportation.

Farmers' frustration began to show Wednesday. In a prepared statement, Mr. Carlin said, "For years dairy farmers have been the recipients of severe economic injustice dealt out by dairy industry elite while our government has looked the other way. We are beat up economically and broken in body and spirit."

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