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Ritchie pulls dairy fee


After a spirited debate in December, the state’s agribusiness lobbying group came to an internal agreement: It would ask the state to impose a small fee on dairy farmers to pay for agriculture research.

The program, called a market order, was included in Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s budget proposal in January. The proposal would have given milk producers a second chance to vote on whether to approve the fee of 1 cent per hundredweight of raw milk. But to the chagrin of the New York Farm Bureau, the market order was gone when the final budget was adopted in March, the result of a political climate hostile to measures that could be considered tax increases.

“Dairy farmers are already overly burdened with taxes and fees,” said state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, the Senate Agriculture Committee chairwoman who takes credit for negotiating the market order out of the final budget. “They’re looking for relief. The last thing that I was going to do was to support a market order at this time.”

The debate over market orders — unwanted taxes to some, an innovative way to further the industry for others — has played out on the national level, making it more difficult for those in the ag industry to voluntarily pool their resources. Proponents of the market order say the legislation could be revived in the future, as opponents in the Legislature scramble every year to fund research from the state’s general fund.

Under the proposal, dairy farmers would have paid one penny per hundredweight of raw milk they produced into a pot of money, which would be controlled by an advisory panel of dairy producers and the state Department of Agriculture and Markets. Statewide, about $1.7 million annually would have gone toward the fund, Mrs. Ritchie said. The fund would have paid institutions or organizations involved in dairy research — finding better fertilizer techniques, dealing with difficult weather patterns, developing better milking technology.

And there was very little downside, proponents say. With such a small fee on such a large volume — dairy farmers are being paid an estimated $17 per hundredweight this year, according to one farmer — the measure wouldn’t have hurt the farmers’ bottom line, and consumers wouldn’t have seen a difference at the grocery store.

“I think that research and being on the leading edge of innovation has been what’s made New York competitive,” said John R. Greenwood, a dairy farmer in Potsdam. “We aren’t the lowest-cost state of the country to do business. Our edge has been early adoption of technologies.”

Mr. Greenwood said it only makes sense for dairy farmers to fund their own research. But it’s a relatively new idea in the ag world, he said.

“It probably hasn’t been fully discussed and explained, so I think there’s a little apprehension going into an election year and what the reaction would be with the farmers,” Mr. Greenwood said.

Indeed, a harsh media light has shone on these types of market orders. In the face of comparisons to the Grinch, the White House in November backed off a market order that would have funded the promotion of fresh cut Christmas trees. Criticism in the media has put a deep freeze on market orders for raspberries and blackberries, according to Capital Press, a news website for agriculture in the western United States.

“I think sometimes a lot of these national influences about concern over adopting taxes on food products spilled over into New York,” said Julie C. Suarez, the public policy director of the New York Farm Bureau.

A market order for dairy already exists, but it’s for promotion, not research. It’s how the wildly successful “Got Milk?” campaign was funded.

Ms. Suarez said with more time to educate the public, a new market order could become a reality.

“Sometimes, good pieces of legislation take time,” she said.

The debate over market orders comes at a time when governmental funds for agriculture research are drying up on the federal and state level. Mr. Cuomo has twice slashed agriculture research programs, only to have funding restored later in budget negotiations.

Jay M. Matteson, the agriculture coordinator for Jefferson County, said he was of two minds about the proposal. He believes the state itself should fund agriculture research.

But given uncertainty over funding, the majority of dairy farmers in the county approved of the market order, Mr. Matteson said.

“My dairy farmers were saying, ‘If it’s what allows us to make sure that the research and development is getting done, we’ll stand in favor of it,’” Mr. Matteson said.

Mrs. Ritchie, the Agriculture Committee chairwoman, said the majority of the farmers she spoke with didn’t want the market order — and the ones who did support it were anticipating that state-funded research programs would be cut. They were not.

That helped Mrs. Ritchie conclude that the market order was wrong, despite the request from the dairy industry itself.

“I just did not believe that this is the right time to raise another fee on farmers,” Mrs. Ritchie said.

Assemblyman Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River, the ranking minority member on his chamber’s Agriculture Committee, agreed that the state — and all its taxpayers, not just its dairy farmers — should help fund dairy research.

“I believe that right now, the state of New York ought to be stepping up and helping our farmers rather than taking out another penny in the price of milk to fund research and development,” he said.

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