Jim Bessette, a 700-cow dairy farmer in St. Albans, said he has corn fields so sodden and compacted that seedlings can't push their way to the surface. He also is weeks behind chopping his first cut of hay. These are the crops he needs to feed his animals.

The spring's incessant rain piggybacked on two other serious challenges that dairy farmers like Bessette were facing this year -- historically low prices for their milk and skyrocketing fuel costs that have added to the expense of running equipment, hauling milk and buying fertilizer.

This triple whammy has cost Bessette and his family about $500,000, he said, turning their previously profitable operations into a farm operating in the red. Many dairy farmers, regardless of the size of their operations, find themselves in similarly desperate straits.

"I would say that better than 50 percent of the farmers are suffering major financial losses," said Robert Parsons, a University of Vermont associate professor of applied economics. "Losses that make people wonder whether they want to throw in the towel."

Thursday, state officials will propose sending checks to dairy farmers by midsummer to help them cope with this financial crisis. Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr briefed the Legislature's agriculture leaders Tuesday about this and other ideas that Gov. Jim Douglas will propose at the dairy summit he called in response to the crisis.

Sen. Sara Kittell, D-Franklin, Sen. Robert Starr, D-Essex/Orleans and Rep. David Zuckerman, P-Burlington, applauded the administration's decision to offer farmers cash relief. It's the same idea they had been developing.

The details of a dairy relief plan will be brought before the Emergency Board, made up of the governor and four lawmakers, when it meets July 17.

Starr of Troy headed the House Agriculture Committee in the late 1980s when the state also offered dairy farmers one-time cash assistance to help them through a crisis. "It wasn't as bad back then as it is today," Starr said.
A 'hit of money'

Robert Wellington, an economist with Agri-Mark Dairy Cooperative, described the current situation. Dairy farmers are receiving 40 cents less per gallon of milk than they did two years ago -- and they weren't getting enough then to cover their costs. Now the gap is even wider.

Wellington estimates this year's decline in the milk price cuts at least $50,000 from the average farm family's income. The increased cost of energy and fertilizer cuts another $20,000 from the family's income, he said. "It's really terrible."

The short-term remedy is a "hit of money," Wellington continued. "They need cash to get through the next few months."

Monday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recognized the impact of weeks of rain on the state's farmers and declared all of Vermont a disaster area. This designation allows any farmer, not just dairy farmers, to apply for low-interest loans to help them cope with their losses. The designation could pave the way for Vermont farmers to get federal disaster grants, if Congress enacts a $4 billion crop disaster appropriation later this year.

In the meantime, the Douglas administration and legislative leaders agree they want to use state dollars to help dairy farmers.

"We've got a group who really means a lot to the state," Starr said of dairy farmers who comprise 85 percent of Vermont agriculture. "It's the right time to deal with this before we have too many auctions."

Kerr told lawmakers the administration would propose sending dairy farmers six checks between July and January. Details about the amount were still being worked out, Kerr said, but added that there would be a cap on the maximum amount farmers could receive.

The administration also has ideas to help other farmers hurt by the bad weather and high fuel prices that include providing extra money to encourage consumers to buy Vermont produce.

Lawmakers focused on the dairy plan.

"Your money is going to trickle in," Starr complained. He argued for sending a single, big check to farmers by August. "You get a good shot of money, then you can get people off your back," Starr said. "A good, sizable check would also pick up their spirits."

Roger Rainville of Alburgh, a former dairy farmer who now raises crops, attended the meeting between legislative leaders and Kerr. He criticized plans to cap how much farmers could receive. "That's discrimination," he said, noting that many large operations are struggling just as much as small farms.

He also disagreed with spreading out the payments over half a year. "They need a response right off."
Long-term fix

Thursday's summit also will include a discussion of longer-term ideas to help dairy farmers address their cyclical economic problems.

Kittell and Zuckerman, who currently head the Senate and House agriculture committees, want proposals that lawmakers could consider as soon as the Legislature convenes in January.

"If there aren't a few long-term ideas on the table, where is the hope?" Zuckerman said.

He has suggested a Rural Heritage Tax added to the rooms tax to help pay for new agriculture initiatives. "It is essentially to tie together the tourism industry to agriculture, which nobody disputes."

Tuesday, the Vermont Progressive Party unveiled five long-term suggestions to help dairy farmers -- ideas party members hope will receive consideration Thursday.

"We can't control the weather," said Anthony Pollina, acting Progressive Party chairman, "but we can improve policy."

Pollina urged the state to require institutions such as prisons to buy local. He proposed establishing a Vermont brand of milk. To create a Vermont brand of milk that state institutions could buy, Pollina said the state should help develop in-state milk processing capacity.

He also called for giving farmers bargaining rights and setting a base price for Vermont milk.

While politicians ponder policy this week, Bessette in St. Albans said he will decide when and if to replant his muddy corn fields. He added wistfully, "A couple of weeks of 80 to-85 degree days and 60-to-65 degree nights would be awful nice."

Contact Nancy Remsen at 651-4888 or nremsen@bfp.burlingtonfreepress.com