Casey goes to bat for Pa. dairy farmers

By Jerome Sherman, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

WASHINGTON -- Pennsylvania's Sen. Bob Casey yesterday introduced a bill that would provide $125 million in federal aid for dairy farmers in the state who are struggling with erratic prices and rising production costs. The freshman Democrat also asked U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns for help, warning that some of Pennsylvania's approximately 8,500 farmers face immediate financial difficulties. "We're talking months, not years, for some of them," Mr. Casey said. "We want to start with the ones who are in the most need." Pennsylvania is losing about 250 to 350 dairy farms annually, yet it is still the nation's fifth-largest producer of milk. It exports milk to many Southern states that have lost their own farms in recent years because of rapid population growth. Mr. Johanns said his department could assist some farmers through the Milk Income Loss Contract program, which benefits smaller dairy producers. Congress needs to reauthorize the program this year. Higher energy costs are hurting many local farmers, while the price of feed for their animals is rising because of increased demand for ethanol made from corn. Milk prices also face wider fluctuations in an increasingly global marketplace. "It makes it very difficult to budget from year to year," said Dr. Richard Stup, director of the Penn State Dairy Alliance. He said the dairy industry employs about 40,000 and contributes about $5 billion annually to Pennsylvania's economy. Dr. Stup said many farms reinvest money in their local communities, especially in rural areas. Mr. Casey's bill would authorize payments to dairy farmers based on the amount of milk they've produced over the past six months. He hopes to attach it to a larger emergency spending measure for the Iraq war.