Farm bill extension brings uncertainty to dairy farmers

At one time, Arkansas had 2,000 dairy farmers in the state. Ten years ago, that number was down to 700. Today there are just about 90 dairy farms in the state, and dairy producer Frederick Simon predicts that if something doesn't change, by next year fewer than 50 will remain in business.

"No one wants to work an entire lifetime and never be able to make any money," explained Simon.

By nature, dairy farmers are planners because deadlines can't be missed on a farm, and that might explain why it's so hard for them to understand when deadlines are missed on Capitol Hill.

"To push it to the last day and not do anything ahead of time to me, it's a let down of our Congressional system in Washington," said Simon.

This year, dairy farmers like Simon were hoping for some major changes. What they got was a one year extension of the current legislation.

"There's one thing that's for certain. What they've been doing with our past farm bill has not been working," said Simon.

The system, he says, is antiquated and the numbers used to calculate the cost are based on a era long gone.

"They were designed for a time when milk was transported by horse and buggy, not 18-wheelers on the interstate highway system," explained Simon.

He says it's tough to just break even and blames the old bill for a dramatic decline in Arkansas dairy farmers.

"It hurts me to think that half of the industry in the state will be out of business within the next year."

That decline could also impact consumers. As dairy cows disappear from Arkansas, local producer Coleman Dairy will have to look farther out to fill the milk jugs.

"We've seen just an unbelievable reduction which means our milk has to come from a lot farther away. You have to haul it in here. You've got the transportation costs. Obviously, fuel is not inexpensive, and so it just runs up the cost for everybody," said Coleman.

Simon says that's the wrong reason for a price increase. He'd like to see a new bill allowing between a 10 and 30 cent per gallon increase which would to go back to the farm.

There's no telling when this new Congress will take on the farm bill this session, but they certainly will have to address it before the year is over. Simon hopes this time they will take a note from farmers and start planning now.