By Congressman Joe Courtney (CT-2)
Agriculture in the Northeast contributes $103 billion to local economies and supports roughly 480,000 jobs across the region. But like the rest of the farm economy, producers in Connecticut have been negatively impacted by slumping commodity prices and weak demand for their products.
Nationally, net farm income has dropped 56 percent in the last three years. In our state, dairy producers have faced similar challenges. According to the 2015 Northeast Dairy Farm Survey, profitability declined a staggering 99 percent from 2014. In that year household net income was $1,169 per cow, while at the end of 2015 it was $14 per cow. When non-farm income was subtracted, producers lost an average of $30 per cow.
No dairy producer can realistically cope with such a price collapse. Even in states where individual dairy herds number in the thousands and enjoy efficiencies of scale, producers are still losing money on each cow. In 2009, I worked with my colleagues to assist producers experiencing a price collapse more severe than the national average. Even after prices had recovered, I kept the 2009 crisis with me. As we negotiated what ultimately became the 2014 Farm Bill, the Margin Protection Program (MPP) was designed to protect farmers through a risk management strategy. Unfortunately, the program as designed was not the program that was included in the final Farm Bill, after the dairy program became a political football between congressional leadership.
The program today, and by extension the producers who rely on it, are suffering from the political wrangling of a past Congress. As a member of Congress and a co-chair of the Congressional Dairy Caucus, I have begun to work with my colleagues on ways to improve the program and question the U.S. Department of Agriculture about prescriptive remedies in order to aid dairy producers. It is imperative that we get the dairy safety net in line with the needs of our dairy producers.
While the challenges of the dairy industry loom over us, there have been bright spots for agriculture both nationally and here in Connecticut that have been shielded from price declines. As a member of the House Agriculture Committee during the last Farm Bill, I successfully worked to increase funding for specialty crops and local and organic programs. As a result of Congressional investments, there are now 21,781 certified organic operations in the U.S. Certified organic operations increased by almost 12 percent between 2014 and 2015 and nearly 300 percent since 2002. Congress has funded more than $1 billion in investments to over 40,000 local and regional food businesses and infrastructure projects since 2009. Some of those investments have been made here in the Second Congressional District of Connecticut.
Sales estimates of local food have totaled $12 billion in 2014, up from $5 billion in 2008. Across Connecticut this growth can be witnessed at over 100 different farmers markets, a growing number of community supported agriculture programs, food hubs, and community grocery stores responding to changing consumer demand for local foods.
As producers continue to both struggle and excel within the current economic environment, they should understand that there are members of Congress that appreciate the challenges they face and the importance of the work they do. The economic, social, and nutritional value that producers provide this country is nothing short of extraordinary. Agriculture issues have fallen victim to Congressional partisan politics in recent years, but there are members of Congress—myself included—that are looking for solutions to the challenges of the day. We are committed to this task, just as producers are committed to feeding this nation. Together we will get the job done.