Governor signs N.H. Dairy premium bill

Gov. Chris Sununu (center) signs the voluntary dairy premium bill in Penacook on Aug. 7 while farmers and government officials look on (from left): Agriculture Commissioner Shawn Jasper, N.H. Farm Bureau president Denis Ward, event hosts Rob and Sheri Morrill of the Morrill Farm Dairy in Penacook, and Rep. Judy Aron (R-Acworth). (EDITH TUCKER PHOTO)

PENACOOK — If all goes as planned, shoppers will be able to show their support of New Hampshire dairy farmers by buying milk in specially labeled containers on supermarket shelves by the end of the year.

Gov. Chris Sununu signed the New Hampshire dairy premium bill on Wednesday, Aug. 7, at the Morrill Farm Dairy, in a village that’s part of the capital city of Concord.

The bill provides a way for Granite State residents to voluntarily show their support for New Hampshire dairy farmers by choosing to pay what likely will be a 50 cents per gallon premium.

These payments from milk sales will be collected from milk processors by the state Department of Agriculture, Markets & Food, which, in turn, will make payments to in-state dairy farmers, who’ve been hard hit by both falling prices and demand.

The special label or logo, a draft of which was developed by a Plymouth State University student studying graphic design, will guarantee that premium dairy products are sourced from either New Hampshire-specific farms or New England farms, depending on its wording.

Producers of New Hampshire dairy products other than fluid milk can also opt to participate in the program, which will be overseen by a Dairy Premium Fund Board established by the Commissioner of Agriculture.

“This initiative really builds on what we saw with the farm-to-table movement,” Sununu pointed out. “About 10 years ago, this whole idea started to really develop; it was a way to get local communities more involved in terms of how they can help their farms, their rural partners, all the indirect benefits when you support farming.

“In many ways, the dairy farmers were left out of that,” said the governor. “This should help until the market corrects itself.”

“There is much work ahead of us to make the promise of this bill a reality, but after today we can continue in earnest with that phase,” Commissioner of Agriculture Shawn Jasper said in remarks made before Sununu signed House Bill 476. “We now need to educate the public about the program and create the demand for the products.”

Jasper recalled that he had been thinking about how best to help dairy farms, which now number less than 100, ever since he was sworn in on Dec. 11, 2017, as the state’s agriculture commissioner. He gave up his post as Speaker of the House of Representatives in the legislative branch.

His thoughts on creating a New Hampshire premium milk program evolved during the year-plus he’d been thinking about it, Jasper explained, noting that Sununu from the outset had been supportive and enthusiastic.

The commissioner created an informal “sounding board” of dairy farmers and tapped funding sources to pay for both telephone and in-store polling to be sure that New Hampshire consumers would be willing to voluntarily pay a premium price if it would help New Hampshire farmers. Eighty percent of those polled said they’d pay a higher price to support New Hampshire farmers.

When he was asked in a telephone interview what he thought of the initiative, Richard “Ricky” Flint of the Flint Farm on Route 16 in Milan replied, “I hope it works; I don’t know all the details.”

There is no doubt in his mind, however, that dairy farms are being extremely pressed financially.

His family farm has 175 milking cows, mostly Holsteins with a few Jerseys, with a total of 350 head overall. His three sons are all back working on the farm: two graduated from the University of New Hampshire, and a third, from the diesel program at White Mountains Community College in Berlin.

Since the Flint Farm is the only dairy farm remaining in the Androscoggin Valley, he’d like to increase production to ensure that the farm’s milk will be picked up every other day. Flint is worried that big box stores will begin to bring far cheaper milk into the state from the Midwest. ”New Hampshire’s voluntary dairy premium program could help develop shoppers’ awareness of the peril the state’s dairy farms and farm families are in,” Flint said.

Raising awareness was also touted by another Coos farmer. Scott Mason, who with his wife Heidi, operates Northwinds Farm on Route 3 in Stratford, said that he thinks “that just educating our New Hampshire customers that we are here supplying them with their milk is very important.”

He thanked Jasper for initiating this program and Sununu for standing up for New Hampshire's dairy farmers by signing the bill into law and spending time on a working farm.

There was some opposition to the legislation, Mason said. “North East Dairy Foods Association, a group from New York representing processors, wrote a letter to Sununu asking him to veto the bill. They do not see the need to encourage dairy farms in New Hampshire”

The Masons milk 145 registered Jersey cows, augmenting that income with pure breed replacement sales, vegetables, sheep and a small herd of beef cattle. They grow their own forage on 450 acres along the Connecticut River.

According to a new map developed by the N.H. Farm Bureau that shows where the state’s 97 bovine dairy farms are located, nine are in Coos County. The Forbes Farm Partnership in Lancaster is the state’s largest dairy farm with some 1,300 cows milked.

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