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Depression-era law must be updated to be useful

March 9 was a special day for me. As a fourth-generation dairy farmer from Gasport, I testified at a field hearing of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee in Saranac Lake.

The subject was the 2012 Farm Bill and, after 12 years in the milking barn, I thought I had something to contribute.

I told the committee the price of milk at the farm level depends in the long run on growing demand for dairy products. We need to grow our consumer markets here at home, as well as overseas, if family dairy farms are going to survive.

But in the short run, there are bumps in the road that cause great financial and emotional stress on farms. One such bump was the recession of 2009. Actually, it was more like a seismic shake -- or a widespread earthquake -- that threatened the foundation of our entire industry.

I will never forget the financial hardship of 2009. The price we received for our milk crashed just as the price we paid for feed hit record highs. Overnight, our profit margins disappeared.

You don't have to be an economist to figure out what happened next. Some dairy farmers didn't survive. Many of the rest of us were left with debts that will take years to repay. Nationwide, 60,000 dairy farmers lost $20 billion in equity between 2007 and 2009.

Surprisingly, the elaborate federal safety net set up to help dairy farmers through tough times wasn't much help. Designed in part in the 1930s, it just isn't in tune with today's markets.

So dairy farmers from coast to coast put their heads together and came up with an alternative called Foundation for the Future. It has since been translated into legislation called the Dairy Security Act.

The idea is to refocus the dairy safety net from propping up prices, to protecting margins, which are the crucial difference between the farm price of milk and input costs such as animal feed, fuel and fertilizer.

Margin insurance partially backed by the federal government would help weather the bumps and worse that disrupt dairy market pricing in the normal course of events. This wouldn't be a handout, but a backstop against the worse-case scenarios we experience in a global marketplace.

I told the committee it is essential that the 2012 Farm Bill help dairy farms such as mine benefit from the growing markets for dairy products in this country and overseas. The package of ideas called the Dairy Security Act achieves this goal. It is supported by the National Milk Producers Federation and many other farm organizations, including my own Upstate Niagara Cooperative. I hope the committee was listening. The future of my family farm depends on it.

Jeremy Verratti, his father and two brothers milk 450 cows in Gasport. They are members of Upstate Niagara Cooperative and are active in the National Milk Producers Federation in Washington.