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Legislatively Speaking
A strong, viable Dept. of Agriculture

By Gordon Gibson, Legislative Committee Director

  APRIL 2007 -- This year has a lot of promise for the Department of Agriculture.  Several bills have been filed to provide additional funds for farmland preservation.  Senate bill 872 will create a Farmland Preservation Advisory Board to provide recommendations on farms to be preserved and streamlining the process.  This bill would also require the State Bond Commission to allocate bond funds for farmland preservation in a lump sum at least once every six months. 

At present, the Department of Agriculture must go before the Bond Commission on a farm by farm basis.  This can be a very lengthy process.  Some farmers have not submitted applications to sell their development rights because of the time it takes the State to act.  In other cases farms have been lost to development even after the farmer had made an agreement with the State because the Department of Agriculture could not get the farm on the Bond Commission’s agenda for several months. 

In previous columns I have described going before the Bond Commission as being similar to a person going to the bank to get a mortgage.  Requiring the Bond Commission to allocate funds in a lump sum every six months will be similar to a person getting pre-approved for their mortgage so they can act quickly when they find a property they want to buy.
Right now our dairy farmers are spending more to produce their milk than they are receiving from the processor for that milk.  Put in consumer terms, the dairy farmer is spending approximately $1.50 to produce a gallon of milk for which he/she receives approximately $1.10 to $1.15.  The $1.50 is the farmer’s actual out of pocket costs and does not include any depreciation on his/her equipment or any compensation for his/her time.
Senate Bill 1257 would require the milk handlers to pay 12 cents per gallon to the State on all the milk they handle, including milk brought into Connecticut from other states, whenever the price paid to the farmer is less than $15.50 per hundred pounds of milk.  The fee would decrease on a sliding scale until it disappears whenever the price the farmer receives is $19.50 per hundred pounds or higher. 

Senate bill 1356 would create a Connecticut Milk Commission which would set a target price for milk.  Whenever the price the farmer receives for his milk is below the target price, the farmer would receive a payment from the State to make up the difference between the target price and the price the farmer actually received.  The money for these payments would come from the fees collected from the milk handlers.
House Bill 7297 would create a “Center for Agricultural Finance and Innovation, Incorporated” to encourage agricultural business growth and innovation and provide financing for agricultural business development.  This new quasi-public corporation would also help guide farmers through the maze of laws, regulations and permits they require today from all levels of government.
Several similar quasi-public corporations already exist to help various industries get established and grow.  Connecticut’s agricultural industry contributes $2 BILLION to our economy annually and provides permanent jobs for 50,000 workers, most of them low and moderate wage earners.  Based on the income each farm generates and the number of people it employs, most of our farms would qualify as small businesses. 

Our farmers need a similar quasi-public agency to nurture their business, help them implement the emerging technologies that will improve their farming operations and guide them through the maze of licenses, permits and regulations that affect their operations.
Four years ago the constituents saved the Department of Agriculture from being consolidated into the Department of Consumer Protection, but the Department was little more than an empty shell.  It lacked both the staff and the budget to do the things it was supposed to do.  Today we have a Department of Agriculture that is strong and viable.  Four years ago the various constituent groups had to help the Department along.  Now we have bills pending before the General Assembly that will enable the Department to help the farmers.  We’ve come a long way in four years.


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