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States to feds: divert surplus commodities to schools, needy families

By Dawn House | The Salt Lake Tribune

Agricultural officials in Utah and throughout the nation on Thursday asked Congress to help struggling farmers by purchasing surplus dairy, pork and turkey products for needy Americans.

Removing the excess commodities from the market would stabilize prices and in turn, stave off the collapse of hundreds of farms, said Utah Agricultural Commissioner Leonard Blackham during a Salt Lake City news conference.

Blackham and fellow commissioners from other states are asking for federal stimulus money to purchase surplus dairy, pork and turkey products for local food banks, school lunches and other assistance programs.

"In Utah, this program will help keep our rural economy strong and protect the hundreds of local farms that contribute to the financial well being of our towns and counties," said Blackham, who was part of the association's working group that put together the proposal.

The plan, dubbed Meat the Need, calls for the federal government to purchase up to three installments of 75 million pounds of cheese and other dairy products over 120 days and up to three installments of 100 million pounds of pork products over 180 days. If the target price of $16 per hundredweight of milk and 49 cents per pound of pork -- the average cost of production -- is reached before the second or third installment, purchases would stop.

The plan also includes a one-time purchase of 100 million pounds of turkey.

About $900 million in federal stimulus funding would be used to remove the extra inventories from the market. Blackham said that consumers may pay more when prices stabilize, with a gallon of milk perhaps increasing from $1.69 to $2.09.

But without the stimulus help, he said, prices will go up substantially as more producers are forced out of business.

West Haven dairyman Ron Stratford said the price of milk farmers receive is so low that it doesn't cover feed and other production costs -- a situation so dire that it's one he hasn't experienced in his 40-year career.

"How long we can stay in business depends on how long we can continue borrowing money," he said. "Farmers are losing equity in land and assets that have taken generations to build."

Republican Sen.Orrin Hatch said the proposal addresses two problems, "replenishing supplies for food pantries and school lunch programs while helping the state's struggling dairy, turkey and pork industry. I will do everything I can to support Commissioner Blackham in this worthwhile endeavor."

The purchased meat and dairy products would be distributed to food banks, school lunches and an expanded food-stamp program. Under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP-PLUS, beneficiaries would receive additional allocations to buy meat and dairy products from grocery stores.

Currently, nearly 36 million Americans are participating in SNAP-PLUS, a 21 percent increase from a year ago.

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