From 1994-1996, Rep. Bernie Sanders was the lead proponent of the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact, which included Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. The Compact would increase the price dairy farmers received for their products and could be implemented once the Secretary of Agriculture found it the compelling public interest of the compact states.
The Compact was opposed by large dairy processors taking advantage of high consumer prices and low farm prices. Moreover, while the low prices had severely hurt farmers, consumers did not benefit. For example, when milk prices to farmers plummeted by some 30% during the 1980s, the consumer price remained constant and, in some cases, even went up. Sanders showed that those in the marketing chain between farmers and consumers reaped large profits while rural, family-owned farms suffered.
As an original co-sponsor of the measure, Sanders actively lobbied his colleagues for support.
“I am outraged that the large dairy processors have managed to slow this bill down. Vermont’s dairy farmers cannot survive if they do not see a fair price for their milk. Needless to say, my disappointment is shared by my New England colleagues, Democrats and Republicans alike, with whom I have been working to secure passage of the Northeast Dairy Compact,” said Sanders.
On October 4, 1994, the Subcommittee on Administrative Law and Government Relations passed the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact by a 5 to 5 vote; but it still faced significant opposition in the House and Senate.
Sanders said, “Against tremendous pressure from the dairy processors and all those who want to see farmers receive low prices for their milk, we have managed to keep the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact alive. Whether we will ultimately prevail in the four days that Congress remains in session, given the strong opposition in both the Senate and the House, remains to be seen. But the bill is still alive, which is the most important thing. For the rest of this week, I will be working as hard as I can to gamer support for this vitally important piece of legislation.”
Sanders continued, “The most important argument I am making is that six separate New England legislatures have voted to support the Compact to save dairy farming in New England. Six governors – Republican, Democratic and Independent – support this effort. The 12 New England Senators support this legislation, as do 23 out of 24 New England Members of Congress. There is a widespread understanding that the federal government is unable to protect our New England dairy farmers who, today, are receiving, in real dollars, fifty percent of what they received fifteen years ago for their milk. It is absolutely appropriate that New England itself go forward to protect our family farms for economic, social, and environmental reasons.”
The battle continued for another two years. In 1996 Sanders spoke with the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Dan Glickman, and urged him to certify the Compact in the compelling public interest of the Compact states.
The Northeast Dairy Compact passed uniform legislation and the governors of each state signed the legislation into law. The Compact language was included in the 1996 Farm Bill (Federal Agricultural Improvement and Reform Act) and was passed by Congress on March 28, 1996. This required support from Congressional members outside of New England. The President signed the legislation into law on April 4, 1996.
The Northeast Dairy Compact was established to restore the authority of the six New England states to set prices for Class 1 fluid milk sold in the region. Recognizing the regional character of the northeast dairy industry, the Compact served several significant functions. These functions included assuring the region of an adequate supply of milk, recognizing the cultural and economic benefits of a viable dairy industry in the region, and facilitating individual states’ Constitutional rights to act collectively to regulate milk prices.