CONCORD —New Hampshire farmers living on the margins said the federal government shutdown will further delay increased payments they are to receive under the farm bill.
“Small farmers like us really can’t afford to hold on much longer,” said Sherri Morrill, who owns Morrill Farm Dairy in Penacook with her husband, Rob.
About 10 farmers packed into a small conference room Friday afternoon to urge Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, to do all she can to end the shutdown as soon as possible.
Farmers across the nation have been affected by the battle on Capitol Hill that is centered around President Donald Trump’s insistence that any compromise to end the shutdown must include money to build a border wall.
But in New England the toll has been heaviest in the dairy industry, which has had to deal with years of lower prices, difficulty finding workers in a tight labor market and Trump’s battle over tariffs that have further eaten into any profits they reaped.
Over the past several years dozens of dairy farms in northern New England have been shuttered.
One dairy farmer told Shaheen that this past week he heard from six different dairy farmers offering to sell their cows to him.
New Hampshire Farm Bureau Federation President Denis Ward said it appeared the Farm Bill Trump signed late last month was finally going to bring some relief. The measure overhauls the dairy price supports program, allowing farmers to purchase insurance so they can recoup losses if milk prices end up going too low.
“It seemed like our dairy farmers were finally getting a break,” Ward said.
Then the shutdown hit and Shaheen said that’s meant 50 percent of federal employees at the Department of Agriculture are working without pay.
Bob Wellington, senior vice president for Agri-Mark Inc., a milk distributing cooperative, said these subsidy payments can make up to 15 percent of a farmer’s operating costs.
“The Farm Bill does offer a relatively low-cost safety net that can help a lot of folks. These are critical for farmers to stay solvent,” Wellington said.
While the Farm Bill changes are welcome, they take time to implement, even if the government was fully operational.
“We need to get through rule-making which can take several months, and then there’s a sign-up period that can be at least another 30, up to 90, days. All of that is on hold now with the shutdown,” Wellington said.
Farmers asked Shaheen to ensure that once the shutdown ends farmers could recoup these enhanced benefit payments retroactively to Jan. 1.
“If people are signing up early then allow them to get payments at that time,” Wellington said. “In that way money could start flowing when spring starts and that could be a big help.”
Trump’s battle with China over trade has hurt New Hampshire dairy farmers.
Wellington said farms in the state export 40 million pounds of whey from milk, and 30 million of it goes to China.
“We lost one million dollars last year due to the tariffs and we’re in danger of losing several million dollars more in the coming year,” Wellington said.
Another worrisome impact about the shutdown is that it could slow processing of visa applications from legal immigrants who work as seasonal laborers on farms.
“The H2A program for immigrant labor is very onerous,” said Chuck Souther, owner of Apple Hill Farm in Concord. “It caused us a 20-day delay last June which meant $18,000 worth of a strawberry crop was not harvested.
“We are concerned that even when the shutdown ends there is a going to be a backup of processing these folks. When you are dealing with perishable crops any delay can be devastating.”
Several farmers said it’s getting harder and harder to find workers.
“There are many more jobs than there are workers; that pool of workers is getting pretty shallow now,” said State Rep. Howard Pearl, R-Loudon, who owns his own farm.
Shaheen is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, which deals with the Commerce Department budget that includes the visa program.
“It’s already clear this shutdown is going to affect processing for a time; we’ve got to keep a close eye on that,” Shaheen said.