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War between dairy farmers over milk 'cartels'

Congress debates extending Northeast pricing cooperative that aids

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As Stanley Scribner rushes to get his corn in and his 300 cows milked, he's also got an anxious eye on Capitol Hill.

This week, lawmakers could decide the long-term future of Scribner's farm and thousands of other dairy operations in the Northeast and South, where farms are going under at an alarming rate.

At the heart of Mr. Scribner's hopes - but some Midwestern farmers' fears - is a bill that would extend what's called the Northeast Dairy Compact and authorize the Southeastern states to create a similar pricing cooperative.

If that happens, supporters contend consumers around the country will continue to have a fresh supply of local milk at affordable prices. And family farms, which preserve open land, will be able to survive in densely populated areas.

"It's critical, we need it, it's the only stability there is in the dairy industry right now," says Scribner who's worked his farm here for the past 41 years.

But the bill's critics, farmers from the Midwest and the corporate milk processors, contend the compacts are nothing more than "price-fixing cartels" that jack up the price of milk.

"Compacts [have] disastrous implications for Wisconsin's dairy farmers who are forced to operate outside of the protectionist walls these price-fixing cartels throw up," says Sen. Herb Kohl (D) of Wisconsin, who filibustered the bill after it won majority support this August.

The New England compact was authorized three years ago as an experiment and is due to expire Oct. 1.

It was originally designed to stem the loss of New England farms by ensuring that Northeast dairy farmers, whose costs of doing business are higher than those in the Midwest, get a stable price for their milk. The national price, set by the federal government, fluctuates wildly.

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