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Got milk farmers?

Unless Congress acts to ensure that dairy farmers get a fair price, many of them will go out of business.

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Before this spring, no one outside Promise City, Iowa, had heard of Jerry Harvey. He was just a dairy farmer, a man who took his first job milking cows at the age of 16. Then dairy farms around the country began collapsing – as if hit by a plague.

Until last year, his 70-cow dairy supported Harvey, his wife, two sons, one daughter-in-law and three grandkids.

Then in December, because of a soft export market and myriad other factors, the price they received for their milk crashed.

Recently they've been getting under $10 per hundred pounds of milk – $6 less than it costs them to produce it. To stay afloat, Harvey is borrowing at least $5,000 a month, a desperate move for a man whose annual income hovers around $20,000.

So, Mr. Harvey started speaking out.

At first he wrote to his congressman, then to the USDA. Before he knew it he was speaking at rallies. Reporters began to call him. So did dairy farmers from around the country. They asked him for help and told him how their own small farms were on the verge of financial ruin, how their neighbors' farms had been foreclosed, how their marriages were unraveling. They told him about suicides.

Then one morning the secretary of Agriculture called. Harvey thought it was a prank; he nearly choked on his cereal when he realized it was actually Tom Vilsack. It seemed that he had finally been heard.

But the voice on the other end of the phone promised no real solution. Secretary Vilsack's offering: deferred payments and low-interest loans. "Just more rope to hang ourselves with," Harvey told me. "I mean, if you're not making money for your milk, you can't solve it by borrowing more money. We're trying to get out of debt, not take on more."

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