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April 19, 2013

Help family farms before they fade away

The Daily Star

---- — Take a drive through the local countryside, and it probably won’t be long before you see one. 

You might spot the broken windows or peeling paint on an old, once-proud farmhouse. 

You might see a sagging pile of timber where a sturdy barn once stood. 

Or you might just see nothing — empty land that once supported herds of cattle or fields of crops. 

Food & Water Watch reported that New York state lost almost 65 percent of its dairy farms from 1982 to 2007. 

This is certainly not news. We have known for some time now that much of dairy farming is, in essence, dying out. 

But the question of what to do about it has been less clear. 

The Washington, D.C.-based environmental advocacy organization attributes this decline, at least in part, to the growth of monopolies that hold down the price of milk. 

While we may not be able to break up those monopolies, we can do something about the price of milk. And Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has a plan to do just that. 

Gillibrand’s Dairy Pricing Reform Act would reform the federal milk pricing system to make pricing more transparent and simple, and to eliminate some of the market manipulation of the system, according to the senator’s website. 

It is no secret that farmers today suffer under the milk pricing system, which is slow to pay and difficult to understand. Dairy cooperatives have even been accused of colluding to limit competition and hold down prices, as in a few recent lawsuits. 

So any legislation that helps untangle this snarled system is, we think, a good idea. 

Gillibrand’s legislation could help those who are farming today. But what about the next generation of farmers? 

One of the barriers that make it hard for people to hand down the family farm in New York is the low threshold for estate tax exemptions. 

Federally, estate taxes don’t kick in until the $5 million level. But in New York, the limit is $1 million. That might sound like a lot of money, but Farm Bureau President Dean Norton pointed out that a 250-acre farm today might be worth that much just based on land prices. 

It’s time for New York to catch up with the feds on this one. 

As Norton said after the federal guidelines were changed in 2010, “the estate tax encourages people to sell land to pay the tax, so a family faces losing their business and assets while they are still reeling from the loss of a family member.”

That’s a decision that no one should have to make.