An emergency relief fund created in 2008 to help New Hampshire dairy farmers was never funded, and state officials meeting Monday are trying to see what can be done quickly as farmers struggle with low milk prices and drought conditions.
Nineteen of the state's 120 dairies have closed in recent months. New Hampshire had lost 10 dairies over the previous four years combined.
"We've been losing dairy farms at an accelerated pace and we know that have a number of them that are really kind of perched on the edge of a cliff at this point, getting bids from cattle dealers on how much they would get for their herds," said Lorraine Merrill, New Hampshire's agriculture commissioner. "We would like to stop the hemorrhaging."
An oversupply of milk in the United States and around the world has caused milk prices paid to farmers to fall below production costs for months, but the drought makes the situation worse for some farmers.
Dairy farmers in much of New Hampshire and parts of Massachusetts and New York have been hit hardest by the drought, producing low amounts of hay and corn feed for their animals to get them through the winter. But unlike New Hampshire, those states and others in New England provide supplemental aid.
In 2007, the state gave dairy farmers a one-time emergency payment of about $2 million for low milk prices, lessening the need for help once the fund was created a year later.
Since then, the state Agriculture Department has included money for the Milk Producers Emergency Relief Fund in past budgets, but it didn't make it into final budget recommendations on the gubernatorial level to legislators.
"We need something immediately," said Republican Rep. Bob Haefner, of Hudson, chairman of the fund's board. "Some of these farmers aren't going to make it to Christmas."
Some farmers have been circulating a petition calling for immediate aid. It says dairy farms provide over a third of New Hampshire's agricultural income.
Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan has committed $2 million to the fund, but the money would still have to get through the budget process next year. The board, which meets annually to determine the cost to produce milk and what the farmer gets paid for it, can recommend a different amount, as well as more immediate assistance. Hassan and legislative leaders also have discussed providing emergency funding before the budget is presented.
"People are looking at loans and other avenues, selling off some animals to feed the other ones," said dairy farmer Allen Smith of Great Bay Farm in Greenland. He has sold some of his own heifers to get enough money to buy feed for his other 160 animals.
"Everybody's like, 'You can get disaster loans,'" said Smith, whose farm has been around for six generations. "We've got enough debt, we don't need more loans. You need to fix the price of milk somehow, but that's even a harder option."
Farmers are looking to bring in hay and corn feed from other states, which comes with expensive trucking costs. "You add that to these low milk prices, you end up with a perfect storm," said Dorothy Perkins a food and agriculture extension field specialist at the University of New Hampshire. "You don't have the money to buy it."