Battle in Congress could impact cost of milk, dairy products

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. —

A battle in Congress could cost consumers by raising the price of a gallon of milk to $6.

The fight is to keep money from farmers, who sell some of their milk to Carolina grocery stores.

Jerry Pless is a mild-mannered dairy farmer. Earlier this week the federal farm bill expired and without it farmers like Pless are starting to sour like a bad carton of milk.

"It's kind of like an insurance policy," Pless said, calling the fight "frustrating."

The absence of the farm bill could put some dairies out of business, driving up costs for everyone.

Experts said it could even mean $6 for a gallon of milk by next year.

"Not only milk will go up, butter will go up, yogurt will go up. All of those dairy products will go up too," said Mike Roberts, an agricultural economist with North Carolina State University.

The farm bill offered farmers a safety net. If the cost of milk dropped, the government paid farmers the difference.

"If a farmer were on the verge of going bankrupt today, and he need that assistance today, he couldn't get it today because all of the payments have stopped," Roberts said.

In North Carolina, the number of dairies has dropped. In 1985, there were more than a thousand. Today, there are 285.

A drop in local production means more milk will be shipped in and prices will go up.

Experts said the issue could have been avoided had the house passed a new farm bill – one put together by the Committee of Agriculture and North Carolina Congressman Larry Kissell.

"It's politics. Simple politics," Kissell told Eyewitness News by phone. "I think what you're going to find is that more and more people start talking to these people that are playing politics. They're going to get more and more pressure on them to get this thing passed."

"Hopefully, the folks that make the decisions should care about the people they're representing, and that's what it should be about," Pless said.

House Republicans are being criticized for stalling the bill because of the food stamp program included in it. The program cost almost $80 billion per year.

Kissell told Channel 9 he's hopeful fellow House members will reexamine the bill and pass it after next month's elections.