Dairy cows at Ledge Rock Farm. Credit: Gabor Degre

Milk may be rich in nutrients such as calcium, but for policymakers, it can also bring plenty of complexity to the table.

Take LD 292, a bill under consideration in Augusta that would allow milk producers and dealers to donate fresh milk to Maine food banks, for example.

The concept of here seems pretty straight forward: If a producer has extra milk, of course it makes more sense for that milk to be donated to hungry Mainers rather than dumped down the drain — especially when considering that Maine is one of the most food insecure states in the country.

But as debate on this bill in the Agriculture, Conservation & Forestry Committee demonstrates, this issue isn’t quite so simple. Eroding Maine’s long-standing price structure, for example, could harm small milk producers.

While larger milk processor Oakhurst Dairy and Good Shepherd Food Bank support the proposal, others in the dairy and farming industry caution such a move could jeopardize the complex milk pricing structure designed to protect farmers in a sometimes volatile and difficult market.

A statement on behalf of Oakhurst President John Bennett, who also serves on the Good Shepherd Food Bank board, explained to the committee how current state law actually gets in the way of the company trying to donate extra milk.

“On rare instances, Oakhurst has excess milk that could be donated. This happens at certain times of year, most notably at the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. During these times, when we have a glut of fluid milk, we can separate the cream and we are left with skim milk without a market,” he said. “Occasionally, we are left with only one option to dump that skim milk. If it were allowable under Maine law, we would package the skim milk and donate it to hunger relief charities, but at this time that is not permissible.”

The fact that Maine’s current milk pricing laws prevent this type of donation speaks to the complexity of the system. And though the barrier to donating fresh milk is counterintuitive, there is no easy solution.

Any potential fix — whether it be an amended version of LD 292 or something else entirely — would need to be narrowly crafted to allow fresh milk donations to food pantries while anticipating and preventing any unintended consequences that could be passed along to dairy farmers.

“If LD 292 were to pass, it would create a gap in the unified wall that has been Maine’s minimum milk pricing laws, which have been of huge benefit to Maine farmers, processors and retailers putting everyone on an even playing field,” Julie-Marie Bickford of the Maine Dairy Industry Association said in her testimony against the bill. She and other dairy representatives stressed that they support the general idea of donating excess milk to hungry Mainers, even if they do not see this bill as the path to achieve that shared goal.

Clinton dairy farmer Jenni Tilton-Flood, for example, testified to the agriculture committee that while she cannot support this legislation, she and other farmers would like to work toward “a solution that ensures that our neighbours have good food from Maine dairy farms on their table.”

As alternative avenues to the milk donation bill, Bickford pointed to federal and state efforts that would provide funding to food pantries in order to purchase dairy products.

Concerns about unintended impacts on smaller dairy farmers are valid, but they aren’t reason to stop the discussion about LD 292 entirely. Even the bill’s sponsor, himself a farmer, admits that he doesn’t have all the answers to this complicated situation. And neither do we.

“The market forces that created the need to dump milk are not clear to me,” said Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, in perhaps the most relatable sentence of testimony before the Legislature this session. “While it is an unfortunate occurrence for everyone involved in the process, I think we can all agree that there are far better uses for excess milk than pouring it down a drain. Accordingly, it is my hope that this Committee will work with all interested stakeholders to make certain this wholesome, Maine made food will be put to good use.”

We all know not to cry over spilled milk, but removing barriers for producers to donate excess milk to support hungry Mainers is worth exploring. The key is making sure existing protections for dairy farmers are not weakened in the process.