Governor Sununu signed a bill on Wednesday aimed at supporting New Hampshire's struggling dairy industry.
The law establishes the Dairy Premium Fund, a New Hampshire-specific logo for dairy products to be sold at a premium in grocery stores and increase revenue for participating farmers.
At a bill signing at Morrill Farm Dairy in Penacook, dairy farmers from across the state welcomed the help after years of plummeting milk prices and mounting debt.
“These have been the hardest times we’ve had, over the last couple years,” Alisha Powell said, balancing her toddler on her hip and sporting a T-shirt from her family’s 600-acre farm in Westmoreland. “My family has been doing it since my grandfather moved there when he was a teenager. It’s been in our family a long time.”
The new law now faces several hurdles. After the state’s major processor, Hood, declined to participate as the sole labeler, the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets & Food is still searching for companies willing to label and bottle the milk. Grocery stores also need to agree to carry the Dairy Premium Fund product, which will cost an estimated 50 cents more.
Commissioner of Agriculture Shawn Jasper plans to meet with retailers later this month. He says that customer interest will drive the program and that his department's advertising campaign will focus on consumer education.
“We now need to educate the public about the program and create the demand for the products,” he said.
Governor Sununu cited studies conducted by the Department of Agriculture showing enthusiasm for the program among potential customers.
“There is clear evidence that people are definitely willing to pay a little bit of a premium to help these local farms, to help their community, and to be part of something that they know makes New Hampshire so special,” he said.
Beth Hodge, who runs a farm with her sister in Hinsdale, said she worried about the state’s ability to recruit a large processor for the program, but that she was “cautiously optimistic” the Dairy Premium Fund could strengthen connections between farmers and their consumers.
“When we [dairy farmers] make decisions about the soil and how we care for the land, we make decisions assuming that we’re going to be here for hundreds of years,” she said. “We want to be involved in the communities and we want New Hampshire consumers to help keep us here.”
Commissioner Jasper says if bottlers, distributors, and grocery stores agree to the initiative, Dairy Premium Fund products could be on grocery shelves by the end of this year.
Note: This story has been updated to clarify that negotiations continue between the state and companies that would be involved with the initiative. HP Hood issued this statement regarding ongoing negotiations:
"HP Hood is working collaboratively with Commissioner of Agriculture Shawn Jasper and other key stakeholders in the dairy industry to review and design the proposed New Hampshire Dairy Premium program."