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Consumers asked to pay more for milk to save farms

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Consumers asked to pay more for milk to save farms
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) -- Consumers will pay a little more for coffee and chocolate to ensure the farmers who produce those foods get a fair wage, so why not ask them to pay more for milk?

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That is the notion behind a program designed to raise money for struggling New England dairy farms while educating consumers about those family businesses. Keep Local Farms urges colleges, universities and other institutions in New England to charge a little more for milk, with the extra money going to farmers in the region.

It is among a number of non-government programs being set up to try to preserve small, family-operated farms as consolidation continues in the dairy industry. While Vermont is best known for its milk and cheese products, dairy farms stretch across New England. But two-thirds have closed in the past 30 years because low milk prices have made it hard for farmers to cover their feed, fuel and labor costs.

Some supporters are trying to help save the rest by borrowing a page from the fair trade movement. Consumers who buy products labeled as fair trade pay a little bit more to provide workers with decent wages and sound environmental practices. Coffee and chocolate are among the most common fair trade items.

Keep Local Farms -- set up in 2009, a year of record low milk prices paid to farmers -- figured the same idea could work in the dairy industry

Six colleges and universities signed up, including Harvard and the University of Vermont, which contribute 10 cents for every single-serving container of milk sold. Boston Medical Center, Ski Vermont, some Ben & Jerry's scoop shops and others also contribute to the program, while others, such as Roche Brothers and Hannaford supermarkets, have displayed signs about the importance of local dairy farms to local economies, tourism and in providing land for recreation.

"It's really from whole cloth. This didn't exist. There isn't really an example of this kind of program for dairy at least," said Diane Bothfeld, deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, which worked with the New England Family Dairy Farms Cooperative and the New England Dairy Promotion Board to launch the program.

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