Farmers spoke with passion and legislators listened. That’s how it went during a listening session held recently during the Pennsylvania State Farm Show where about 50 farmers and others involved in other aspects of agriculture gathered to share ideas and concerns with those who determine policy.
U.S. Representative Glenn ‘G.T.’ Thompson (PA-05), who was recently named vice chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, organized the session. Also representing Pennsylvania were Tom Marino (PA-10) and Lou Barletta (PA-11). Texas Republican and House Ag Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (TX-11), Rep. Ted Yoho (FL-03), Rep. Mark Amodei (NV-02) and Rep. Dan Newhouse (WA-04) were also present, as well as Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding.
Although a variety of issues were discussed, the volatility of milk prices and the future of farming for the next generation were the topics most passionately addressed. Rep. Conaway emphasized the importance of bringing up issues for the upcoming Farm Bill, and that farmers must be the voice of the change they want.
Tioga County dairy farmer Erick Coolidge spoke to the issue of dairy prices. “We’ve all agreed that it (the Margin Protection Program) needs to be revisited. In doing so, it will allow for the opportunity for flexibility; maybe give the farmer an opportunity for a greater time to make that decision.”
Coolidge also emphasized the issue of bringing young people back to the farm. “It’s about the next generation and what we do to secure that,” he said. “I don’t think we can wait too long to make decisions that will improve the environment for that next generation because every hesitation limits that opportunity for anyone who wants to make an investment in the future of ag.”
Farm insurance broker Bernard Morrissey told lawmakers that one of the most pressing issues for dairy farmers was that of bankruptcy. He also called for the abolishment of over-order premiums and minimum pricing, stating producers don’t want a government hand out; they want a level playing field. Morrissey and several others addressed the topic of bringing back whole milk to the school lunch program.
Karen Woodings, of the Central PA Food Bank, expressed concerns about the SNAP program, and asked what the ag committee learned about SNAP and what they would do with the information.
Rep. Conaway explained that a thorough review was conducted. “We did the two-year SNAP review and put out a white paper, and now it’s time to legislate,” he said. “In spite of what our naysayers said, we start that process by getting the policies right. Then we see what whether or not we can afford them. It’s an important safety net, but someone referred to it rather as a trampoline — on, off and finally independent of needing it. Most Americans support that kind of program to help people whose life circumstances make them need it. But there are folks who are under 50, able-bodied and should be making a better effort to go to work. The numbers of people on the program have not come down the way they do when the economy has gotten better, so we’re going to have to do something about that.”
FFA state vice president Jacob Kline took the microphone and explained that he lives on a dairy farm in Lebanon County, and is concerned about farm transitions. “The average age of the farmer is 57,” he said. “Transitioning for that generation to the youth is a challenging task, one that my family struggles with. I encourage you, as we look into the 2018 Farm Bill, to look into family-farm friendly transitions. If something were to happen to my parents, we aren’t sure how we would maintain the farm in transitioning ownership.”
Dale Hoffman, Potter County farmer, believes that maintaining viable prices and markets is key to maintaining strong farms. “Let’s not drive the farmers out of business,” he said. “We have to stop this, and in order to do that, we have to have a pricing system that works in America. We need a COOL program – Country of Origin. We also need to get whole milk back in the schools. My kids won’t drink milk in school because it tastes horrible.”
Mike Eby, National Dairy Producers Organization, said he quit dairy farming last year because he gave up hope. “I didn’t give up hope for the nation, but I gave up hope for myself,” he said. “I had 60 cows and 60 acres. You can’t do that in Lancaster County because there isn’t enough land to grow. The Amish farmers in here aren’t going to grow beyond 60 or 70 cows, so they’re all eventually going to go. If you find value in the Amish, you have to find value in supporting the small farmer. How you support the small farmer? The co-ops have to take advantage of every member. That’s their responsibility as their membership, not the bottom line to the co-op. And that’s a different philosophy, and that needs to be part of the issue today.”
Eby is hopeful for the upcoming changes in Washington. “TPP has to go,” he said. “Your co-ops will tell you that it’s mandatory; that we need to have it so we can export, but it’s a dark hole. You will never export enough. You’ll produce to that export demand, then your exports will shut down for whatever reason — Russia or hundreds of other reasons. Then you’ll run into too much milk and we’re back in this room again.”
Eby suggests we produce to domestic demand, which he says co-ops can do. He also stressed the importance of legislators talking with dairy farmers and not just with co-op management ‘who want to continue to perpetuate more milk.’
“From my standpoint, this problem could be solved with 80 percent of the milk being controlled by the co-ops,” said Eby. “That’s where we’re putting our time and effort — into making sure we follow through with helping farmers sit on the boards of directors of the co-ops. The co-ops want influence. They want farmers to be actively involved. We are saying, do what the co-ops have given you the opportunity to do and hold them accountable. What’s been happening is that we’re going the wrong direction. The co-ops have been profiting, but you the farmer, the owner of the co-op, have not been profiting.”
Rep. Ted Yoho (FL-03) says farmers must speak up. “Why should a dairy farmer who has 60 cows not be in business any more?” he said. “We have to be vocal for our interests in the agricultural realm. Not everyone understands what we do. George Washington said, ‘you can’t have a secure nation if you don’t have a secure food supply’. Speak up — the Farm Bill is coming up.”
Rep. Conaway concluded with more emphasis on the importance of ag to our nation and the upcoming Farm Bill.
“Agriculture has a great story to tell,” said Conaway. “The American consumer enjoys the safest, most abundant and affordable food value of any developed country in the world, and it’s because of the hard work and sweat equity. You have a wonderful story to tell, you just don’t tell it very well or very often. You aren’t natural braggarts. But when we do the Farm Bill in ’18, I’ve got to have every one of you telling that story, and you have to tell it over and over and over in order to break through. You have to be part of the story — you are the story — and you have to tell it. You’re your own solution.”