by Elizabeth A. Tomlin
“The dairy industry has been in trouble for many years and few outside of the industry and rural America know it,” acknowledged Robert Haefner.
Haefner, who formerly held a seat on the New Hampshire House of Representatives, works with the Eastern Region of Council of State Government’s Agriculture Policy Advisors as a consultant.
Haefner was one of a crowd of about 400, including dairy farmers, dairy cooperative members, Farm Bureaus, State Commissioners of Agriculture, other key farm organizations, and members of Congress; all participating in the 2018 Dairy Summit that took place on Aug. 13 at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center in Albany, NY, and was hosted by Agri-Mark.
Attendees, including John Wilson, DFA Senior Vice-President and Chief Fluid Marketing Officer, came from all corners of the U.S. to take part in discussions, ask questions and offer ideas for providing relief to the dairy crisis.
Haefner says some states have already supplied short-term help.
“New Hampshire provided a cash infusion to dairy farmers as drought relief two years ago,” he said. “States such as Maine, Massachusetts and Connecticut have ongoing programs to provide a cash infusion when milk prices are down.”
Although these programs are certainly beneficial, he explains that they only provide relief for the symptom of low milk price when what is needed is a solution for the long-term disease.
Robert Wellington, Senior Vice-President of Economics, Communications and Legislative Affairs at Agri-Mark, organized the Open Dairy Summit regarding the relentless low milk prices spanning across the entire U.S. He encouraged attendees to bring ideas and proposals for possible solutions.
Several proposals were discussed and are posted for evaluation and comment on the new website
Economist Catherine de Ronde opened the summit with an informative history of the dairy market, discussing key regulations that had impacted the industry.
Government regulatory guidelines for supply programs were reviewed.
Senior Economist Ben Laine supplied information on current programs dealing with milk surplus.
Marlis Carson and Todd R. Eskelsen, National Agricultural Council from Washington, D.C., supplied information on Antitrust Enforcement when dealing with agricultural issues. They answered questions concerning management of surplus milk within cooperatives, explaining that antitrust regulations may not allow interference.
“Antitrust laws apply to the dairy industry,” Eskelsen remarked. “What we’re talking about here has to be within those regulations. There are a lot of eyes looking at you!”
Class action lawsuits that had caused other specific agricultural industries prolonged and expensive misery were discussed and compared to the dairy industry, opening eyes to possible expensive legal entanglements that could ensue from making rash decisions without legal direction.
Many folks stepped up to the microphone to comment and ask questions. Some folks pointed out that state-controlled pricing systems were not all the same.
California Dairy Campaign Executive Director Mark McAfee explained the ‘Sustainable Milk Inventory System Act’ proposal he had submitted. “It’s going to take working together,” McAfee said, showing a quote from Benjamin Franklin that states, “If we do not hang together, we shall surely hang separately.”
His proposal says farmers would control pricing, supply, and have input on exports and imports.
McAfee believes that milk should be kept and distributed locally, and priced regionally.
“Why pay to transport it?” he asked. He compared California’s program to that of Canada.
The Canadian supply management quota system was presented and explained by Nick Thurler, Dairy Farmers of Ontario board member.
Thurler said there are no extreme “ups and downs” in the Canadian dairy market. “Cycles don’t exist in a supply managed country,” he commented.
Some U.S. farmers noted the small number of dairies allowed in Canada. Established dairies exit the program before new dairies enter on a ‘first-come, first-served’ basis.
Wisconsin Farmers Union Government Relations Director, Kara O’Connor, presented the ‘Dairy Price Stabilization Program’, which allows farms to expand, while penalizing overproduction and creating a more stabilized pricing.
O’Connor said, “Price alone will no longer keep supply and demand in reasonable balance.”
She points out that in the current system, producers have incentive to maximize production, thus creating oversupply, leading to low milk prices, causing loss of family farms and despair among dairy farmers. She notes that cooperation among dairies instead of competition would benefit all.
“Measure your success by your profitability in a way that doesn’t impoverish someone else. It’s possible to have a dairy industry that aligns better with our values.”
O’Connor was one of a group of about 20 dairy families from Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio, that included teens, who spoke up to the audience about their desire to continue with family dairies for their future. Most of the group wore tee-shirts advocating “Pulling Together – Support Family Farmers.”
Dorothea Von Ruden, Westby, WI, induced thought by asking what farmers wanted for their plan.
“Do you want your plan to be voluntary or mandatory?” she asked.
Mike Eby, retired National Dairy Producers Organization Board Chairman, says he has let his 7th-generation Pennsylvania dairy farm go.
“Either farmers control the amount of milk they produce, or the excess will control the number of farmers that produce it.”
Eby said farmers have power through their co-ops that they are not using.
He advises farmers to look at agreements they have with their co-ops. “Accept NO non-member milk,” he emphasized, stating that co-ops should benefit the members and members should be involved in decision making, not standing back watching silently. “Get involved!”
Rhode Island Farm Bureau President Henry Wright agrees, stating, “More dairy farmers need to get out of the milking parlor and get involved!”
New Hampshire Farm Bureau President, Denis Ward, also encourages farmers to get involved with their co-op’s. “Make sure they are putting their farmers first and doing all they can for their farmers. Sometimes it seems the co-ops are more concerned with their management, employees and bottom line, and small farmers get squeezed — especially the smaller ones. I think the co-op’s are very important for the success of any plan that is put in place, however, I also think the farmers need to stay involved with this process and get behind any proposal that has a chance of working.”
Ward agreed with other farmers that the overall controlling board for dairy decisions should be made up of dairy farmers. “I think this is important.”
Arden Tewksbury, Pro-Ag Manager, Meshoppen, PA, well-known for his endeavors of knocking on political doors, providing dairy crisis awareness to elected officials, also submitted a proposal.
He spoke to the assembly, breaking the tension by prompting some laughter, as well as provoking some thought on how bringing whole milk, flavored and unflavored, back into public schools, could help alleviate current over-supply.
New Hampshire Commissioner of Agriculture, Shawn Jasper, believes increasing school lunch milk from half-pints to full-pints would also “put a dent in the supply excess.”
Wellington, who also has proposals listed, said in his 40 years of industry experience he has repeatedly seen the effect of over-supply.
“Two or three percent of imbalance in supply and demand will drive farm milk prices 20 to 30 percent. It works on the upside and it works on the downside. So, if we can tighten up supply just a little bit, we can get price recovery. Can we get the industry together? Can we finally, really, truly talk about this?”
Wellington emphasizes that best economic decisions are for both the future of the farm and the marketplace.
“We need to market our milk with the same passion that we produce it if we want hope to save our farms,” commented 3rd generation, Cortland County, New York dairy farmer, Paul Fouts.
Niaz Dorry, National Family Farm Coalition, Executive Director, commented on the summit.
“What the meeting was missing,” said Dorry, who has submitted a proposal, “was a couple critical historic points that provide important context for any solutions we may be coming up with: the industrialization of dairy farming — and farming in general — through concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that have consistently been glutting the market since they came into existence, and the corporate consolidation of almost the entire supply chain that has led to the marginalization of the family farmer’s voices. Without this historical context we will not solve the problem. In fact, we are likely to perpetuate it and come up with false solutions that will become tomorrow’s problems.”
“Any change needs to have farmer input,” remarked Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets Secretary, Anson Tebbetts. “We need to build upon this and not wait. Producers need to stay engaged. Farmers need to comment on the proposals and let their co-op leadership know what they believe is the best approach.”