by Elizabeth A. Tomlin
In an effort to listen to farmers up close and personal, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, a former farmer and veterinarian, toured several farms in upstate New York on Aug. 23.
Brabant Farm, a dairy in Verona, NY, was one of the farms he toured as part of the event coordinated by U.S. Rep. Claudia Tenney, R-New Hartford.
Although several topics were brought up by the farmers, topping the list was anxiety over the dairy crisis due to years of low milk prices and the trespassing of imitation milk products on real dairy territory.
Benjamin Simons, Boonville Farmers Co-op Treasurer, Remsen, NY, represented the 40 family farms — averaging 60 cows — including six certified organic dairies.
“Concerning all of these beverages that they’re calling milk,” said Simons, “we feel that the hard working dairy farmers have earned the prestige of milk.”
Simons pointed out that the true definition of milk says it comes from mammals.
“We would like you and your staff to take action to identify what milk is and protect the real seal, the milk product.”
Simons said the second issue was concerning the supply and demand issue, which has driven low prices. Although he said he realizes that growth of dairies seems to be inevitable, it has not been beneficial.
“It seems like the more that we’re growing the lower the price is getting to be. For July’s milk for Boonville Co-op, the mailbox price to my 36 conventional farmers was $14.50 per hundred (cwt) after all of the deductions. The family farms are really struggling with that price.”
Simons said he believes that a supply management program is necessary.
“I know there are a lot of different programs for supply management, but we really need to look at that as the future goes on. Please address this in the Farm Bill.”
Robin Fitch and her family of West Winfield, NY, are milking about 175. She agrees that a supply management program needs to be in place.
“The dairy farmers are in dire straights right now. We are hanging on by our fingertips across this nation,” Fitch explained. “We have taken 45 percent cuts in our pay — not just one year, but, we’re going on four years now. We’ve got to have help. We do not need an insurance program, we do not need to make the insurance man rich. We need a fair price for our product! We need a supply management, because we are our worst enemies.”
Fitch reports a farm loss of $200,000 last year alone and said to multiply that loss by three or four years to see what the damage has been to their farm.
She reported that dairy suppliers want to be paid, but when their income has been cut by 45 percent, it is impossible to pay out at 100 percent.
“We want to paid, too!” Fitch said, remarking that suppliers won’t take a 45 percent hit to their bills, so why should the dairy farmers be required to take it?
“Why are we so underpaid for our milk? The farmers in New York State were underpaid $6 million!”
Fitch said large and small dairy farmers nationwide need to be heard.
“We need our family farmers to be heard around this country and how bad things are!”
Another attendee asked what can be done to get whole milk back into schools.
Secretary Perdue responded to these questions and comments.
“We know that farm prices are down 50 percent overall, from about 5 or 6 years ago,” recognized Perdue. “If supply management is the answer, it is going to be very challenging in our environment.”
He pointed out that programs tried in the past, such as the dairy buyout program and dairy diversion program had worked temporarily, but farmers add more cows and pretty soon things are back where they started.
“We’re sort of self-inflicting our economic situation on us. To some degree, the cure for low prices is low prices. It’s painful while it happens, but I’m hoping that we can have enough self discipline within the industry to get back to where we can make a living dairying.”
Perdue agreed on the problem with misidentification of products that are being marketed as “milk.”
“Standards of identity are important!” Perdue agreed empathetically.
“Standards of identity of milk, defined statutorily as the liquid from a lactating mammal. You’ve been kind of hijacked on that terminology.”
Perdue said he had seen almond processing in California where producers said they were making “almond milk.”
“FDA has the statutory responsibility of identifying those standards of identity and we’ve been jawboning them pretty hard about these kind of things.”
“We’re really working on standards of identity — particularly in the milk area; rice and almond and different things like that. I think we’ve got the FDA’s attention, in fact the commissioner stated just two or three weeks ago, that he was convinced that almonds do not lactate, so maybe we’re making progress.”
A $50 million milk buyout, completely separate from the $12 billion payout to farmers hit by the trade war, has recently been established, thanks to the Secretary.
“We’re trying to help support prices and take the supply off,” he explained.
The Secretary also commented on milk in schools, stating that reports prove that youngsters being exposed to skim milk in schools “find it to be not very tasty,” so it ends up in the garbage.
Regulation imposed by the previous administration had changed the milk program in schools.
“Really, one of the first things we did last May of 2017, was to change the rule on our school nutrition program and we’re easing up gently, we went to 1 percent flavored milk,” Perdue said. “My goal is to continue moving on.”
Another attendee stated that schools are reluctant to increase their budgets to pay extra for whole milk.
“Schools are under budget pressure,” admitted Perdue. “You do have to go locally and insist on that.”
Tenney is a co-sponsor of a bill in Congress that requires whole milk to be offered in schools — and is promoting lactating animal milk.
“There’s a lot we can do,” Tenny said. “The regulatory side is standing up for a lot of these things.”
People are realizing nutritional benefits of whole milk and farmers should advertise and promote their product and get that information out to the schools. Attend school board meetings and insist that whole milk is added to the menu.
Tenny said the USDA has been extremely helpful in trying to remedy these issues.
“If we can’t get it through in Congress with the Farm Bill, they’re going to push it on the USDA side as much as they can.”
She remarked that farmers have a U.S. President and a U.S. Regulatory system that are on their side.
“For the first time, I think, in a long time, they’re looking at it from a business person’s perspective. They understand you’re business people, and how important that is. I think it’s a testament to that fact that the Secretary is here and wants to hear from you and he understands that we are in a crisis. This is an issue that we are continuing to fight. We know that you’re in a crisis and we’re trying to find solutions as quickly as we can. There’s a lot of work to do!”
Perdue mentioned another issue coming along that cattle producers need to be concerned about — cellular protein that they also want to call meat.
USDA has the responsibility for protein.
“We inspect every carcass that comes by for safety perspective and health perspective, yet they want to develop some of this in labs from stem cells and others, and they want to call it meat and put it in the meat counter. We are in sort of a tussle over the jurisdiction now. We’re working with the White House and Congress now to determine who has jurisdiction over this new technology. We’re not against new technology, the challenge is there’s a lot of people trying to get in this space to take advantage of the safety, the nutrition, the affordability, and the wholesomeness of what you all have developed over generations, and multi-generations, stepping in and naming it something that it’s not. From a trademark perspective, we wouldn’t tolerate that in other products. Those are the kind of things we need to guard against.”
Contact Secretary Perdue at www.usda.gov/tellsonny .
Sonny Perdue meets with New York farmers
by Elizabeth A. Tomlin