by Troy Bishopp
NORTH BROOKFIELD, NY – Canadian physician Kevin Patterson concluded that “the whole world loves a maverick and the whole world wants the maverick to achieve something nobler than simple rebellion.”
In the midst of a cantankerous snowstorm, dairy farmers fed and milked the cows early so they could listen and converse with the original dairy reporting maverick, Pete Hardin of Wisconsin’s The Milkweed monthly newspaper.
Hardin visited with farmers in Central New York and Lowville, NY, on Nov. 15 and 16 with “his opinions” on some key concerns surrounding the nation’s dairy industry and the Northeast region. Love him or hate him, he definitely got local farmers thinking and questioning the status quo of milk industry politics. “Milk pricing continues to be a wonderland and wasteland,” said Hardin. “We’ve been down so long, we don’t know what is up anymore.
“We are seeing the effects of a four-year whammy of calamity. Low milk prices, livestock values crashing by over 50 percent, poor weather, milk marketing problems and farmers throwing in the towel has led to a ‘crisis,’” emphasized Hardin. “This situation has been ill-served by leadership in State Departments of Agriculture, Farm Bureau, the American Dairy Association, elected officials and other agencies who thrive on the status quo. I view the Northeast as the greatest opportunity area, and yet our dairy farmers are barely able to eke out a living.”
Tom Hosking of Hosking Sales LLC in New Berlin, NY, lamented, “My heart bleeds for our dairy farmers. We all feel it as a community.”
As expected, Hardin went on offense, highlighting some gnawing challenges and solutions affecting dairy farmers’ milk checks, as well as other farmers and businesses tied to agriculture. “Dear White House: Get rid of the steel tariffs,” quipped Hardin. “Other nations are retaliating against U.S. dairy and agricultural products while disrupting export sales and demand which has led to reduced farm-gate prices and higher inventories with no place to go. I have little confidence in the government’s tariff relief program, because it’s political. Dairy farmers don’t need any more Band-Aids to stop the hemorrhaging. They need proper milk policy.
“Sell butter, market butter – sell, sell, sell,” said a gruff Hardin, in his extensive expose on the National Dairy Management Inc., Northeast American Dairy Association and Dairy Council’s failure to promote butter (75 percent of milk’s value) and its marketing plan that only budgeted 1 percent toward this “now-healthful product.” He suggested a comprehensive overhaul of the program that truly meets the needs of producers.
Hardin was especially irritated by his 2016 investigation of the ADA/DC in Syracuse. Citing IRS Form 990 documents he discovered, “The dairy farmers and their mandatory check-off monies were getting milked by the regional dairy promotion group who have spent 49 percent of its revenue on employee compensation and pension costs, not marketing of dairy products.”
“The farmer’s resources are going into the sub-base of the outhouse,” said Hardin. “The Milkweed will see that these outlandish wastes of dairy farmers’ promotion funds are brought to the attention of relevant federal and state officials.”
Hardin talked positively about the American Dairy Products Institute (ADPI) Dairy Protein Messaging Initiative to combat the attacks on dairy proteins by marketers of plant-based proteins. The proactive approach will provide factual information relative to the value and benefits of dairy proteins and dairy ingredients to consumers. “We have needed a vigorous counter marketing message based on the science we now know,” said Hardin.
The dairy watchman reported an eye-opening revelation (Issue 472, November 2018) that the membership of the local Oneida-Madison Cooperative voted unanimously to sever their milk marketing relationship with Dairy Farmers of America/Dairy Marketing Services (DFA/DMS). “It’s a David versus Goliath moment,” said Hardin. According to Hardin, “DFA/DMS (the largest dairy company in the U.S.) had dictated that the cooperative disband and join the DFA membership. The decision to strike out on its own, with its own milk transports, represents the first time in 25 years, anywhere in the nation, that a local dairy co-op had told DFA to take a hike. The choice to be independent and a chance at a higher pay price may inspire other farmers and spark people’s interest in this saga as anti-trust claims continue.”
The silver lining of the evening (if you can call it that) was the signal of milk supplies tightening in the Northeast because of the last four years of price upheaval and weather issues declining milk production and reducing farmer numbers. Hardin thinks this will lead to higher prices for farmers. “Mother Nature is doing more to fix the pricing problem than the people being paid to do something,” he stated.
Over some delectable cheese curds, farmers in attendance discussed their concerns. High on their lists were competition concerns and “perceived and real” retaliatory scare tactics by milk companies to “toe the company line.” Parity pricing, supply management and the “Louisville Plan” of milk supply control was brought forward. A focus on quality and components and a local message to consumers resonated well. Some wondered why the glut of Midwestern grain didn’t trickle down to lower prices for dairy and livestock farmers. A passionate gentleman commented that “we have done it to ourselves” by not being active participants on decision-making boards and with elected officials.
“The tenor of the two meetings was cordial and parallel in perspective. Folks want to work toward solutions,” emphasized Hardin. “We have to really use our noggins and make some better decisions and better policies and practices, because on the short-term and medium-term basis it’s almost impossible to replace the value of what the milk industry brings to the local economies,” said Hardin. “I’m glad to be in the fight.”
To view the livestream recording of the Lowville meeting or to interact with Hardin, visit his website at www.themilkweed.com .