Politics of whole milk: Dairies go bankrupt, Vilsack gets top pay

When it comes to ‘politics,’ DMI talks out of both sides of the mouth: Top paid executive Tom Vilsack shown here in June asking Senate Ag Committee for government ‘support’ to pay DMI’s ‘pilot farms’ to develop practices for ‘U.S. Dairy’ to reach Net Zero emissions. But ask if DMI can  support whole milk in schools and the response is: “Oh no, that is ‘political’ and we aren’t ‘allowed’ to be ‘political.'” Truth is, DMI’s current top-paid executive — Tom Vilsack — is the one who while serving as Ag Secretary, spearheaded the removal of whole milk from schools in the first place.

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, Friday, Dec. 6, 2019

The former Ag Secretary who was instrumental in removing Whole Milk from schools is now the highest-paid executive at Dairy Management Inc. (DMI) whose virtual $1 million/year in 2018 came from mandatory checkoff funds paid by dairy farmers who are going bankrupt. 

On Monday (Dec. 2), the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that their early look at DMI’s IRS 990 forms for fiscal 2018 show that Tom Vilsack became the highest paid DMI executive earning $999,921 in 2018, which was his first full year as an executive vice president of DMI, president and CEO of DMI’s U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC), and defacto leader of the Net Zero Project and sustainability and innovation platforms of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.

Let’s go back a decade. Think back to 2009. The bottom fell out of the dairy markets. It was arguably the worst of economic times in memory for dairy farmers as farm level milk prices fell to $10, and equity in the value of cow herds plummeted. 

As farmers were busy trying to save their farms, and the industry and lawmakers were busy outwardly debating National Milk’s version of “supply management” in the Farm Bill that year, dairy leaders and regulators holding overlapping former and current positions within USDA, DMI, NMPF, DFA and IDFA, began charting a future for dairy in terms of pursuing international dominance, developing “sustainability” frameworks, partnering for “innovation”, and focusing on the zone of investment for consolidating the milk production footprint with ultrafiltration technology as the way to move milk without the water.

It all fits together, like pieces of a puzzle — with no picture on the box to show outwardly what it will all look like when complete.

Back in 2010, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy was busy on “sustainability” and getting fairlife ‘the better milk’ up and going, with the DMI Innovation Center’s sustainability council leader being none other than Fair Oaks’ / fairlife’s Dr. Mike McCloskey. 

Then Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was busy too that year. In addition to restricting school milk to fat-free and 1% and promulgating rules that listed Whole Milk as “prohibited” on school grounds during school hours, Vilsack was signing Memorandums of Understanding (MOU’s) with National Dairy Council to create GENYOUth to promote that dogma, and with DMI to link the “sustainability” framework of Vilsack’s USDA to the “sustainability” framework of DMI’s fledgling Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.

Dairy farmers were coming out of 2008-09 devastation — starved for good news — and were encouraged by all this talk of innovation and sustainability and international markets because they thought it meant the industry was looking to sell more milk and dairy products in such a way as to raise prices paid to them for their milk. 

Who could question this high pursuit of innovation and sustainability and exports – right? That’s the trifecta, the holy grail.

2014’s high milk prices seemed to validate that all was going to be right with the dairy world. But most were not paying attention to the USDA / DMI alliance that was formed and growing — and what it might mean for the future.

Quietly – without much fanfare or protest – USDA began tightening milk restrictions in the school lunch program during this time. In fact, so quiet was this shift that many parents to this day do not realize their kids are getting watered-down milk, cheese, imitation butter, and half-beef-half-soy patties at school.

As the 2010 Dietary Guidelines were implemented, a democrat-controlled Congress passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act – under the avid lobbying efforts of President Obama’s USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack for the legislation that would tighten school lunch screws even more.

The dairy checkoff had already been called “government speech” in its 2005 Supreme Court defense, so with USDA’s blessing and encouragement – under Vilsack – the low-fat and fat-free dogma became entrenched and proliferated through the GENYOUth alliance. 

And it set the stage for a new era in dairy that today’s leaders speak of. We are hearing it now. A recent DFA newsletter tells members “milk must evolve to remain relevant.” DFA / NMPF chairman Randy Mooney stated last month that the industry needs to consolidate plants to make new products. Northeast DFA leaders heard from a food science writer and DMI contractor about how dairy proteins will complete plant-based diets during their recent meeting in Syracuse. Dairy dilution is all around us. And the industry points to Dean Foods’ bankruptcy as proof that Real Whole Milk isn’t good enough, isn’t sustainable. (Well, of course not, no one is truly marketing it and the government thanks to Vilsack is prohibiting kids from having it. This is not rocket science folks.)

Yes, folks, hindsight is 20/20. And here we are on the eve of 2020 with former Ag Secretary Vilsack – who was paid a $999,421 salary in 2018 from mandatory dairy producer checkoff funds and is now the top-paid DMI executive — to thank for the removal of Whole Milk and whole dairy products from our schools.

And no one cares to ask him to testify to Congress about why Whole Milk should be allowed in schools, but he is politically involved endorsing presidential candidates and writing their rural platforms, testifying in so many other discussions, including climate change and sustainability and seeking Senate approval of funds for Net Zero pilot farms.

Yes, folks, the dairy industry had and has Tom Vilsack — or vice versa.

See part two.

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