Call to action: Grassroots dairy group seeks PA Senate leadership action to move House-passed bills forward

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By Sherry Bunting

HARRISBURG, Pa.  — The Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed two dairy bills virtually unanimously last December, but the Senate Ag Committee has failed to act.

On April 7, the Grassroots PA Dairy Advisory Committee sent a LETTER to Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati asking to bring new leadership to the Senate Ag Committee to move these bills forward.

The Grassroots group is now asking fellow dairy farmers and citizens to help by contacting Senate President Pro Tem Scarnati’s office at jscarnati@pasen.gov and/or 717.787.7084. Simply email or leave a message asking for new leadership in the Senate Ag Committee to move H.B. 1223 and 1224 forward for Senate consideration.

“Now, there is an opportunity of a lifetime for you to save our dairy industry from complete failure. With the COVID-19 pandemic, displacement and dumping of local Pennsylvania milk and a 35% milk income loss across our farms in one month and expected to continue for the next three, at least, you have an opportunity to get these bills out of committee and onto the floor,” the letter to Scarnati explained.

“The Pennsylvania dairy industry is at risk to losing it all — given our small and numerous herd size — the heart of rural PA. Rural Pennsylvanians are counting on this industry to survive COVID-19,” the letter continues. “Now is your time to act.”

“These two bills were overwhelmingly passed by the House, so why is the Senate Ag Committee stalling? For five months they have ignored these bills,” said Nelson Troutman, a Berks County farmer. “Pennsylvania dairy farmers put their income right back into their communities, but they get no help from the Senate on these issues that are critical for our farms to stay in business.”

“How does this happen? How can the House pass two dairy bills 196-0 and 194-2 while the Senate keeps them in a drawer? It doesn’t make sense. We can’t continue down this road,” said Potter County dairy farmer Dale Hoffman.

His daughter Tricia Adams and her brothers are all partners in the farm with a third generation now involved also. Like other dairies, Hoffman Farms is economically important in their community while providing wholesome nutritious milk and hosting farm tours for nearby schools.

“People in our community ask me all the time, what can I do to help? They want to know the milk they are buying is as local as possible, and they want to know they are supporting the farms in their community who provide it,” said Adams. “There is a point when we have to stand behind something and take action. Is it too much to ask that the premiums be returned to farmers as intended? Is it too much to ask for the Senate to consider these bills that the House passed in a bipartisan way?”

The two bills — H.B. 1223 and 1224 — were introduced early last year by Rep. John Lawrence (R-13th).

H.B. 1223 passed by a vote of 194-2. According to Rep. Lawrence, this legislation would establish Keystone Opportunity Dairy Zones (KODZ) to incentivize expanded dairy processing facilities in Pennsylvania to expand markets for milk from Pennsylvania farms. It is modeled after the long-standing Keystone Opportunity Zone (KOZ) program. To qualify, applicants would have to use private capital, create new jobs, and use primarily milk from Pennsylvania farms.

H.B. 1224 passed by a House vote of 196-0. According to Rep. Lawrence, the legislation would give the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board (PMMB) the ability to coordinate the collection and distribution of state-mandated milk premiums with the Department of Revenue, ensuring the premiums reach struggling dairy farmers.

“Pennsylvania’s family dairy farmers are struggling due to historically low prices and foreign competition. Taken together, these bills will positively impact every dairy farmer in Pennsylvania,” Rep. Lawrence observes. “I appreciate the bipartisan support these bills received in committee and on the House floor.”

According to Rep. Lawrence’s press release, both bills also received support from family dairy farmers across the state, the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, the Pennsylvania Association of Milk Dealers, the Pennsylvania Association of Dairy Cooperatives, and the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board.

“We are at a crossroads in Pennsylvania, where agriculture is our number one driver of our state’s economy, and dairy is the linchpin. We are losing farms every day, hundreds of them every year, and with them, we stand to lose other businesses, jobs and the economic vitality of our rural communities,” said Karl Sensenig of Sensenig’s Feed Mill, New Holland.

“Our farm families are being pressured from all sides by five years of economic stress and market losses as rapid consolidation accelerates production in other regions. Now the coronavirus pandemic is revealing how the system is starting to collapse and how easily these state-mandated premiums disappear in the system between the consumer and the farm,” said Mike Eby, a Lancaster County farmer and chairman of National Dairy Producers Organization. “These bills are following the same pattern we saw in three previous sessions where other transparency bills were passed by the House only to die in the Senate without consideration. What is Senate Ag Committee Chairman Elder Vogel afraid of?”

“The current pandemic shows how important it is for our state to have strong farms and vital processing for our citizens to be food secure. We see our farms being forced to dump milk, losing access to markets, and at the same time scarce supplies of milk and dairy products at stores and limits on purchasing,” notes Krista Byler, a farmer in Crawford County. “These bills help connect some of those dots between farms and consumers.”

For Katie Sattazahn, a dairy producer in Womelsdorf, these bills “offer hope as the dairy situation in Pennsylvania is deteriorating. We have the land, climate and young producers who have grown up on the farm, pursued degrees, and come back with knowledge, passion and talents to move family farms forward, but wonder if they’ll have the opportunity,” said Sattazahn.

Over the past decade, Rep. John Lawrence has introduced other bills aimed at improving PMMB over-order premium transparency. Previous bills also passed the House but were ignored by the Senate Ag Committee.

Now, this pattern continues as H.B. 1223 and 1224 languish without consideration by the Senate Ag Committee under the leadership of Chairman Elder Vogel Jr., representing Pennsylvania’s 47th district.

“This has gone on for too long,” said retired agribusinessman Bernie Morrissey of Robesonia. “Our farmers have been patient. They have been involved in working on these issues for more than 10 years. Our consumers pay a higher price for milk that includes these premiums that the law requires be paid to farmers. It’s time for the Senate to act on this legislation that helps make sure these funds get to our Pennsylvania farms.

“It’s time for Senate President Joe Scarnati to bring a leadership change to the Pennsylvania Senate Ag Committee,” Morrissey added.

The Grassroots PA Dairy Advisory Committee is chaired by Morrissey and is comprised of dairy producers and related agribusiness representatives from diverse regions of the state.

Their letter was also sent to Senate Ag Committee Chairman Elder Vogel and all members of the Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee on Tuesday, April 7, 2020.

To support action and leadership on these bills, farmers and citizens of Pennsylvania are asked to contact PA Senate President Scarnati at jscarnati@pasen.gov and 717.787.7084. Simply email or leave a message asking for new leadership in the Senate Ag Committee to move H.B. 1223 and 1224 forward in the Senate.

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