PA Ag Secretary Redding sidesteps school milk question, cites other priorities

Pa. Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding sidestepped questions about school milk during State Senate budget hearings. He listed other priorities of advocacy in the “federal conversation” and cited the need for new processing for Pennsylvania’s dairy future. Screenshot photo of hearing on zoom

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, April 23, 2021

HARRISBURG, Pa. – During the Pennsylvania Senate budget hearings in April, in a question-and-answer exchange with Senator David Argall, representing Berks and Schuylkill counties, Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding talked about advocating for trade agreements, pricing policies, dairy investment and nutrition in “the federal conversation.”

However, on the question of advocating to legalize whole milk choice in schools? Asked twice. Not answered.

In fact, the Secretary’s entire agriculture budget testimony included just one small paragraph about dairy — something Sen. Argall picked up on and questioned. He asked Redding what portion of overall Pennsylvania agriculture is represented by dairy, to which the Secretary replied “about 37%.”

When pushed on what the department is doing, Redding said: “I can tell you dairy is about 37% of my conversations — even though the testimony doesn’t reflect that.”

“We have made real progress in dairy and have been part of that conversation, but there is still more to do for dairy to remain viable and remain at 37%,” said Redding, citing the work of the Dairy Futures Commission, but few details.

Asked to look five to 10 years down the road, the Secretary said the dairy industry has had some “really incredible years in the last five and some incredibly bad years in the last five. It is always going to be sustainable,” he said, “but the question is: Are we going to have those good years to make up for the bad years?”

(It has been seven years since a truly good year was experienced by dairy producers.)

The Secretary pinned the hopes of the future for dairy in Pennsylvania on “getting new processing.” 

Redding stated: “We can compete on the farm. We can compete as a state. But we have to compete at the marketplace too. I remain encouraged by what we’re doing, but we have to keep pressing to make sure we get the right state and federal policies.”

However, there is one federal policy at the core of fluid milk marketing that the Secretary evaded.

Sen. Argall pointed out the 2010 federal policy that removed whole milk from schools.

“Do you see a solution to that issue, and is that really a big part of the overall problem?” the Senator asked.

“I think it is certainly a contributor, and I hear it all the time about whole milk. But what I try to encourage the dairy industry is to look at where total dairy consumption is — the 1%, the 2%, the whole milk — and can you get more cheese, get more yogurt in, can you get more dairy products into that school diet,” Redding replied.

“I think that’s probably what we have to keep our eye on,” he continued. “It’s going to take all of that product mix for us to turn this trend around of just dairy consumption generally. It’s a complicated equation. All of us need to keep pressing on the Congress to do more, to keep our trade agreements in place, and I can tell you… we’ve had some difficult (trade) steps for the last several years.”

(The last several years saw record volumes of exports. Tom Vilsack, current U.S. Ag Secretary and former U.S. Dairy Export Council president wrote in a blog post that 2018 was “a banner year for dairy exporters.” We all recall what 2018 was like for dairy farmers.)

Sec. Redding also referenced the negative PPDs on milk checks as an issue. He stated that, “The price difference between Class III and IV has cost Pennsylvania dearly, so that’s also part of the federal conversation.”

Sen. Argall picked up on the Secretary’s mention of ‘federal conversation,’ asking a second time about whole milk in schools.

“Are you working with anyone across the country to try to repeal that portion of the (federal) act that has greatly reduced the number of students (allowed) to drink whole milk in the schools?” the Senator asked.

“We have not been engaged in repeal. We have been engaged in what I mentioned earlier, about making sure that the Dietary Guidelines include dairy, and they do continue the three a day,” said Redding. “We have continued to advocate for continued investment in dairy, making sure that we do the trade (exports), making sure we have the pricing pieces.”

The Secretary went on to say; “We are advocating at a lot of different levels for dairy on the nutrition side and also the dairy investment side.”

In regard to new processing, after years of discussion, two dairy bills were passed by the House in the 2019-20 session, only to die in the Senate Ag Committee. One was a dairy keystone opportunity zones bill and the other was a bill dealing with transparency and distribution of state-mandated over-order premiums. Both bills, sponsored by Rep. John Lawrence had passed unanimously or nearly unanimously in the House last session.

During a meeting last week of the Grassroots PA Dairy Advisory Committee, Berks County dairy farmer Nelson Troutman, a committee member, noted a dairy redevelopment project in his county that looked to be a sure thing, only to be dropped.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania has dropped from fifth to seventh, and now eighth in the nation in dairy production.

“This has gone on as the dairy industry consolidates,” said Mike Eby, a Lancaster County farmer, member of the grassroots committee, chairman of National Dairy Producers Organization and executive director of Organization for Competitive Markets.

“The Secretary mentions the momentum we have from fluid milk consumption rising recently. Increased sales of whole milk are a key to that increase. Legalizing whole milk choice in schools makes sense for children and dairy farmers,” Eby explained.

“Everything is political in this. Why do we not have whole milk in schools? People have no clue how important this is for dairy farmers. We have already lost a generation of milk drinkers,” notes Dale Hoffman, a Potter County dairy producer and member of the grassroots committee having worked on this issue for several years. 

Even the Pennsylvania Dairy Futures Commission, which was referenced by Sec. Redding in his comment about “making progress,” addressed the issue of whole milk in schools. 

The Commission was established by the state assembly in 2019 and issued its lengthy report in Aug. 2020 on a broad range of dairy issues. In one area of the report, the Commission made recommendations to improve the school milk experience, specifically stating: “Federal school milk program standards should allow the flexibility to offer a choice in flavored and unflavored milk, including whole milk.”

While several key state lawmakers report they are looking for an opening to do something on this at the state level, Secretary Redding evades the question, even changing the subject when asked about whether he is advocating for this in the federal conversation.

Instead, the Secretary responded by saying the Department advocates in the federal conversation for trade agreements, pricing pieces, and on the nutrition side being satisfied to have the ‘3-a-day’ in the school diet.

Here are a few questions Pennsylvania dairy producers may want to ask Pa. Ag Secretary Redding, by contacting the Pa. Department of Agriculture at 717-787-4737.

— Why does the Secretary advocate for ‘trade’ while completely sidestepping the question about advocating for whole milk choice in schools?

— Does the Secretary support Congressman Glenn “G.T.” Thompson’s bill H.R. 1861 Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act to legalize whole milk choice in schools?

— Will the Dept. of Agriculture advocate for the health of children and the Commonwealth’s ag community by advocating for the bipartisan efforts to bring the choice of whole milk back to schools?

— In the budget hearing, Sec. Redding again identified the need for more processing in Pennsylvania. With properties up for redevelopment over the past few years in the heart of dairy areas, what is being done to encourage redevelopment projects for dairy processing?

— Given at least one such project was underway and then abandoned, what are the influences and obstacles?

The effort to legalize the choice of whole milk in schools is a federal and state issue. Public awareness has been increased over the past two years through the joint efforts of the Grassroots PA Dairy Advisory Committee and 97 Milk, including a petition that is being revitalized as the U.S. Congress and State Assembly begin a new legislative session. Graphic by Sherry Bunting

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