Good afternoon honorable Chairman, members of Congress, farmers, colleagues and friends. Thank you for this opportunity to make comments on the importance of the federal farm bill.
My name is Sherry Bunting. For 40 years, I have served as an ag journalist. Before that I milked cows. I am a volunteer resource person with the Grassroots PA Dairy Advisory Committee, which I am representing today. The grassroots committee works with the separate volunteer 97 Milk education effort that began when Berks County dairy farmer Nelson Troutman painted a round bale ‘Drink Whole Milk 97% Fat Free.’
Our main effort is to educate policymakers about the importance of children having the simple choice of whole milk in schools. We thank Congressman GT Thompson and the cosponsors of The Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act in the last legislative session and hope to see it become reality in the next session.
We understand this does not fall within the farm bill; however, there are some intersections.
We believe children should be able to choose nutrient dense whole milk that they will enjoy and therefore actually consume in school meals and other USDA-funded nutrition programs.
We believe farmers should be free to offer children the quality product they actually produce and be free to use their own mandatory promotion checkoff funds to promote what they produce: That would be the nutrient dense whole milk that is naturally 3.25 to 4.5% fat, mostly standardized at 3.25% fat – or virtually 97% fat free.
Under the Nutrition Education part of the Nutrition Title, we support language to exempt nutrient dense foods, like whole milk, from the arbitrary and outdated fat-limits imposed by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).
We support a farm bill provision to untie the hands of the dairy checkoff program to come out from under these arbitrary fat-limits so farmers can promote the nutrient dense whole milk they produce.
The cafeteria where Pennsylvania state lawmakers and staff have lunch offers the choice of whole milk, whereas our children are federally prohibited from choosing whole or 2% milk at school where they have two meals a day, five days a week for three-quarters of the year.
The nutrition title of the farm bill sends mixed messages. Are we nutritionally supporting families in need when the arbitrary fat-limits unfairly keep nutrient dense foods like whole and 2% milk out of schools and other programs like WIC for children over age 2?
Worse, USDA has proposed a new rule to reduce the amount of milk a mom can buy under WIC.
The administration’s new Hunger, Health and Nutrition Strategy goes even farther, using FDA authority to – as President Biden and Secretary Vilsack put it — “tell us what we should eat”. This is a chilling thought.
Under the proposed FDA Healthy Labeling rule, whole milk will qualify as nutrient dense but may not qualify for a healthy label because of these outdated fat-limits.
Meanwhile, we see the SNAP program puts few if any limits on sugary snacks and sodas with zero nutrients. We hear from our own school nurse committee member that it’s normal to see donuts with sugary sprinkles and fat-free flavored milk for school breakfast while nutrient dense whole milk is forbidden. How does this make sense?
After more than 10 years of allowing only fat-free and 1% milk at schools, a generation of milk drinkers has been lost and milk consumption declined more rapidly.
The Class I pricing change in the 2018 farm bill was supposed to help fluid milk innovation while being farmer-neutral, but it made these trends worse. Over the past 4 years, we have seen the following:
1) More price risk put onto dairy farmers with a net loss of $941 million in Class I value over 4 years comparing the new Class I pricing formula to the old one, including $264 million in losses for 2022 losses, alone; (Backgrounder submitted)
2) Disruption in how risk management tools work so farmers have less confidence in using them;
3) More processors de-pooling milk, so just 60% of U.S. milk production participated in federal milk marketing orders in 2021,
4) Rapid increases in the number of competing highly processed ‘fake-milks’, and
5) A large number of fluid milk plant closures and rapid consolidation of the industry toward cow islands and milk deserts. (Some analysis from 2021 and 2022 can be found at these two links:
6) Industry consensus for reverting to ‘higher of’ (AFBF stakeholder meeting in Kansas City in October 2022 – coverage at these two links:
https://wp.me/p329u7-2Ee and https://wp.me/p329u7-2Ez
The Class I ‘mover’ formula should revert back to the ‘higher of’ at least until national hearings can explore the future of the milk pricing system and figure out what to do about farmer payment protections if more processors stop participating in federal orders. Only Class I fluid milk processors are required to be regulated under federal orders.
Dairy farmers appreciate and rely on farm bill programs like Dairy Margin Coverage, Dairy Revenue Protection and Livestock Gross Margin. However, these programs don’t make up for, nor do they function properly, if we don’t have transparent pricing and competitive markets.
Also, these margin programs do not consider rising fuel costs. Farmers pay transportation to bring inputs on the farm and to ship milk off the farm.
Moving ahead, we see sustainability targets as the next big consolidator. We have concerns about how methane is calculated and see an anti-cow bias that started with the anti-fat Dietary Guidelines, now moving into the way climate targets are discussed and measured. We encourage you to look at the work of Dr. Frank Mitloehner on how Global Warming Potential is incorrectly calculated for cattle.
We believe the farm bill should remain focused on conservation and innovation research and assistance. It should be voluntary and not tie needed farm programs to climate goals.
We believe farmers should get credit for what they are already doing, such as here in Pennsylvania, where farmers have long used cover cropping and conservation tillage practices.
Thank you for your work on developing a farm bill that recognizes our farmers as the environmental and economic backbone of America and to support farm vitality that will ensure our nation’s food security and freedom.
Sherry A. Bunting for Grassroots PA Dairy Advisory Committee / 97 Milk
Lifelong resident of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; freelance writer and columnist, Farmshine; former school board director, Eastern Lancaster County School District; member North American Ag Journalists
Address: 1918 Barnett St., East Earl, PA 17519