Dairy mis-leaders call for unity, bring on misery

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine Op-Ed, July 19, 2019

Dairy producers find joy in the big and little things in life on the farm, working with family, raising children on the farm, building or continuing a family business, seeing the sun rise and set as they work, producing wholesome milk they take pride in, helping a cow have her calf, watching that calf grow and develop, planting tiny seeds, watching a crop grow.

We know personal stress on farms is at an all-time high, amid price and weather pressures. There is some optimism returning as last month’s milk checks were a bit better, and the futures markets fueled some optimism before hitting the see-saw again. Also, the first round of dairy margin coverage (DMC) checks have been received or are in the mail. (Signups for 2019 DMC end Sept. 20).

But despite the return of some optimism, stress continues to build on our dairy farms because the hole that has been dug is so deep, the ground to make up so vast, and the future sustainability of family farm businesses more challenged by the industry’s control of how they operate.

My thoughts here are based on personal meetings, phone conferences, emails and other communications with young farm families operating small herds and multi-family operations with very large herds. 

In my various work and volunteer efforts as a freelancer — I visit a lot of dairy farms. 

Even though milk prices are gradually rising, net mailbox prices are flat and costs are going up, eating into the price gains. Forages are tight, weather is an added burden, farmers are utilizing new strategies, adopting progressive practices, improving their business management – and yet, their farms and families are fraying over the question of whether to stay the course or sell the cows and leave it behind. 

Many are taking on other work and adding to their already long days with efforts to bring in income to support the farm.

Communities are feeling the long fingers, and farmers and related agribusinesses are supporting each other as best they are able. The levels of farm community unity have probably never been higher in this regard: People are coming together to promote milk through voluntary efforts, to support their neighbors, and to reach out to each other as friends and colleagues.

The industry leaders say the dairy industry must be unified. They say it is wrong to challenge the path of the industry because doing so is “depressing and divisive” and “brings more stress onto the farmers.”

Don’t challenge the system, they say, because this creates negativity and stress when farmers need to stay positive and united. This, I’ve been told by leaders.

Questions and challenges are not meant to divide or stress our farmers. The stress is already there. It may not always be spoken, but it is there, and it is visible. 

This stress cannot be painted over with pretty colors.

Stress on dairy farms today is rooted in the way this industry and various milk pricing and nutrition policies have economically failed our farmers (and our consumers), especially since 2008.

To talk about the industry’s path — to discuss and debate marketing decisions made with producer dollars — does not mean one is being divisive. This is America where ideas and challenges can still be discussed and debated, and where leaders can be questioned and held accountable.

How much more divided can an industry become than to see marriages, families, businesses, dreams fractured from the undue stress of not only a tough deal on the milk pricing but perhaps even more concerning, the increased levels of control that this same system puts upon our farmers, and how they manage their farms, as a condition to keep their milk contracts?

This loss of independence and loss of their ability to control the ‘controllables’ is of utmost concern. If we ignore these trends — in an attempt to be passively non-divisive — does that make the issue or problem go away? Certainly not.

Rapid streamlining of the dairy industry is underway, at least in part because this is the path charted in 2008 by the DMI Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy and the U.S. Dairy Export Council working via memorandums of understanding with USDA Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack who is today a DMI leader as USDEC president and CEO and instrumental in the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. 

Both USDEC and the Innovation Center are primarily supported by the mandatory checkoff paid by dairy farmers; but they also partner with food supply chain companies that work on proprietary products, ideas and concepts for the expressed purpose of growing the dairy sector globally.

The industry leaders tasked with spending the farmer’s 15 cents per hundredweight say raising exports to 20% (last year was 16%) is the key for a growing dairy industry.

Most notably, Vilsack reported in May that, “2018 was a record year for U.S. dairy exporters with export volume up 10% from the prior year. Simply put, exports support the growth aspirations of the U.S. dairy sector.”

Nowhere in his statement, or the entire blog post at USDEC, did Vilsack mention the dairy farmers who pay his salary. He mentions the dairy exporters and the dairy sector, but not the dairy producers.

Are exporters and sectors paying his salary of $750,000? No, not really. A small portion of USDEC is funded by ‘industry’ memberships, and importers pay a smaller checkoff, but the bulk of the agency and its CEO Tom Vilsack are funded directly from government-mandated dairy producer checkoff funds.

Where are the statements about a promotion agenda that seeks to return a fair price and livable income to those producers paying the agenda-makers salaries?

At various meetings last year where milk markets were discussed, dairy traders stated that exports do not raise farm-level milk prices. Interestingly, 2018 exports were higher than 2017 while 2018 prices paid to dairy farmers were much lower than 2017.

The direction of the dairy checkoff is toward growth of the dairy sector globally, at all costs, and yet the U.S. dairy farmers are paying the bill for this, with USDA having very close control of it.

This goal has been positioned to farmers as an all-out race to gain global market share before other countries do it, without a methodical approach or review on the impact to domestic markets and producers along the way.

This global agenda is also steering the sustainability frameworks and alliances DMI’s Innovation Center is forming that will control more aspects of management at the farm level in the future.

In recent proof of conversations between farmers and checkoff staff and board members, questions about Innovation Center projects, alliances and partnerships were passed off as though the board receives its information on these projects on a “need to know” basis. A board member stated in these exchanges that they are not concerned with seeing every detail of a proprietary project because DMI’s attorneys and USDA’s attorneys know the details, and the board trusts the staff.

(I have served on boards elected by citizens. Trust in staff is critical, but so is transparency of projects paid for by a checkoff — the same as a school tax.)

For some, a call for unity means don’t ask questions. For others, it means get informed and start mobilizing a grassroots unifying effort.

In a copy of non-executive February DMI board minutes received by Farmshine, a strategy is detailed by the Farmer Relations and Consumer Confidence Committee. According to the minutes, a key discussion at the February 19-21 board meeting was stated as “farmer engagement around checkoff value is more important than ever before.”

A key bullet point was for national and local checkoff board members to “focus on the movable middle.”

Another bullet point of the discussion in the minutes is that DMI is “learning from the checkoff Facebook page and regional media coverage (Farmshine) reinforcing that you do NOT continue to engage with those detractors that cannot/will not be moved.”

While Farmshine was still seeking answers to questions and had not yet published the DMI chair’s letter of response (published Feb. 21), DMI had already taken a position in its Feb. 20 board discussion to “not engage” with detractors, mentioning Farmshine parenthetically by name in this category.

According to the minutes, the rest of the DMI board discussion on this topic centered on the need to “reach out to those farmers who see/hear from the unmovable detractors” (that would mean Farmshine readers as per the above). According to the minutes, “ways to reach the movable middle” were discussed.

So, while organizations chart a course for unity and reaching out to a movable middle, dairy farm families are focused on finding ways to move forward on their farms and to unify and inform their communities.

Even though our legislators are taking notice of the growing crisis — and some sincerely care and are trying to do something — these stopgaps and investments are a drop in a very large bucket. Those drops are appreciated, but there are big things to tackle that require courage when it comes to the needed changes in nutrition rules, checkoff rules, promotion rules, labeling rules (and also lack of standard of identity enforcement), complex milk pricing rules (while processors and co-ops are readying a proposal for their make allowance increases as soon as prices improve a bit), not to mention rules that impact the cost of doing business every day on the farm.

As dairy farm families keep moving forward, finding ways to do more with less, working longer hours with less help, taking on off-farm employment and finding other revenue streams to pay their bills — They are consequently burning the candle at both ends and incurring more stress.

The stress on farms of all sizes can be overwhelming and is felt by even the best operators.

We do need unity, yes, but the question farmers are asking themselves is: Who will be part of dairy’s unified and globalized future? They deserve to know the direction the organizations they fund are taking their product, their market, and the industry they have supplied with wholesome milk for generations.

We can do better than this in America where agriculture truly is our backbone. Without strong farm families, all else fails eventually, including our liberty and security as a nation. 

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