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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Leaving boots in the mud to seek new ground on Tuesday

 

Editorial Comments by Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, Friday, Nov. 4, 2016

flag19Agriculture is at a crossroads, and so is America. But the choice of paths that lie before us are neither clear nor direct.

When we go to the polls on Tuesday, it will be with mixed thoughts and emotions.

As the mainstream media analyze and over analyze every breaking news story, every “narrative,” every campaign “spin,” every poll, every issue that they deem important, there is much that gets left on the cutting room floor — important issues that no one really talks about, and yet they are harbingers of our future.

What they don’t talk about – of course – is agriculture. What they don’t talk about is the backbone of our economy, the original resource from which all other facets of the economy are made possible.

Take, for example, Hillary Clinton’s speech to financial institutions, where she said she dreams of one world, one economy, without borders. When pressed on that issue, her response was to say that, ‘Oh, that speech! I was talking about the energy economy, a worldwide energy grid. I want the U.S. to be the renewable energy super-power of the world.’

A convenient response to a concept that should give us all pause — in and outside of agriculture.

In talking with farm folk who volunteer for missions or projects in third-world countries where helping to establish indigenous agriculture practices and infrastructure is deemed so important, it hit me: We will be that third-world country — maybe not in my lifetime – but nevertheless that is one path on this crossroads if we do not take care to protect our farms and our farmers. Not only is their stewardship of the land vital to regional food security, but they are the place-holders for the essence of our liberty as a nation. Private property rights and ownership are the keys to our freedom as a nation, as a people.

Globalization is happening at a rapid pace. Running parallel to globalization is market concentration as mergers and acquisitions put more and more power into the hands of the few when it comes to food and agriculture. And then those ‘too big to fail’ entities are being sold off to foreign nations, like China, who already owns, according to the Department of the Treasury, $1.24 trillion in bills, notes and bonds (about 30%) of the over $4 trillion in Treasury bills, notes and bonds held by foreign countries.

That, my friends, is the auctioneer’s gavel on our national debt. True to form as a businessman, Donald Trump is talking about the national debt. Hillary Clinton is not.

Exports are said to be necessary for all agriculture commodity markets, especially dairy, and while I believe exports are important, they are not the end-all, be-all – except to the multi-national companies that view us as though they are on a satellite in space counting their dots on the globe: production units or consumption units, bars on a graph, slices on a pie-chart, numbers on a sales report, quarterly statements to shareholders.

In these third world countries I referenced earlier — where the good folk of the USA help farmers establish themselves — one of the first realizations is that when we throw cheap food at them, through exports, they have difficulty getting their own agriculture established to have the food security we Americans enjoy and truly take for granted.

Think about that for a moment. Are we not in danger, ourselves, of going down a path that could leave us food insecure?

The trade agreements that give our farmers market access to foreign markets also give our domestic market away to foreign imports. The give and the take are contrived and uneven. Winners and losers are made, created.

There is nothing fair or free about world trade because nations are losing the ability to care for and protect their own – particularly the U.S. – and we don’t even realize it. We are focused on the tantalizing allure of what we can sell … so that we are blinded to being sold-out.

The magician’s trick. Watch the elaborate thing I am doing with my left hand while I fool you with my right.

Many of these trade agreements are not free and fair trade, but rather a march forward to globalization, where the World Trade Organization and the United Nations become a higher power than our own Congress, our own President.

We saw just a tiny inkling of this, firsthand, when Congress quickly repealed the Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) last March, and when the administration lifted the ban on Brazilian beef in August, and when the first boatload of beef hit Philadelphia, via JBS, just three weeks ago, followed by a rapid downturn in cattle prices here at home.

We’ve already seen foreign interests, namely China, purchase Smithfield and Syngenta, to name a few. This week, the Dallas News reported that a team of Chinese bankers and a Chinese dairy are considering a possible takeover bid for Dean Foods, our nation’s largest milk bottler that handles 35% of the raw farm milk produced in this country.

What does this have to do with Tuesday’s presidential and congressional election? Plenty.

You won’t hear Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump talk about agriculture, specifically, but listening to their differing outlooks, overall, a few things are clear and have helped me make my choice for next Tuesday.

For me, voting for a third party candidate or writing in a name like John McCain (as previous candidate and Ohio governor John Kasich did) is not an option. Neither is it an option to write in Mickey Mouse or to leave that part of the ballot blank.

Folks, this is serious. This presidential election – for all of its circus acts – is no circus. This is our future. This is the future we are handing to our children and grandchildren. I, for one, cannot trust it to a candidate who has spent the past 30 years in the political realm as a profitable public servant, and has wasted so much of that time on her own agenda with such disregard for the rules others live by as to again be under investigation.

I will vote between the two major party candidates based on what I know about their outlook on the future along with what my gut tells me about the investigations into their pasts and what it says about what they could or would do with the power of the Presidency in the future.

Neither candidate lives like we do out here in middle and rural America. But, at least one of the two candidates lives outside of the political realm.

We are governed by career politicians embroiled in endless self-perpetuation. The more paralyzed they are in their elected offices, the more power is diverted to the longstanding and quite powerful bureaucracy whom are elected by no one.

Everyone complains about the gridlock inside the beltway, like nothing ever gets done.

Wrong.

Plenty of work is getting done in Washington D.C., it is just mainly the work of career bureaucrats that exercise more control and make us weaker, tearing at our moral fabric, eating away at the base of our economy, ripping through our roots, and chipping away at our freedoms.

There is a power- and land-grab underway in this country. Most all agriculture commodities are at prolonged below-breakeven prices while the political elite is poised to push yet another trade agreement, the Trans Pacific Partnership, into the mix.

Meanwhile, we have a hammer of political correctness keeping us in our place, not daring to be free thinkers. Many voices are silenced as the economic and moral decay are inextricably linked.

Take, for example, the way we accept how the government imposes ridiculous rules on what our children can eat for lunch at school. All things are connected so that local communities cannot even feed their children the way they see fit. Those rules, incidentally, create winners and losers. And in so doing, the voices of the affected are silenced.

We have a runaway EPA with the implementation and flawed interpretation of the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) legislation that threatens to create a second wave of land-grab after the market pushes a first wave of farmers off the land.

And then there is the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) and their silver-tongued Wayne Pacelle. He is campaigning for Hillary Clinton. Her animal rights agenda dovetails with the candidate and Democratic Party’s obsession with climate change — right down to the livestock and dairy cattle on our farms.

There is so much more I could say, but to summarize, consider this: Who better to tackle over-regulation, unfair trade agreements, national food security, a vital agriculture, family farms and small businesses besieged by a labyrinth of complexities foisted upon them by a government run by self-perpetuating career politicians and ever-present, accountable-to-no-one bureacrats than a business man — a man that for all of his faults, at least does not live and has not spent 30-plus years operating in the self-perpetuation of the D.C. beltway.

We need to break free of the career politician mentality and breathe fresh air and common sense into the mix as well as to toss a bit of our sensitivity and political correctness to the side to break the cycle we are in and alter the path down which we are being led.

For all of his faults, Donald Trump is the only one of the two less than optimal choices we have in this election that fits that description.

Even on immigration reform, he is the one to have the best chance of getting it done. Only after our border is secured will our divided nation have a chance to come together with compassion for the illegal workers who are here today, working hard, making a contribution and raising their families that were born here. I have listened to Trump on this issue, and I get it. He is leaving room for that conversation after the border is secured and the estimated two million illegal immigrants that have committed crimes are properly dealt with. He will consult the American people on the next move after that first important move.

Election after election, candidates promise to shake things up, bring about change, bring people together, work for the people, protect our country.

Meanwhile, the beltway fills with sludge and slow-motion sets in to the point where boots are stuck.

Instead of standing fast, I’m leaving the boots in the mud, these bare feet are seeking new ground next Tuesday.