Decline of Pennsylvania’s dairy industry noted
By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, February 19, 2021
EAST EARL, Pa. – “We cannot continue to do what we are doing from a dairy pricing perspective and expect better results,” said Rep. G.T. Thompson (R-Pa.), named ranking member of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee in December.
Known as an advocate for dairy farmers, Thompson cited the decline in dairy farms and Pennsylvania’s position in rankings, noting that in 2009, when he was first elected to serve central and northern Pennsylvania in the U.S. Congress, Pennsylvania ranked 5th in the nation for dairy production with 545,000 cows.
A decade later, at the end of 2020, Pennsylvania slipped to eighth in production and has lost 67,000 cows since 2009. USDA reported 478,000 milk cows in the Keystone State at the end of last year with production in Michigan, Texas and now Minnesota leapfrogging Pennsylvania over the past decade.
In 2019, alone, Thompson took note of the 370 dairy farms that exited in Pennsylvania, with a huge impact on rural communities. He also observed the more than 10% loss in cows and production over 10 years during a telephone conference with members of the Grassroots Pa. Dairy Advisory Committee and 97 Milk, whom he thanked for all of their hard work on dairy issues.
He stressed that the decade of decline in Pennsylvania underscores how important it is to address the loss of milk check value at the farm level.
“Everyone in the dairy supply chain clearly can’t do what has always been done and expect different results,” he said, adding that a change is needed to benefit dairy farmers and that “the rest of the supply chain will have to adjust. We can’t sustain these decade long trends without further disruption. We have seen the impact already.”
Thompson said his dairy pricing initiative is straight forward, to look for “actionable measures that allow hardworking dairy farmers to earn a respectful living. Doing that will stabilize the economic circumstances so the other parts of the supply chain will adapt. If dairy farmers keep going down, we lose our industry, so serious steps must be taken toward economic stability.”
He talked about working as Ag ranking member to have Federal Milk Marketing Order pricing hearings, and he noted that the next Farm Bill offers an opportunity to modernize milk pricing, but it will take industrywide consensus, he said.
To get even a short-term fix for the losses due to negative PPDs before the next Farm Bill will be tough and will require action and agreement by NMPF and IDFA.
“Our best hope in the short term is to get the milk classes back into alignment (in regard to PPD), and work on building consensus for long term resiliency heading into the next Farm Bill,” said Thompson.
As for school milk, Thompson said he planned to restructure his whole milk for healthy kids legislation for reintroduction this session, with some tweaks that make it more workable for schools.
This is an important signature piece of legislation for Thompson because of the triple-impact he believes it will have on the health of children, the economics of dairy farming and the sustenance of rural communities.
Since the Senate ag committee has jurisdiction in school meals, where in the House, the jurisdiction lies with the education and labor committee, Thompson said he has already discussed the measure with the Republican leader in the Senate Ag Committee, Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas.
Thompson also believes there are members of the House Ag Committee who want to elevate this issue, which could include congressional hearings on the Dietary Guidelines. He said that process would start out with briefings to returning and incoming members about the DGAs so they have background on the issue.
With former Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack picked to return to the USDA post in the Biden administration, Thompson said he will be weighing in with Vilsack to encourage maintaining the 1% flavored milk waivers and about further school milk reform. He said he is hopeful about Vilsack’s support for a whole milk measure.
Thompson noted that reforms to milk offerings in schools could also come from the Senate side if Ag Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow opens the door with childhood nutrition reauthorization, but that, “Nothing will move out of the Senate that is not strongly bipartisan, so spending time on the Senate side building bipartisan support will be important,” he said.
While incoming House Ag Committee chairman David Scott (D-Ga.) has priorities and a history of bipartisan action, dairy is not among his biggest focal points, which leaves room for Thompson, as ranking member, to advance dairy as his priority working with the chairman.
Bottom line, the Grassroots Pa. Dairy Advisory Committee will be working to help build consensus for milk pricing reform, and many of the Farm Bureau ideas look promising. The challenge will be getting NMPF and IDFA to come together around shared priorities to benefit dairy farmers in the pricing system, but that effort has begun.
One thing is clear, the House Ag ranking member G.T. Thompson sees the farmer’s position in the current pricing equation as inadequate.