Government’s cozy relationship with dairy lobby is problem no. 1
By Sherry Bunting, reprinted from Farmshine, October 19, 2018
These are tough times. The strain of a fourth year of flat-lined milk prices is wearing thin on dairy farmers and those who serve them.
And the folks inside the Beltway don’t get it.
Wait, maybe they do.
The Farm Bill has yet to be passed, the mid-term elections are over… and the question continues to be asked: What can be done about the fact that family dairy farms are dropping like flies?
This question has been asked and answered for the better part of three years and the whole decade before that… and still we find ourselves repeating the same words falling on the same deaf ears, pleasant nods, and ‘sincere’ handshakes.
Where does Washington go for the answers? The dairy lobby. In fact, members of Congress will say that nothing gets done without getting National Milk Producers Federation on board.
What’s the deal for the future? A better ‘welfare’ program for small farms to window-dress the rapid and deliberate consolidation that is running rough-shod over their markets and using the Federal Order and other regulated pricing mechanisms to do it.
For years, a decade or more, grassroots dairy farmers have told their legislators to please work on repairing the damage government has already done to dairy farming.
They’ve pleaded with those inside the Beltway to heed the truth on the decades of flawed dietary guidelines and to right the wrongs in our nation’s school lunch program and other institutional feeding programs that are forced to follow these flawed guidelines.
But alas, instead of real change, we get more of the same, while the dairy lobby cheers and applauds over a tiny change allowing schools to serve 1% lowfat flavored milk instead of the prior Obama-era mandate of fat-free.
Meanwhile, nothing changes for regular milk in schools. It’s been fat-free and 1% for a decade now, and we have lost a generation of milk drinkers and stand to lose even more, and all the while our school kids fight increased obesity and diabetes rates, and we wonder, why?
Heck, you can’t even sell whole milk as a fundraiser during school hours, and you can’t give it away to schoolchildren during school hours due to these dietary rules that –according to those who have done a decade of scientific investigation of the research –show are actually not healthy rules for our children in the first place.
Plus, we have the FDA, having looked the other way for more than 10 years, now talking about milk’s standard of identity within a greater framework of “modernizing” standards of identity to “accomplish nutritional goals” — goals that are guided by flawed government dietary guidelines.
Instead of acknowledging the past wrong and immediately setting it right, the FDA adds comment period after comment period to try to read the minds of consumers. They want to know if consumers understand what they are buying when they buy fake milk.
The short answer? survey after survey shows that an overwhelming majority of consumers are, in fact, confused about the nutritional differences between real milk and the imposters — some consumers even believe there is milk in the not-milk ‘milk’.
Meanwhile, more time passes. Farmers are asked to wait. Be patient, while more damage is done by counterfeit claims that steal market share from dairy milk’s rightful place.
And then there’s the regulated milk pricing. What are the odds that any member of Congress will heed the past 10 years of requests for a national hearing now that California has enthusiastically joined the Federal Orders? That was the death nell of more of the same.
“It’s a free market,” say the legislators, regulators and market pundits.
“It’s a global market,” they add further.
No folks. It is a regulated market, and believe me when I tell you, the USDA and the major national footprint cooperatives operate this regulated market in lockstep.
Processors can’t access the administrative hearing process, unless they are cooperative-owned processors.
Farmers can’t access the administrative hearing process, except through their cooperatives.
Ditto on the above when it comes to voting. Bloc voting on behalf of farmers by their cooperative leadership seals every deal.
At a meeting a few months ago in the Southeast with USDA administrators that was intended to talk about multiple component pricing, farmers brought forward their grievances about bloc voting and their concerns about how milk is qualified on their Orders to share in their pool dollars.
What was USDA’s official response? The same response we hear over and over from legislators. “You vote for your co-op boards and they vote for Federal Orders.”
The Federal Orders were implemented in the 1930’s to keep milk available to consumers, to keep producers from being run-over. Today, these Orders are used to move milk from expanding consolidation areas to regions that have small and mid-sized family and multi-generational dairy farms located near consumer populations and competitive markets.
This is not a size thing. This is not small vs. big thing. This is structural change thing that is happening in the dairy industry at an increasingly rapid rate while the lifeblood is sucked right out of our culture of dairy farming.
The storm is brewing. Since the beginning of this year, the financial experts have told us that one-third of producers are selling out or contemplating an exit from dairy, that another one-third are not sure where they even stand, and that another one-third are moving forward with plans for expansion within consolidating industry structures.
The thought occurs to me: When the other two-thirds of producers are gone, what will become of that one-third that is still moving forward expanding, undeterred? What will become of the fabric from which their progress emerged? What will become of the next generation with hands-on experience, passion and love of dairy? Who will be raised on a dairy farm in the future? What contributions will be lost when dairy becomes only a business and no longer a business that is also a lifestyle? Who will be the support businesses? How will our communities change? Will all of our dairies in the future be academically run? What will become of our cow sense, our deep roots, our sense of community?
What will become of, us?
For years we have heard “there’s a place for every size dairy in this industry.” That phrase is how we get small and mid-sized farms to advocate with consumers about modern farming so they will accept a more consolidated dairy farming picture.
Now that we are reaching this point, will we hear the large consolidating integrators say the same in reverse? Will they slow down, push pause, and realize there IS a place for the diversity of farms that make this industry the shining star it is and could be?
While at World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wisconsin in October, the strain of now a fourth year of low prices was evident. Attendance “felt” lower even if the official numbers don’t totally reflect it.
Show entries were down. Traffic among trade show exhibitors was interesting and steady, but ‘off’ and ‘different.’
Dairy farmers are struggling. Large, small, and in between, these times are tough, and clear answers are elusive.
Dairy farmers remain paralyzed by three things:
1) the inability to have an effect on their circumstances or seat at the decision table;
2) lack of understanding of an incredibly complex regulated market; and
3) the innate desire to trust the establishment that handles their milk because they are too busy milking, managing and caring for cows, not to mention the land, to handle the milk marketing themselves.
Just think about this for a moment. In the past four years, National Milk Producers Federation has created and implemented the F.A.R.M. program where someone can come in and put you on a list for a subjective heifer bedding evaluation, where more is being not asked, but demanded, while at the same time, the pay price from which to do more is declining.
The milk checkoff programs continue to focus on partnerships. All kinds of efforts emerge to give away milk and dairy, and meanwhile supermarket wars by large integrating retailers push milk further into a commodity corner from which all imposters can brand their ‘more than’ and ‘less than’ marketing claims.
What we learned at some of the seminars at World Dairy Expo is that nothing will change in the milk pricing system, that it’s a free market, a global market, and that the best Congress can do is improve the margin protection program and other insurance options so farmers have the tools to deal with it.
I’m here to tell you that as long as this remains true, no farmer should be ashamed to use these tools even if it means receiving taxpayer dollars because it is the government’s actions and inaction over a decade or more that have created the problems in milk pricing and marketing today, and furthermore, the government shows no sign of wanting to let go of its stranglehold on dietary guidelines, how it enforces dairy’s standard of identity in fraudulent labeling, nor how it conspires with the dairy lobby — made up of the nation’s largest cooperatives — to regulate pricing in a way that further consolidates the dairy industry.
And by the way, all of the rhetoric on trade and NAFTA and Canada’s supply management system and Class 7 pricing has been nothing more than a smokescreen.
Trade is important, but again, we have reached a point where 2018 is seeing the demise of dairy farms at rapid rates while exports continue to set new records. As of Oct. 5, 2018, U.S. dairy exports for the first 8 months of the year (Jan-Aug) accounted for a record-setting 16.6% of milk production on a solids basis. That’s the largest ever percentage of the largest ever milk production total – more of the more – in the history of the U.S. dairy industry’s recordkeeping.
In fact, traders will be the first to tell you that “more exports” don’t translate into “better farm milk prices” because the export markets are largely commodity clearing markets and they are fueling expansion of commodity processing in areas of the U.S. where it is easiest to export to Asia and Mexico. A global supply-chain is in the works.
The exports, in fact, are diluting the Federal Order pricing at the same rapid rate as declines in consumer fluid milk consumption, putting severe pressure on eastern markets in particular.
Meanwhile, the eastern milk markets are extremely tight on milk. This information is sourced to cooperative managers and the independent USDA Dairy Market News. Plants are seeking milk and not receiving it. Trucker shortages are complicating the problem. State regulated pricing mechanisms, such as in Pennsylvania, still interfere, making milk cheaper to bring in than to use what is here. In some Federal Orders to the south, this is also the case because of how their pools are administrated.
We are seeing the vicious circle of self-fulfilling prophecies. Producers who want to operate 50 cow, 100 cow, 300 cow, 500 cow, 1000 cow, 1500 cow dairy farms in the eastern U.S. within a day’s drive of the largest population are in jeopardy. They have lost their location advantage but continue to deal with the disadvantages. As milk tightens they are not seeing their premiums return, instead some farmers report getting docked by their co-ops for not making enough milk, or they are socked with incredible hauling rates because their milk was hauled out while other milk was hauled in.
What can Congress do? Hold that national hearing on milk pricing. Give farmers a seat at the table apart from the company-store. Learn what is happening. See government’s role in it.
Dear Congress, if you really want to know what to do, look in the mirror.
Before it’s too late, please right the fundamental wrongs government has done to our dairy consumers and dairy farmers as it controls what fat level of milk kids are permitted to drink at school, how milk is priced, how milk is marketed and how milk is allowed to be advertised and promoted with farmers’ own money – while at the same time still turning a blind eye and deaf ear to loss-leading supermarket wars that operate off the backs of farmers and the processing industry’s pillaging of milk’s market share with nondairy imposters.