SENECA - A discussion of the local effects of a deepening national farm crisis drew more than 200 farmers, politicians, ag officials and others to a meeting at the Seneca Town Hall held Friday, March 16.
Although there was some discussion of the situation faced by row crop commodity farmers, livestock producers and other farming operations, most of the discussion centered on local dairy farmers.
An early question at the meeting from the Independent-Scout asked why current programs found in the 2014 Farm Bill, like the Margin Protection Program aimed at dairy price support, were failing to provide farmers with payments as they faced some of the lowest pay prices in decades. The question also sought an answer to what changes could be made to the new Farm Plan to better support dairy farmers suffering from the low prices.
Brad Pfaff, an aide to Congressman Ron Kind, told those at the meeting in response to the question about the 2018 Farm Bill said that he felt the bill must be “focused like a laser beam on dairy.”
For his part, Pfaff noted that the 2014 Farm Bill lacked baseline dollars to deal with the situation given both the House and Senate underfunded the program in an effort to reduce the budget deficit. The result was MPP, which replaced MILC in the previous Farm Bill, was underfunded.
In his opening remarks, Ryan Cornell, an aide to U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Madison), said the senator was pushing for a Dairy Pride Act that would insist on labeling that dairy products were made from milk and not other things like nuts or vegetables. Cornell said the Dairy Pride Act had bipartisan support and might be rolled into the Farm Bill. The intent of the act would be to help market dairy products.
Tom Petri, an aide to U.S. Senator Ron Johnson (R-Oshkosh), explained that it might be a little speculative to talk about a Farm Bill now, noting that the U.S. House of Representatives’ version is due out in a month. However, Senator Johnson wants people’s opinions, Petri noted.
There were plenty of opinions expressed at the meeting. The consensus of almost everyone seemed to be that overproduction of milk and dairy products combined with lagging demand was at the root of the problem causing lower milk prices.
Wisconsin Farmers Union Darren Von Ruden spoke early and often about the Canadian supply management model, which had kept pay prices up to dairy farmers producing within a quota system. There was lots of interest about the Canadian supply management-based quota system among many of the dairy farmers present.
Von Ruden laid out the basics of the system. Repeatedly questions from the producers came back to how it worked and its viability for the United States.
The WFU had just finished presentations around the state last week featuring Ontario-based dairy farmers explaining that program.
Pat Nolan, a small dairy producer in Crawford County, explained that he had heard about the Canadian program on Wisconsin Public Radio. He said in Canada the average herd size was 75 cows and only a few herds exceed 1,500.
Nolan said he saw the Farm Bill’s MPP as a band-aid “to help delay the little farmers going out of business, while the big producers were okay with the lower prices.”
Some points that Von Ruden made in response to Nolan’s comment were that WFU had been talking about supply management for decades and that in Canada it took effort by farmers to get it done. Von Ruden emphasized that in Canada “the farmers control the program and the government helps them.”
In answer to a previous question about the Canadian milk quota causing that country to ship excess milk supply into the U.S., Von Ruden pointed out that Canada is a net importer of dairy importing about 15 percent of their needs. The system is setup to supply Canada’s needs and not to flood markets, Von Ruden noted. Canada produces 20 billion pounds of milk, while Wisconsin alone produces 30 billion pounds.
Mike Mueller, who along with others, is trying to establish a pastured pork co-op in the area, said his members encountered problems getting approval for EQUIP funding from the USDA to help with pasture improvements. He said they were informed the funds were available for pasturing, but not for pork pasturing.
Kind’s aide Brad Pfaff told Mueller to talk to him about the situation after the meeting. He indicated there should be some flexibility about providing funds to get animals pasturing on the land.
While their were definitely more questions about how the system might be fixed and interest in the Canadian model, there was also some finger pointing and emotion from farmers frustrated by the current situation.
One farmer said he had attended the ag short course at UW-Madison in the 1980s and been told that milking 80 cows would support one family and milking 160 cows would support two families. That formula is no longer working for this farmer and his brother, who milk about 160 cows.
“What do I say to my two young kids?’ the farmer asked. “Why overproduce? We need to get together and get a base price. Why let the bigger farmers get bigger? Is it the banks? Is it the politicians?”
“Thanks for sharing the emotion with us,” Kind’s aide Brad Pfaff said in response. “We hear you loud and clear.”
State Senator Jennifer Shilling explained that Governor Scott Walker had introduced a 30X20 Plan in 2013 with the goal of having the state produce 30 billion pounds of milk by 2020. She questioned whether it was time to reconsider regulations on the CAFOs.
“As a consumer I want to pay a fair price for food,” Shilling said.
Mark Solverson, a Viroqua dairy farmer, explained that he had built up his dairy in the 90s to 400 cows when he was a young farmer. At that time, the dairy initiative was called 20X20 and the goal was for the state to produce 20 billion pounds annually by 2020.
Solverson credited Organic Valley with functioning “as a great marketing agency” for their producers. Solverson told the group that Fair Trade Milk should be marketed and that a base price should be established.
Solverson said the current problem was caused by a glut of milk and cheap labor. He said the larger CAFO producers were living off the government. The veteran dairy farmer said if workers were certified fair trade wages of $50,000 per year, youth would be attracted to the jobs. He also noted that having 60 percent of wells in Kewaunee County polluted was caused by the big dairies operating there.
At this point in the presentation, Wisconsin State Representative Lee Nerison (R-Westby) addressed the meeting. He said he had milked cows for 40 years before retiring.
Nerison told the group that 70s herd buyout would’ve been the time to go to a quota. Changing now will be much harder, according to the state representative. He noted that at these prices neither the big nor small producers are making money.
“Whether it’s federal or state, Democrat or Republican, we have to work together to solve this problem and it’s not just Wisconsin,” Nerison said.
Beth Kearns, a local dairy producer, explained a lot of the current problem with marketing milk has come because whole milk has been withdrawn in many cases giving way to one percent and two-percent milk.
“We need to get good tasting milk back in the schools,” Kearns said.
DeSoto dairy farmer Kevin Walleser, the District 21 representative on the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board assured Kearns that the organization is working on changing requirements to allow whole milk back in the schools.
Jodi Miller questioned what the WMMB was doing with the check-off money that comes out of the dairy producer’s milk check.
Walleser assured Miller the milk marketing board was working on the problem.
Hillary Hartley, a dairy farmer from North Clayton, also questioned what was happening in the schools with milk. She noted a small carton costs 35 cents at school, while a gallon of milk is sold in the store for $2.
Solverson, the Viroqua dairy farmer, summarized what many at the meeting were saying about low-fat milk versus whole milk.
“It’s the low-fat diet that’s the problem,” Solverson said. “And now there’s research that fat is good.”
Solverson cited two books to make his point ‘Always Hungry,’ by Dr. David Ludwig, a Harvard Pediatrician, and ‘Sugar Crush,’ by Dr. Richard Jacoby.
Senator Baldwin’s aide, Ryan Cornell, agreed research is changing it’s thinking on low-fat diets. He said that’s why the Dairy Pride Act supported by Baldwin and others want to get labeling changed to stop calling something almond milk. The act would only allow dairy products to be labeled as milk.
State Senator Shilling stated she wanted to see more done on the farm-to-school program to promote local products and do more education on nutrition. She said a funding cut in the state budget is hampering this process.
Pete Hardin, editor of the Milkweed newspaper, took up the idea of a dairy producer that suggested there is more response to promoting butter than milk or cheese.
Hardin also felt that it might be time to modernize cheese selling through web-based sales.
Hardin also said that milk coming in at an average 105 loads per week from the east into Wisconsin shouldn’t bear the Wisconsin Dairy logo. Only products using Wisconsin milk should be marketed with the Wisconsin logo.
If Michigan milk is being processed in the state and those products are labeled with the Wisconsin logo, then they should have to pay a fee like the state’s farmers pay from their milk check for the promotion, according to Hardin.
Laurel Daniels, who was working with dairy lobby as a member of Dairy Girls, sought to put things in perspective.
“We’ve got a room full of people who are backed into a corner,” Daniels said of dairy farmers facing the low pay price.
Daniels went on to share two ideas. One would be making a law requiring a 90-day notice of cancellation of any contracts for milk. There was a 30-day notice for producers putting milk on Grassland trucks and Daniels argued that was not enough. She also noted that there is no law requiring any notice be given and there should be such a law.
Daniels also suggested that farmers wishing to quit dairying be offered job-retraining options.
Other topics touched on briefly were marketing of raw milk, the need or overstatement of need for crop insurance and a few other things.
One of the most telling points of the afternoon came in WMMB’s Kevin Walleser’s reply to the question how much over supply of milk is there currently in the United States. Wallesser said the estimate is that the country is “about 15 percent long in supply.” He also noted that about 11 to 12 percent of production is being exported and if that number would increase by four or five percent it would make a significant change in the situation.
For her part, Tammy Olson, the major organizer of the meeting, was satisfied with the results. People got together and discussed the issue facing farmers. It was a step in the right direction.
Olson later acknowledged that passion and emotion had risen to some rather high levels at points in the discussion.
“We had to take the boiling pot off the burner to bring it back to a simmer,” Olson said.
While the problem of oversupply of milk and some of the other problems facing farmers may not have been solved at the meeting, they were certainly discussed and understood. Furthermore, there were several ideas put forth to deal with the situation, so it seemed at least some progress was made.
Olson feels the farmers who attended need to follow-up with the politicians and other officials they reached at the meeting.
“Now, the ball is in their court,” Olson said. “They need to contact those folks they met and keep the ball rolling.”