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0609 PD: Western United Dairymen convention attendees discuss tough economic times

Mark Looker Published on 09 April 2009

Despite the tough economic situation facing California dairy producers, Western United Dairymen (WUD) members and supporters gathered to focus on the year’s accomplishments and chart a course for the future during their the annual convention held March 4-6 in Rohnert Park.

Hosted by WUD District 3, representing Lake, Marin, Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma counties, the convention was a success from start to finish, said WUD President Ray Souza.

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“We all realize the tough economic situation California dairy families are facing. But this is the time when we come together and remember why it is that we do what we do,” Souza said. “Our members get a lot of strength out of gatherings such as these. It’s a time to reflect and also learn about the challenges we face. Our organization came out of this convention more determined than ever to tackle these tough issues.”

Keynote speaker Willie Brown, a former California Assembly Speaker, who is acknowledged as one of the consummate politicians in California political history, offered a rousing and entertaining speech on the current political dilemma facing the Golden State.

Referring to the political term limits measure that passed many years ago largely as an outgrowth of voters who felt Speaker Brown enjoyed too much power, Brown said in effect, “Be careful of what you wish for. You might just get it.”

Brown cited current term limits of three Assembly terms totaling six years and two Senate terms totaling eight years as a major factor explaining legislative gridlock in the state’s capitol.

Agriculture lost many long-time legislators due to term limits, Brown said, and that loss of institutional knowledge and political skill is felt increasingly as urban legislators form the majority in both chambers. Agriculture needs to compensate for that loss by working hard to build relationships with urban legislators who do not understand agriculture but can have a large impact by passing bills harmful to farm interests.

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The theme of farmers building trust with consumers was outlined by remarks delivered by Charlie Arnot, president of CMA Consulting. Dairy producers can protect their freedom to operate by realizing that they have a “social license to operate” that is granted by consumers. How well farmers manage that trust determines whether they will continue to operate.

Arnot pointed to several surveys showing consumer confidence in their food supply has dropped. Consumers are willing to eat meat and eggs and drink milk, provided they can be confident the animals are well-treated. But those surveys show consumers do not believe the animals are being treated humanely. Farmers feel frustrated that science is often ignored when it comes to animal welfare issues, but they need to realize that consumers “don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Several workshops were held on a wide variety of issues affecting dairy producers on a regular basis.

Opportunities in emerging markets were addressed by Ross Christieson, a consultant to the California Milk Advisory Board. According to a recent study conducted by Christieson, overall U.S. dairy exports to China were up 40 percent in 2007 compared to 2006, with 35 percent of U.S. dairy exports coming from California. Additionally, cheese and butter exports were up 73 percent and 82 percent respectively. Of those, California supplied approximately 50 percent.

Beef and dairy cattle producers must be “squeaky clean” on the care and handling of their livestock because consumers are losing confidence in the industry’s humane handling of livestock, said Dr. Gary Smith of Colorado State University, who talked about the role of producers in animal welfare.

The Center for Food Integrity reported in October 2008 that in a national survey only 16 percent of respondents “strongly agree that U.S. meat is derived from humanely treated animals” (29 percent strongly disagree) and 47 percent of respondents “strongly support a law in my state to ensure the humane treatment of farm animals” (10 percent strongly disagree).

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The importance of succession planning was addressed by attorney Kenneth Fransen. Dairy farmers were told of its importance and why they must act now in light of estate tax changes proposed by Congress. They were introduced to tools and techniques they can use within their own families to provide for the continuation of their dairies for future generations.

WUD’s 2010 annual convention will be held in Modesto. PD

Mark Looker is a communications consultant representing Western United Dairymen.

Mark Looker for Progressive Dairyman

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