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Dairy groups host congressional briefings on policy alternatives

Contributed by Danielle Endvick Published on 16 September 2019

The struggles faced by dairy farmers and potential programs to alleviate those issues were the focus of congressional briefings held Sept. 12 in Washington, D.C.

The briefings were spearheaded by the Wisconsin Farmers Union (WFU) through its Dairy Together movement. Other organizational sponsors included the California Dairy Campaign, California Farmers Union, Farm Aid, Michigan Farmers Union, Organization for Competitive Markets, Pennsylvania Farmers Union, National Dairy Producers Organization, National Farmers Union and the National Holstein Association. The event was sponsored by Wisconsin congressional representatives Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Reps. Mark Pocan, Glenn Grothman and Gwen Moore. 

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According to Wisconsin Farmers Union statistics, 7,339 U.S. dairy farms have gone out of business over the past four years, in part due to low-to-negative income resulting from an imbalance in milk supply and demand. During the briefings, Dr. Mark Stephenson, a dairy economist and director of the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Profitability, shared results from recent analyses of various programs designed to improve dairy farm profitability.

One example, a Market Access Fee Program, would set an allowable percentage of annual growth in milk production, with per-hundredweight market access fees assessed on dairy farms that exceed that level of growth. Research conducted by Stephenson and Charles Nicholson, an adjunct associate professor at Cornell University, analyzed two options: a program with fixed allowable growth and market access fees, and another linked to the milk-feed price ratio. Their research looked at the impact the program would have had if implemented in January 2014 to 2020, as had been proposed during the 2014 Farm Bill process. Stephenson said the study also took into account trade flows within the global dairy supply chain. 

“This research was motivated by concerns about low and variable milk prices and farm incomes,” Stephenson said. “A number of dairy industry groups have expressed interest in programs to manage growth in U.S. milk production.” 

Stephenson noted that, had the program been in place, it would have helped manage dairy oversupply, reduced market volatility and improved dairy farm profitability. The average all-milk price would have been $1.10 per hundredweight (cwt) for all farms and more than $2.50 per cwt for farms that limited growth. Farm income would have been more than double for all farm sizes, for farms that limited growth to allowable amounts. 

Also worth noting, Stephenson said, is that total USDA expenditures on the Margin Protection Program for Dairy (MPP-Dairy) and Dairy Margin Coverage (DMC) programs during 2014 to 2020 would have decreased by as little as $470 million and up to $1.2 billion, depending on the program.

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WFU President Darin Von Ruden said he was pleased with turnouts at the briefings, which drew lawmakers and staff from offices across the U.S. 

“This is the next step toward policy reform that is necessary if we want a future for family dairy farms,” Von Ruden said. “In the past year, Dairy Together has been organizing across the country with organizations and farmers joining the call for change, but now we need forward momentum on policy that will provide long-term sustainability. Farmers don’t want government handouts, they want a system that provides market stability and a fair price for their products.” 

Paul Adams, who milks 500 cows on his organic dairy farm near Eleba, Wisconsin, was among the dairy farmers who traveled to Capitol Hill to share their stories. 

“The economic distress we’re seeing in rural Wisconsin isn’t evident there,” he said. “They have no clue the struggles we are facing out here, which is why it is so important that we went and shared exactly what’s happening. But, more importantly, we laid out a clear path for how our legislators can help improve the situation for dairy farmers – and in a way that would be at no cost to the government.” 

Adams said the dairy trade aid package and other government dairy payments scarcely make a dent in the money he has lost due to market volatility in recent years. 

“I’m pleased that supply management is being seriously discussed,” said former dairy farmer and WFU Director Rick Adamski of Seymour, Wisconsin. “It’s unfortunate that we’re in the place where we are today – we still have a long way to go to fix this broken system.”  end mark

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Danielle Endvick is the communications director with the Wisconsin Farmers Union. 

This article was submitted by the Wisconsin Farmers Union, a member-driven organization committed to enhancing the quality of life for family farmers, rural communities and all people through educational opportunities, cooperative endeavors and civic engagement.  

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