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Dairy Together leaders seek to continue to push for industry reforms

Kelli Boylen for Progressive Dairyman Published on 17 May 2019

The last few years have proven rough for even the most efficient dairy farms. Seeking federal policy changes to address those financial struggles, hundreds of dairy producers gathered over the last few months at events organized by the National Farmers Organization (NFO) and Wisconsin Farmers Union (WFU), dubbed the Dairy Together Road Show.

Read: Dairy Together Road Show seeks support for dairy policy changes.

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According to organizers, attendance at meetings in the eastern U.S. and Midwest exceeded expectations, with farmers packing the rooms to learn more about a path forward that might include their farms. Attendance was a bit lighter in the Western states, where farmers are more spread out and where large-scale dairies are more dominant, said Danielle Endvick, WFU communications director.

Increased interest in milk supply management represents a change of opinion among dairy producers, Endvick said.

“We’ve witnessed a solid shift in the narrative around supply management,” she said. “Five or more years ago, you would have been laughed out of the room for mentioning supply management. But today, farmers and ag groups alike are realizing that exports and innovation alone are not enough to solve the crisis dairy farmers are facing. We need to balance supply with demand and slow the unthrottled expansion we’ve seen in the dairy industry.

“I’ve lost dairy farms in my own family, including the one on which I grew up, so I truly recognize how desperately we need a solution and how great the impact is with each day, month and year that passes with no action,” Endvick said. “A sound dairy supply management plan cannot come soon enough.”

“We feel a real sense of urgency to adopt long-term solutions, so we need to pull together and demand change,” said WFU’s government relations associate, Bobbi Wilson.  

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While there are a number of reasons that dairy farms are going under, from consolidation to feed shortages to outdated facilities, Patty Edelburg, vice president of the National Farmers Union (NFU), said it comes down to the fact that the cost of production has generally been about $1 per hundredweight more than the price farmers receive for milk since 2016. And dairy producers have lost up to $1.50 per hundredweight directly because of the trade wars since the middle of 2018, Edelburg added. Those factors are bringing the dairy industry together with an increase in activism. 

“This problem is bigger than any one organization. We need to come together,” Edelburg said. 

NFU officials say the government must step up and enforce anti-trust regulations, strengthen the safety net for farmers and explore low-interest loan options for emergency relief.

In addition, the antiquated dairy pricing formula under the Federal Milk Marketing Order system must be replaced with a practical inventory management system that balances supply and demand, said Darin Von Ruden, a Wisconsin dairy farmer and WFU president.

In Von Ruden’s home state of Wisconsin, the number of dairy farms decreased by half from 2004 to 2018, from 16,000 farms to about 8,000. Nationally, between 2000 and 2017, the U.S. lost 63,702 dairy farms with herds of 200 cows or less, a decrease of 65.6 percent.

Von Ruden contends the U.S. must look to Canada for a dairy pricing structure that provides producer price stability.

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“The Canadian system helps keep prices paid to farmers stable, as opposed to the wild swings and crushingly low prices that have been putting U.S. dairy farmers out of business,” he said. 

He stated that Wisconsin alone has had more bankruptcies of dairy farms in the last half of 2018 than all of Canada has had in the last nine years. “Clearly, the dairy pricing structure we have here in the United States is not serving family farmers well,” Von Ruden said. 

The WFU is spearheading a nationwide effort with the purpose to collaborate with a range of industry-related organizations to build the farmer-led movement for dairy price reform. Resources are offered on a Dairy Together website.

Dairy Together organizers hold bi-weekly conference calls, have an active Facebook page, encourage the use of the #DairyTogether hashtag to keep the issue trending on social media, and encourage producers to write letters to the editor explaining how they have been impacted by low prices and call for reform. 

Active producers are being urged to get involved with their local cooperatives to stimulate change, write or call their senators and representatives at both a state and national level, and attend politicians’ town hall meetings to share what is going on with dairy pricing and how it is affecting producers.  end mark

Kelli Boylen is a freelance writer based in northeast Iowa.

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