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CAMBRIDGE - Emotions ran high as members of the Dairy Together group got off the bus at Hinchley’s Dairy Farm on Aug. 14. After traveling to New York to an Open Dairy Meeting, in Albany, their passion for the American dairy industry hung on every word they spoke.

The meeting brought together over 300 stakeholders from Maine to California as well as Canada. The event was organized by Agri-Mark, a member-owned cooperative that was inspired to action after witnessing its members struggle through yet another year of farm milk prices below their costs of production.

About a dozen proposals addressing the low milk prices were featured during the Aug. 13 meeting. Many of the approaches hinged on an inventory management element to help stabilize prices.

Groups bringing forth or voicing support for proposals included Agri-Mark, Wisconsin Farmers Union, Holstein Association USA, the National Family Farm Coalition, LandStream, Larkin Farm Ration-all Decisions and Organic Pastures Dairy Company.

Wisconsin Farmers Union Government Relations Director Kara O'Connor proposed the Dairy Market Stabilization Act, known by many people as the Holstein program because the Holstein Association got the ball rolling on the program and it had gained a lot of traction leading up to the 2014 Farm Bill. 

"It’s a supply management program that would take a farmer's average over the past three years of production and allow farmers to expand beyond that, but in the first year of any addition of cows or significant expansion, farmers would simply pay a market access fee," O'Connor explained. "That fee would only be in place in the first year and then they would proceed as normal. Whatever fees get paid by those who choose to expand, would get distributed by those who choose not to expand. In other words, it's basically like someone who decides to expand, paying someone else to not do so, in a collective effort to keep the milk supply in balance with demand."

O'Connor said one thing that came through in the meeting was that even though milk prices are challenging for farmers, what's more challenging is instability and not being able to plan for the future. 

"A lot of farmers see appeal in that Holstein plan because it gives a farmer a lot greater ability to plan for the future. It evens out the crazy swings," said O'Connor. "To tame that down would do a lot to improve the economics for dairy farmers."

Yet, O'Connor pointed out to the Wisconsin group, many variations of an inventory management system, would need to come from the federal government, which takes time, and there are other important options the would help farmers in the shorter term that should be evaluated. 

"Part of the value of driving part way across the country is hearing from farmers in other parts of the country" added O'Connor. "One of the things that we learned is that some other states have contracts with security provisions that relate to termination of dairy contracts. We don’t have anything of the sort in Wisconsin. That's something we should look at."

Why they attended

From retired farmers to the next generation of farmers, 20 Wisconsin farmers and farm allies attended the meeting to fight for the future of the dairy industry, the future of their family farms, to push for solutions to the challenges farmers across the country are facing. 

Jerry Volenec, of Montford, went on the trip because "my back is against the wall and I'm going to fight," he said. "I'm going to fight for my neighbors. I'm going to fight for my industry. There really is no option for me at this point, for any of us."

After going to the meeting, Volenec came away encouraged by Governor Scott Walker's Dairy Task Force for possible short term solutions, even though farmers are in "dire trouble right now and programs are going to take time." 

"I want to stress how important relief of some kind right now is, because we’re talking with one foot in the grave," said Volenec. "We don’t have time to wait for an act of congress."

Volenec’s wife Jen said there were a lot of good resources and a lot of people reaching out to help.

“I plan to try to make good use of those resources,” Jen Volenec said. “The point was made that we can’t feed the world if we can’t feed ourselves. It’s like when you’re in an airplane and the oxygen mask comes down – you have to help yourself before you help your child.”

Justin Briggs, 15, of Stratford, has seen how his parents have struggled on their 50 head farm and wanted to help other farmers get fair prices too.

“We need to get something done because there are a lot of farmers who won’t last another year or two in this market,” Briggs said.

Josh Nett, from Fremont, milks about 250 cows. He was upbeat, pointing to the shirts worn by everyone in the group. "It says right on the t-shirts, if we pull together, we can accomplish something. If we get to that point as an industry, I think there will be no stopping where we can take this."

Nett said it helped him to know he's not alone."Sometimes you're on your farm and you think it's just me struggling here, but it's everyone," said Nett.  "I think everyone is ready for change. I think we can really accomplish something here."

Stacey Boettcher, who works on Nett's farm, sees the struggles they go through every day, trying to make ends meet. The more than 380 farms lost in Wisconsin last year is unacceptable to her.

"We have a severe problem with milk pricing and it's basically driving everyone of of their business, out of their livelihood, out of their passion for the land and animals and we need to find a solution for this," Boettcher said. 

A lot of good proposals were submitted, Boettcher added, but they would have to "pick through them" to see what works. "I think everyone banning together for this trip is awesome and I hope we can keep up the energy."

Two organic dairy farmers lost their milk buyers in the past couple of years and decided to help find a solution to the current dairy challenges.

Larry Wilkinson, milks about 120 cows in Loganville. Last year when Grassland Dairy sent notices to some of its farmers, his coop gave notice to Wilkinson the same week that they lost their milk buyer. 

"We were very fortunate to find a new milk buyer, but we've lost a lot of neighboring farms," said Wilkinson. "There aren't many farme left out there and the ones left are really, really struggling. That's why I attended — to try and find a solution."

Paul Adams, of Eleva, an organic dairy farmer with about 500 cows received notice two years ago that "there was so much cheap milk out there, that my marketer no longer needed my milk." He found a market at a significant discount from what he had been getting for his milk.

Although Adams was "pretty depressed" heading into the dairy summit, he discovered "that there were an awful lot of farmers that were in as bad a position as I was." He came back feeling like there is some hope. "Farmers are getting together and it wasn't just farmers ... about 300 people came there with no reason other than they cared," he said. "I finally feel a little bit of hope that we can keep going with this and make something happen."

For Keith Kreager, from Marathon, the biggest thing he came home with was hope. "That's the big one. Hope."

Kreager and his wife, Julianne, went to the meeting because it's not right that farmers don't get paid for the hours they put in, seven days a week, all year long. He went because he "wanted to support all the farmers that couldn't go to the meeting," he said. 

"This is what we needed," said Kreager, "legislators, coops, farmers, all in this together. We don't want to see any more farmers going out." 

Julianne Kreager added, "I just hope with all the farmers that were there and all the different companies or coops or whatever, that we can all pull together and come up with some kind of solution."

After the momentum Kreager witnessed at the meeting, "there is a fire," he said. "These farmers are ready for change and the emotion I got yesterday, they want to do something. All those years and all those past policies that did not work — I think we've got something that could work for everybody and be fair."

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Priorities from the meeting

Key priorities the group came away with included:

  • Immediate measures must be taken to stabilize the dairy markets. WFU backed an updated version of the Dairy Price Stabilization Program but also acknowledges other elements of the proposals presented at the Agri-Mark meeting may be useful to incorporate.
  • Any solution to the dairy crisis will require balancing the dairy supply with collaborative efforts from cooperatives, processors, farmers and other stakeholders.
  • Antitrust regulations must be updated and enforced to address the growing influences of corporate and industrial agriculture, particularly outside and foreign-owned entities.  
  • Safeguards should be put in place to protect dairy farmers against being suddenly dropped from their milk processor without a fair warning period.
  • The dairy industry must work to educate consumers and legislators on the need for fair prices and the importance of family farms for our rural communities. Farmers would prefer fair prices over government handouts.
  • Non-dairy imitator products such as soy or coconut milk and other non-lactate products should be restricted from using the term “milk” in labeling.
  • State and federal policies that encourage dairy farm expansion must be reconsidered and repealed.  
  • Dairy Checkoff funds should be scrupulously managed, with one priority being to restore whole milk in public schools.

The bus trip to Albany was organized by Wisconsin Farmers Union, as part of their ongoing Dairy Together movement. Funding support was provided by FarmAid.

To view all the proposals and provide comments, visit https://dairyproposals2018.com/view-proposals/.

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