Dairy Task Force 2.0 making headway

Jan Shepel
Mark Stephenson, director of dairy policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, talked to Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection citizen policy board members on Nov. 15. He is pictured here talking about the Farm Bill during World Dairy Expo on Oct. 15, 2018.

MADISON -  A task force aimed at finding solutions to aid the state’s dairy industry – the Dairy Task Force 2.0 – has a tougher task than its predecessor task force in the mid-1980s, says the dairy economist who is leading the effort; and there are many more issues to address this time around.

During a meeting of the citizen policy board of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, Mark Stephenson, director of dairy policy analysis with the UW’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, noted that the first task force was given a mission to prop up dairy production – on farms and in processing plants.

“I won’t say the industry was in free-fall then, but there was a decline in milk production and that first task force was asked to focus on how to solve that problem,” he said. “This time around, there are lots of issues.” He spoke to DATCP board members at their monthly meeting in Madison on Nov. 15.

Mark Stephenson, director of dairy policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, discussed the Farm Bill and how it will help or hurt producers during a seminar at World Dairy Expo on Oct. 5 in Madison.

The 31-member committee includes 14 dairy farmers from different regions of the state and from different farm organizations, nine members representing processors and eight members from allied organizations including dairy supply businesses, veterinarians, milk haulers and lending institutions.

The group was recommended by Gov. Scott Walker in June and by Aug. 13 the members had been named and held their first meeting. At that meeting, in Madison, a facilitator was on hand to help the group define the many issues that were considered by the task force to be critical to the industry. Members identified a wide range of 130 issues and aggregated them to 12 subject areas. Then those concerns were refined further to arrive at nine topic areas to be tackled by sub-committees, Stephenson explained.

At the top of the list of importance or highest urgency were product and process innovation – new products to boost the industry -- and regulatory certainty. “The members weren’t saying that there were too many rules, but were saying that the industry wasn’t as certain of them as they needed to be,” he said.

Ranking third was the concern about rural communities. “With economies of scale there is the fear that, as we continue to see consolidation, there aren’t going to be enough farms to support rural communities.” Next in importance was the area of markets and market access – an important topic that was driven home when farmers lost the market for their milk and were hard-pressed to find another processor that would take their milk.

The volatility of milk prices was the next topic to be tackled by a sub-committee followed by consumer confidence and perceptions of dairy products.

Ranking seventh was the education of an agricultural workforce and management issues (time and money) for dairy operators. The list was rounded out by access to capital for farms and processors and next generation issues of farm transitions and transfers. For each of the topic areas, he said, a sub-committee has been formed and all of them have met.

“A few of them have already come up with policy suggestions,” Stephenson said. On Dec. 13, the task force as a whole will meet again and after New Year’s, each of the sub-committees will meet again. “Some may be able to declare their work done after that second meeting.”

During the 1980s time frame of that first task force, farms were exploring economies of scale that didn’t exist here in Wisconsin, Stephenson said. Also at that time processors in the state were primarily focused on the production of commodity-type products. “There was not a lot of artisan cheese production at that time.”

Both of those areas were focused on by that original task force and resulted in a renewal of the state’s dairy industry – more milk production and an explosion in production of artisan cheese.

Stephenson said that in this era, the committee may come up with state level solutions that would require legislation or action by the government. That’s one of the reasons the group includes ex-officio members who are lawmakers.

“One of the things the task force is looking at is who our potential customers are internationally and what products they may be interested in. Access to capital for processors may be a hindrance in that area,” he said. “Also our dairy industry isn’t close to either ocean and that is being addressed.”

Stephenson told board members that the group is also looking at federal issues like price discovery for milk and at things that may moderate price fluctuations like dairy trading issues.

“Solutions in those areas can’t be done by this committee or by the state of Wisconsin. Federal order changes would have to go through federal order hearings, for example. But I will tell you this, the task force is being watched by organizations all over the country and they want to see what ideas are coming forward from it,” he said.

Board chair and dairy farmer Miranda Leis said she hopes the committee can work fast. “It feels like it’s deteriorating fast,” she said of the state’s dairy industry.

“It’s a difficult time,” Stephenson agreed.