Money for dairy innovation could help farmers, processors weather tough markets
During a visit to a Westby creamery on Monday, Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin said she's hopeful the Senate will approve an $18 million increase for the Dairy Business Innovation Initiative.
The proposal could help the dairy farmers and the industry throughout the state.
Pete Kondrup, general manager of Westby Cooperative Creamery, said the creamery has been developing their new yogurt dispensers for around four years. Similar in design to milk dispensers, the machines pour yogurt at the touch of a button. Kondrup said they've been working to market the novel dairy product to local school districts and hotel chains.
"Anything we can do to increase sales helps our business, helps our farmers. When we're able to do value-added products, we can pay farmers a little bit more for their milk," Kondrup said.
Kondrup showed off one of the new yogurt dispensers to Baldwin during her visit. The senator was there to talk with local and state leaders in the dairy industry about new money for the Dairy Business Innovation Initiative, a program she authored in the 2018 farm bill.
The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee recently approved a bill that would increase funding for the program from the current $2 million to $20 million.
"It will help to address the oversupply of milk by providing resources to help dairy farmers and cheesemakers develop new products, new processes and expand their markets," Baldwin said.
Last month, the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Dairy Research and the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association were selected to host one of three initiative sites. The group received $454,392 to provide grants and workshops to producers and processors in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota and Illinois.
Rebekah Sweeney, the communications, education and policy director for the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, said the group hopes to get the program up and running quickly.
"We know that the industry has lots of great ideas, they could just use a little support to make it happen. So, we think that this will have a fairly quick impact in the marketplace," Sweeney said.
Kondrup said Westby Cooperative Creamery plans to apply for the program to help market their new yogurt dispensers. He said the creamery has benefitted from a similar grant from the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Kondrup said the support is needed to help keep small dairy farmers and processors in business.
"It's very important that we continue to keep the small farms going, keep them in business, because I think that's the identity that Wisconsin has," Kondrup said.
Baldwin and other dairy leaders in the state have defended that identity in the last week after U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue made a comment at the World Dairy Expo suggesting that small farms needed to get bigger to stay in business. Baldwin said she was shocked by Perdue's comment.
"It, to me, demonstrated a lack of understanding of what makes us so unique and I think the diversity of the dairy industry also keeps us strong. We've never had a cookie-cutter industry," Baldwin said. "I don't believe that we need to have a 'one size fits all.' But it does mean that we have to think creatively and support our dairy farmers as they strategize about how to address issues like the oversupply issue."
Wisconsin Farmers Union President Darin Von Ruden said he was more frustrated by Perdue's lack of support for exploring ways to use supply management.
"We've got a movement going now in this country where dairy farmers are asking for (supply management) and for him to not understand that or see that is really disheartening," Von Ruden said.
Von Ruden said he was happy to hear new money could be allocated to the Dairy Business Innovation Initiative. But he cautioned that innovation, whether at the farm or on market shelves, takes time.
"These grants that are coming out are going to have some short term effects for farmers and processors in terms of them getting new products out there. But in the long run, it's going to take longer before that price actually comes back to the farmgate level," Von Ruden said.
Baldwin said she recognizes that the benefits of innovating new products often happen long term. But she said she's confident the program will help farmers and processors find ways to save money in the short term as an oversupply of milk continues to weigh down prices.
Original article reprinted with permission by Wisconsin Public Radio