Sen. Baldwin makes guest appearance at Dairy Day at the Capitol

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin

Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin made a guest speech and participated in a short Q&A with Dairy Business Association's Dairy Day at the Capitol Apr. 14.

The senator, who was recently selected as chairwoman of the Senate Ag Appropriations subcommittee, is also the primary sponsor of the Dairy Pride Act that supports federal regulation of non-dairy product labeling. She said she plans to reintroduce the bill to the Senate floor very soon that will reinforce labeling laws that have already existed but are ignored.

"I'm going to make sure in my role as chair of the agricultural, rural development and FDA subcommittee of appropriations that this issue remains high on our agenda and that we continue to press," Baldwin said. "These fake products are using dairy's good name to market themselves – almond milk, soy milk, other things. Use of the term when it's part of our law, and not meeting the standards that the terms imply, actually violates the law."

Baldwin said she's also working across the aisle with her Republican colleagues to advance rural development and Food and Drug Administration initiatives, especially regarding dairy-free product labeling. She said she's also been working on more economic relief for farmers during the COVID-19 economic crisis, including helping them get better loans from the Paycheck Protection Program.

PPP loans were originally calculated with net profits, but after a Wisconsin couple received a mere $80 check from the Small Business Administration that was based on 2019 tax returns, Baldwin, along with Sen. John Thune (R-SD), helped change the rule to include gross profits to help farmers get more back, and they plan on co-introducing a bill to mandate change.

"We know that many family farms don't have a payroll because it's really the members of the family who work the farm. We also know that 2019 was a very hard year for various sectors of our agricultural economy," Baldwin said. "Administratively, we've seen a lot of pushback and resistance, so ... John Thune and I are introducing a bill to really mandate that (the SBA) figure this out."

In this file photo, Sen. Tammy Baldwin speaks with a Wisconsin dairy farmer.

Baldwin added that she's been working hard to continue investing in the Dairy Business Innovation Program, which was originally a part of the 2018 Farm Bill and is expected to continue being on the table for future farm bills. She said Wisconsin needs more innovation to help farmers recover from slim net profits and create more value-added product.

On the dairy mislabeling front, Baldwin claimed federally-protected dairy terms are being "hijacked" by manufacturers of dairy-free products like almond and soy milk. She said she's working hard to get the FDA to do something about it because those products don't have to hold themselves to the same standards that dairy producers do in terms of nutrition and identity.

"Dairy was one of the first industries to have standards written into federal law, and those are standards that our dairy farmers work very hard every day to make sure they're meeting," Baldwin said. "There's also a concern that consumers are not necessarily aware that they don't have to meet the same nutritional standards, ... so we just want FDA to do its job."

Legislation on this issue has commonly found bipartisan support in the Wisconsin legislature and Baldwin said it's also gained bipartisan support in Congress. She added that dairy producers have taken economic hits from non-dairy products marketing themselves as "milk," "cheese" and other dairy terms while not actually being made of dairy. She also said consumers have been confused about the nutritional value of those products compared to real dairy.

However, Baldwin was unsure about the path forward regarding immigration reform, especially when it comes to ag workforce regulations – only 65% of the national ag workforce are US citizens, according to the US Department of Agriculture. She explained that she believes comprehensive reform is unlikely, and instead the various issues within the realm of immigration will likely be dealt with using individual bills.

"I try to look at my crystal ball and figure out what track that's going to take. I wouldn't be surprised if the Senate does decide to take up a few discrete pieces of legislation," Baldwin said. "There's also a very full agenda of issues beyond immigration that is going to take the attention of the Senate right now, so, I'm trying to look at my crystal ball and tell you what the future holds."