Could you take a 30 percent cut in pay? Dairy farmers have taken that cut, or more, but still work hard to put wholesome food on our tables. The dairy crisis is real, not only in Wisconsin but across the U.S. If you eat, you have a connection to this crisis. Milk prices are very low, making our dairy farmers face things such as not being able to pay the mortgage, pay monthly bills or even feed their own families. That pay price has been declining for four years, and economists are predicting another two years in this cycle.
Meanwhile, the cost of production keeps rising. Input does not match output on the farm. The same is true for dairy inventories, which far exceed demand and contribute to the low milk prices. It comes down to supply and demand. As a former dairy farmer — and one who hopes to see the next generation on my family farm succeed — I believe dairy farmers need to reduce production in order to improve the price received.
The government has a huge inventory of cheese and butter in storage. Why can’t the government give away this surplus to schools, needy families or the general population? This would be a process, but it is a crucial step if we are going to balance our supply with demand. Long term, a plan to control production should be implemented. I support some type of plan to ensure that farm families can stay on the farm, and one that will interest young people to work for their ownership of the land too.
On Aug. 13, Agri-Mark Co-op hosted the Dairy Summit 2018 in Albany, N.Y. More than 300 dairy farmers and other industry stakeholders came from across the U.S. and Canada. Dale and I were among a group of 20 farmers and farm allies who traveled to the meeting. Clad in “Pull Together” shirts, we boarded a bus in Madison and picked up more farmers in Fremont, Ind., and Cleveland, Ohio, all who were eager to work toward solutions for our fellow dairy farmers.
Among the meeting presenters were lawyers who talked about lessons from other commodities and economists who shared supply management practices with those commodities. An overview of Canada’s “tried and true” quota system was presented by a board member of Dairy Farmers of Ontario. This system took many years to implement, but very stable prices afford Canadian dairy farmers the ability to pay their bills, feed their families and have the next generation join their operations. Nearly a dozen proposals to address the dairy crisis were presented, including one from California, one from the Holstein Association and one from Wisconsin Farmers Union. All of them have wording regarding supply management, quotas or base plans.
Several approaches encouraged by farmer registrants included bringing whole milk back to school lunch programs. We heard two students say they cannot stomach the taste of 1 percent or skim milk and instead put chocolate milk on their cereal, as that is at least a 2 percent product.
The Dairy Pride Act, which was also discussed, would force nut growers to rename their product. Trees do not lactate, so why should “milk” be a part of their product name?
We are in danger of losing many more family farmers. We lost 500 dairy herds last year, just in Wisconsin. Several farmers who we heard from stated they may have no choice but to sell out, and more of them stated that their wives, who often are an integral part of the farm labor, are taking another job in order to make ends meet.
Any efforts moving forward will take a lot of discussion, a lot of education, legislation and the willingness to work together. We need the lenders, religious leaders, cooperatives, processors and legislators to give input and assist with this movement. When farmers do well, so do their small towns, communities and their families.
I encourage you to visit http://www.dairytogether.com to learn about efforts underway here in Wisconsin and across the Midwest to rebuild a viable dairy economy. This website will allow you to view filming of recent Dairy Together meetings with the Canadians. You can view the proposals from the Agri-Mark meeting at http://www.dairyproposals2018.com.
The 18-hour journey to New York gave all of us Dairy Together farmers a chance to get to know one another quite well. Thank you to Wisconsin Farmers Union for organizing the trip, to Farm Aid for their generous contribution toward travel expenses and to the media, who met with us at our final stop at WFU director Tina Hinchley’s farm in Cambridge.
I have faith that, together, we can “Pull Together” and change the course of the dairy industry, ensuring family farms are still on the land for future generations.
Dorothea Von Ruden is a former dairy farmer from Westby.