WASHINGTON, DC — Dairy farmers across New York and Pennsylvania are once again looking for some leadership in addressing the structural problems facing the waning dairy industry here. But will they get it?
Statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture now show that in 2009, dairy farmers across the nation lost $17.7 billion. Over the last four years, 25 percent of dairy farms throughout the nation went belly-up.
Is the small family dairy farm an endangered species?
In the United States, the farm bill is the primary agricultural and food policy tool of the federal government. The comprehensive omnibus bill is passed every five years or so by the United States Congress and deals with both agriculture and all other affairs under the purview of the United States Department of Agriculture.
It sets policies that govern a broad array of programs, from crop support to conservation and from flood assistance to forestry.
The farm bill makes up only about 2% of federal funding, but every American benefits from its provisions. The largest percentage of funds is spent on nutrition programs such as food stamps, which make up nearly 80% of the bill’s spending.
One local agricultural expert, Arden Tewksbury of the Progressive Agriculture Organization (ProAM) in Meshoppen, PA, who favors Senator Bob Casey’s legislation, Senate Bill 1640, complains that “interest in the dairy farmers’ cost of production soars while Congress waffles.”
At issue is that the farmers’ cost of production is not a factor in determining what price farmers get for their product. However, the Senate version of the farm bill does include an unpopular insurance program that will be funded by the government. “The Senate Agriculture Committee once more refused to consider any cost of production bills that were submitted to Congress,” Tewksbury said.
The inclusion of the cost of production is the hallmark of legislation introduced by Casey. But, so far, Casey has not been able to enlist the support of other senators, including his Republican colleague, Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.
Recently, Toomey was quoted as saying that he had no knowledge of the legislation.
Just last week, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) voted against the bill in committee for two reasons: first, that the bill cut too drastically food stamps for poor families and, second, because of the lack of strong provisions for dairy farmers.
“Senator Gillibrand had the courage to vote against the farm bill,” Tewksbury said. “The senator probably has several problems with it, but certainly the cuts in the feeding programs for the needy along with the Senate Agriculture Committee not resolving the dilemma facing dairy farmers were her two main reasons in opposing the bill. It takes a lot of courage to vote against your party’s leadership.”
Gillibrand is currently out of the country but her staff person, Bethany Lesser, confirmed her negative vote.
But is a solution likely?
“The answer to us is very simple,” Tewksbury said. “There has to be a new raw milk pricing system that gives dairy farmers a chance to cover their costs and give the dairymen an opportunity to obtain a profit,” he said. “I don’t see any proposal that’s going to give our dairy farmers the price they need except S-1640, the Federal Milk Marketing Improvement Act. Remember, S-1640 combines all manufactured milk into one class at the same price. Some ask: will S-1640 establish too high a price for manufactured milk? The answer is no.”
Is Tewksbury a voice crying in the wilderness? Despite numerous rejections, he never seems to give up.