Capital Press: Congress calls for dairy assistance

Congress calls for dairy assistance

Carol Ryan Dumas

Capital Press

Published on August 1, 2016 11:26AM

At the urging of dairy farmers across the country, 61 members of Congress — including several from California, Washington and Oregon — are calling on Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to do whatever he can to provide relief for struggling producers.

Led by Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., and Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., the bipartisan coalition from both chambers sent a letter to Vilsack on Thursday asking for assistance for dairy producers grappling with declining milk prices.

Dairy farmers have been hard-hit by milk prices that have dropped 40 percent since 2014, sharply reducing their incomes and putting the industry in an “extremely vulnerable position,” the members of Congress stated in the letter.

Specifically, they are asking for the USDA to use its authority under the Commodity Credit Corporation Charter Act to expand and maintain U.S. domestic markets to immediately support U.S. dairy farmers directly and equally.

Members of Congress are asking Vilsack to consider using every tool and authority at his disposal to help struggling dairy farmers, said David Carle, spokesman for Leahy.

“In the past, USDA has addressed economic setbacks in the dairy industry by purchasing surpluses and making donations to low-income families, and that is certainly one option that the secretary has,” he said.

“We have also seen the secretary provide meaningful, timely and targeted assistance to farmers by helping to offset some of their costs and to facilitate marketing,” he said.

The letter pointed to the increase in global milk production, a glut of dairy imports, challenges to exports and poor economic growth as factors in the decline in milk prices, which for many are below cost of production, they said.

California dairy operators, who have continued to face mounting losses since late 2014, are acutely aware of failing margins, said Lynne McBride, executive director of the California Dairy Campaign.

The state’s dairy operators receive some of the lowest mailbox prices in the country, currently almost $5 per hundredweight below the average cost of production, she said.

“We continue to see dairies close across our state at an alarming rate,” she said.

The Margin Protection Program enacted in the last farm bill is not an effective safety net, she said. California dairymen were skeptical from the beginning because the national milk and feed prices used to calculate insured margins don’t reflect the state’s lower milk prices and higher feed costs, she said.

“Dairy farmers in California have lost any confidence this program provides any protection or relief,” she said.

While the Dairy Campaign will continue to push for reform of the program, it is critical that immediate relief come in the form of direct funding to dairy farmers. The organization is also calling for the reimbursement of dairymen’s insurance premiums for additional coverage, as the program didn’t provide any amount of relief, she said.

National Milk Producers Federation and National Farmers Union are also calling for assistance and have been involved with legislators leading the effort.