WASHINGTON — A coalition of farmers from throughout the country took time away from the farm and field recently to gather for a Dairy Together Fly-In to Washington, D.C. Representing key dairy states and a coalition of farm groups under the umbrella of Dairy Together, the participants advocated for meaningful dairy policy in the next Farm Bill and shared the Dairy Revitalization Plan with their state delegations and members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees. The group included representation from the Farmers Union, Farm Bureau, National Dairy Producers Organization, National Family Farm Coalition and the Organization for Competitive Markets.
The Dairy Revitalization Plan calls for coordinated milk production growth among all dairy producers to stabilize and improve prices. Unlike quota, which is often viewed as overly restrictive, growth management offers a series of incentives to intentionally align milk production growth with demand. The farmer-led plan was developed through a committee process involving members of the Wisconsin Farmers Union (WFU) and Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation (WFBF), convened by the University of Wisconsin Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems. Its impacts were analyzed in a 2021 study, “Analyses of Proposed Alternative Growth Management Programs for the US Dairy Industry,” by University of Wisconsin agricultural economists Charles Nicholson and Mark Stephenson.
Support for the plan has been building and the farmers stressed the need for change in their visits to Capitol Hill. Over the last decade, the USDA recorded the loss of 17,000 dairy farms.
“Something has to change, because we can’t continue down the road we are on, with ongoing farm loss and consolidation of our food supply,” said Westby, WI dairy farmer Darin Von Ruden.
“As farmers, we need to realize that there are so few of us, we can’t take the risk of being divided,” said Jack Herricks, who runs a 600-cow dairy with his family and is president of the Monroe County Farm Bureau. He advocated shoulder-to-shoulder with Farmers Union members, in a show of unity. “My grandson asked me recently ‘Grandpa, do you think the farm is still gonna be in business when I want to farm?’ We’re survivors, but, honestly, I don’t know how much more farmers can take.”
The group noted that the research shows that, had growth management been implemented in the 2014 Farm Bill, it would have increased the market milk price by an average of $1.41/cwt between 2014 and 2021 plus paid dividends of $0.72/cwt for farmers choosing not to expand over program allowable amounts. The plan also reduced the degree of variation in prices by 50 percent. It also could have reduced government expenditures on the Dairy Margin Coverage program by $2.6 billion in that time span, while improving net income on farms of all farm sizes that stayed within allowable growth.
For Herricks, a price swing of even $1/cwt of milk can mean a shift of $120,000 in annual farm income. “In 2020, we saw fluctuations of $9.20/cwt,” he said. “How do you plan your business around those kinds of shifts? We need a plan where we can have some stability in pricing.”
“You can’t deny that small family farms are dying and something needs to be done about it,” said Annie Watson, who milks about 70 cows on her first-generation organic dairy farm near Whitefield, Maine. Only 170 dairy herds remain in her state.
Cambridge, WI dairy farmers Tina and Duane Hinchley highlighted the need to stabilize dairy prices so there is a future for the next generation. They recently invested in robotic milkers on the farm and are transitioning the operation to include their daughter, Anna, but it has been a struggle amidst volatile markets and unpredictable prices. “Everybody else is asking for a minimum living wage. It’s time farmers ask for one,” Tina said.
“We’re very excited about the Dairy Revitalization Plan,” said Deborah Mills, who runs a 280-cow dairy near Lake City, Minnesota. “It’s an important step forward in managing industry growth.”
The group stressed it is also a matter of food security.
“We’ve already seen what happens when consolidation hits our agricultural system; we saw it in poultry and in hogs,” pointed out John Larsen, who joined the fly-in as a representative of the National Dairy Producers Organization and Minnesota Farmers Union. “It works until the day it doesn’t, as we witnessed with supply chain struggles during the pandemic.”
“The Dairy Revitalization Plan creates resiliency not just in the food system but for farmers,” said Antonio Tovar, Senior Policy Associate for the National Family Farm Coalition.
“This plan has the research to back it up, and it allows for growth, but intentionally, and in a way that allows for adjustment along with market needs,” said Karyn Schauf.
WFU Communications Director Danielle Endvick highlighted the urgency behind the movement, noting that over 7,500 dairy farms have gone out of business since the 2018 Farm Bill was adopted. “Few of us out in farm country have been untouched by this crisis,” Endvick said. “Many of us have watched friends and family sell out, and we’ve seen the ripple effects in our communities. We need smart dairy policy in this Farm Bill; we can’t wait another four years.”
Mike Eby, president of the Organization for Competitive Markets, sold his dairy herd six years ago, despite having a son who wanted to go into farming. “It’s a shame to see multigenerational farms have to make that decision, but I see everyday how many farms are exiting,” Eby said. “If we want a viable industry for the next generation, we need to make some changes, and it’s powerful to see like-minded organizations throwing their weight behind this.”
Delegates to Holstein USA’s recent convention also voted for the organization’s support of the effort.
The fly-in delegation included Paul Adams, Eleva, WI; Mike Eby, Gordonville, PA; Patty Edelburg, Scandinavia, WI; Danielle Endvick, Holcombe, WI; Jack Herricks, Cashton, WI; Tina and Duane Hinchley, Cambridge, WI; John Larsen, Mantorville, MN; Sarah Lloyd, Wisconsin Dells, WI; Deborah Mills, Lake City, MN; Michelle Ramirez-White, Madison, WI; Karyn Schauf, Barron, WI; Antonio Tovar, Washington, D.C.; Darin Von Ruden, Westby, WI; Annie Watson, Whitefield, Maine. A delegation from California also participated in virtual meetings with their representatives.
“What is exciting about Dairy Together is the variety of groups in the room,” National Farmers Union President Rob Larew said. “I’ve been in the milking parlor, in back rooms drafting farm bills, and now in this role with Farmers Union working on the advocacy side, and I can tell you, that unity is key.”
Larew also stressed the importance of farmers stepping up. “Your stories matter,” he said. “It is irreplaceable when farmers take the time and commit to telling their stories up on Capitol Hill.”
“Dairy Together farmers had some fruitful conversations and built relationships with a number of lawmakers who will be writing the next Farm Bill,” said Dairy Together Organizer Bobbi Wilson. “This plan has the potential to improve profitability across the board, for farms of all sizes, and these conversations are helping to move the dairy industry in a positive direction.”
— Wisconsin Farmers Union