Dairy Crisis Demands Radical New Thinking
May 26, 2009
By Jim Dickrell
"You don’t ever want a crisis to go to waste; it’s an opportunity to do important things that you would otherwise avoid.” –Rahm Emanuel, Obama White House Chief of Staff.
Emanuel’s words on the U.S. financial crisis apply equally as well to the crisis in the dairy industry.
Everyone in this industry knows what a mess we’re in. But from where I sit, it seems that producers who are struggling—and failing—to meet cash flow are the only ones with a real sense of urgency. It took months to organize the 7th round of the Cooperatives Working Together herd buyout. It’ll be June before significant numbers of those cows start heading to market.
And it was only two weeks ago when the National Milk Producers Federation announced the formation of a Task Force to address the national dairy crisis. The Task Force won’t even be organized until the NMPF Board meeting June 10 and won’t have its first meeting until after that. That will be a full six months after the 2009 Dairy Forum in Florida, where speaker after speaker laid out the crisis the industry is now facing.
In the absence of action, numerous grass roots efforts have bubbled up. First, there’s the Specter/Casey bill , which dairy lobbyists dismiss as too radical and too cumbersome—and perhaps, a little too goofy—to have much traction. It would require USDA to collect cost-of-production data from the across the country, and then set minimum manufacturing prices at $17 or $18/cwt.
It would collapse all Class II, III and IV milk into a single manufacturing class, and require California to become part of the Federal Order system. It also advocates supply control, though it’s hard to envision how the proposed control mechanism would prevent the build up of mountains for surplus powder and cheese.
Another proposal, the Dairy Price Stabilization Program, advocated by Holstein USA and California’s Milk Producer Council, would assign production bases to every dairy farm in the country. Those wishing to expand would be required to pay a “market access fee” of $2 to $3/cwt on all milk marketed for the next four quarters following expansion. New dairy producers will also have the market access fee assessed for their first year of operation.
This plan would certainly put the breaks on expansion, but is hugely bureaucratic and doesn’t begin to address a whole host of other problems facing the industry.
And then there are those who simply want to dump milk to immediately reduce surpluses. These efforts are born out of pure frustration; they have the “feel good” aspect of at least doing something immediate. But long term...
The problems we’re facing in the current crisis were set up by years of benign neglect by both producers and processors. There’s lots of blame to go around. Yet, in the meantime, we’re eating our own and failing to address fundamental problems:
- Wild price volatility and a safety net gap of $5 or $6 or more between average cost of production and the dairy price support of $9.90.
- A Federal Order system that is so complex and cumbersome that it is impossible to reform in any meaningful way.
- Standards of dairy product identify that are so restraining that we give up any hope of innovation and increased market share outside of traditional product categories.
- A take-it-while-we-can-get-it attitude toward exports, and a failure to recognize the immense potential that lies in overseas markets if we’re only willing to seriously pay the price to realize those opportunities.
Last week, USDA announced the June Class I price for 3.5% milk at $10.08/cwt. Friends, that’s the Class I price!
Rahm Emanuel is right: Never let a crisis go to waste. What are we waiting for?
—Jim Dickrell is editor of Dairy Today. You can reach him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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