It appears irascible U.S. House of Representatives Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., can suddenly feel the pain of America's dairy farmers. As a result, Peterson favors fast tracking a controversial proposed dairy bill authored by the National Milk Producers Federation, entitled Foundations for the Future, through Congress.
Peterson states: "If we get another deal like we did back in '09 we're going to lose half our dairymen and we're never going to get them back, so I don't think it's an option to wait."
This is a complete reversal from Peterson's 2009 dairy policy position, callously outlined at Canandiagua on Sept. 2, 2009, at the zenith of the milk price crisis.
Peterson, then Ag. Committee chairman, refused to engage in what had been billed as a town hall meeting and insisted on only dealing with written questions slavishly collected and pre-screened by officials from the N.Y. Farm Bureau. No follow-up questions were taken.
He arrogantly informed desperate New York dairymen they could expect no help from "MY committee" until the drafting of the 2012 Farm Bill. Obviously, under then Chairman Peterson's leadership, waiting was more than an option for U.S. dairymen - it was a settled fact.
Regardless of Peterson's endorsement, the National Milk Producers Federation's claim that it represents the opinion of 80 percent of U.S. dairymen is beyond fiction. While a majority of U.S. dairymen ship milk to co-operatives that are members, many are forced to this because the vertical integration of U.S milk co-operatives leaves them no other marketing option. Co-operative membership in the federation is a decision taken at the executive level and as such represents the view of senior management rather than the opinion of the co-op's member farmers.
Foundations for the Future is designed as a U.S. government subsidized milk price insurance program. When triggered, this scheme will theoretically drag dairy farm profit margins back into the black. Taxpayer cash will supply the traction. It also contains a modest supply management proposal.
As this horror might improve the farm price, it tenders howls of outrage and gnashing of teeth from the International Dairy Foods Association. As the milk processors' lobby, the association's principal mission is promoting the processing industry's ready access to ruinously cheap farm milk.
Peterson castigates the processors, stating their opposition is wrong headed.
"They are getting three-fourths of what they've been looking for," scolds Peterson. "When you get three-fourths of what you have been trying to get (from Congress) for 10 years, you should declare victory."
Here Peterson may have said more than he intended. Any legislation that results in the processors getting three-fourths of their agenda must be seen as a threat to the well being of every U.S. dairy farm family. Clearly, dairymen should carefully consider just exactly where the producers' federation and Peterson's true loyalties lay. In this light alone, these players' motivations should be held highly suspect.
Most U.S. dairymen would suggest the producers' federation's initiative bodes nothing short of a new pain in their overworked posteriors. What they can imagine it delivering is a newly minted management headache: more bureaucracy, paperwork and regulations. Overall, the bill is seen as a solution crafted for large factory farms rather than traditional dairy farms. Because it is an insurance scheme, it will run contrary to the religious beliefs of dairymen of "plain faith." As such, Amish and Mennonite dairymen will not subscribe.
Absurdly, the initiative does not even attempt to remedy the underlying problem: a broken milk price discovery formula. U.S. dairymen see the current price system as lacking transparency, easily and blatantly manipulated and unworthy of their trust. They see no way the system can be corrected; they call for it to be scrapped and replaced with a system that will deliver a fair and equitable value to farm milk.
Reform of the milk price formula should be the proper focus in drafting the dairy portion of the 2012 Farm Bill. Dairy farm families have suffered grievously over these last three miserable years; the long awaited 2012 Farm Bill is now giving them a rare shot at a bonafide solution. That just goal must not be derailed by questionable political motives attempting to stampede this flawed and inappropriate Foundations for the Future Dairy Bill through Congress.
Perhaps at the bottom of Peterson's motivation is a pathetic need to cling to the debris of his former glory as House Ag. Committee chairman, a post lost as a result of the 2010 election. No matter. In 2009, the darkest days of the price crisis, Peterson was Ag. Committee chairman. At that time, he did not give a rat's backside about the plight of U.S. dairy farmers - and all but said as much. Now he pontificates, "If we have another downturn in prices we don't have a safety net that works in dairy."
While they may not have a safety net today, dairymen know with certainty they did not have one under Peterson's leadership in 2009, either. The situation today, bad as it is, is less dire than 2009. Now Peterson shrills that something must be done?
Forget fast tracking this taxpayer funded insurance scheme. Keep the U.S. taxpayer out of this - solve the problem. Fashion U.S. dairymen a price formula that delivers a sustainable price for their milk.
Nate Wilson lives in Sinclairville.