By DARRIN YOUKER
TEMPLE, Pa. — Rocked by a year of historically low milk prices, beleaguered dairy farmers are taking their case to Washington to seek changes in how the price of milk is set.
Dairy farmers from Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio have started a federal lobbying effort to call for changes in the milk pricing system and demand that the USDA enact provisions in the farm bill that will help farmers.
So far, hundreds of dairy farmers across the three states have joined the effort, which coalesced in November after a series of farmer meetings across Pennsylvania.
Wolff, who now works for the Harrisburg-based lobbying group Versant Strategies, has already begun his work in Washington.
Want to be heard
Ultimately, farmers want to have a voice in how milk is priced, said Daniel Brandt, a Lebanon County dairy farmer and vice president of the DPAC.
“There are a number of corrections that need to be made to the pricing system,” Brandt said. “We had our worst profit year while some processors were having their best year ever. Farmers were taking it on the chin.”
Unlike other farm organizations, DPAC is focused exclusively on advocating for a change in milk pricing, said DPAC president Clifford Hawbaker, a Franklin County dairy farmer who hopes the political action committee will only exist for three to five years.
After the milk pricing system is changed, DPAC can dissolve, he said.
Open to farmers
DPAC is governed by a 20-member board of directors, and membership is open to any farmer that sells milk, Hawbaker said. Businesses, however, have provided financial support to the organization, he said.
“We are not trying to compete with any other farm organization,” he said. “We are organized for one purpose.”
Hiring Versant Strategies and a journalist to perform secretarial duties is costing more than $5,000 a month, Brandt said. Still, having someone with Wolff’s background lobbying in Washington is crucial to getting change, he added.
“You can put someone out there with a pedigree,” he said. “He was a former secretary and former dairy farmer. He knows what it means to live through a milk check.”
DPAC has identified a two-part strategy, Wolff said.
First, is for the USDA to implement two provisions in the current farm bill that have not been rolled out, Wolff said.
The current farm bill calls for electronic reporting of dairy stockpiles and powdered milk, Wolff said. DPAC is asking the USDA to put those provisions into affect, because any delay in reporting affects market prices, he said.
“Right now, there is not a good system in place to determine what the price should be,” he said. “They are not electronic, they are not timely and they do not give a good indication of what way the market is going.”
Eliminate price support
Secondly, DPAC would like to see federal lawmakers adopt laws that would do away with the price support program, Wolff said.
Eliminating that program, where the federal government buys excess supplies when the price drops below a certain point, would encourage producers to find new products for milk, he said.
Also, dairy farmers would like to see the elimination of the four-tiered milk classification system and instead have a two-class system, Wolff said.
All of those changes will help dairy farmers have a better understanding of the pricing system and return fairness and equity to the market, he added.
“It really gets back to looking at the system we have in place,” Wolff said. “All farmers can agree that the current system is not working.”
While there are several bills before federal lawmakers dealing with milk pricing, DPAC is not lobbying on any one bill, Wolff said.
“We have a specific bullet approach, not a shotgun approach.”
Even with farmers facing limited profit margins and tough times, Pennsylvania farmers felt it was necessary to organize and make their voices heard, Hawbaker said.
While much of the effort to organize farmers was started in Pennsylvania it is spreading to neighboring states, Hawbaker said. He hopes farmers across the nation will join them in their efforts.
“It all stemmed from a number of farmers across the state asking questions about how milk is priced,” he said. “There is no transparency.”