MOUNT HOPE, Ohio – Pete Hardin has spent a lifetime on the fringe, using his independent monthly newspaper to present an alternative dairy industry viewpoint.
But his words attract many milk producers, including the 300 dairymen who filled the Mount Hope Auction Barn May 21 to hear the Wisconsin publisher.
With occasional muffled cattle bellows punctuating his comments, Hardin spoke on milk pricing for nearly 70 minutes. He then fielded questions for another hour from the crowd, which included more than 200 Amish and Mennonite farmers.
Comments and questions illustrated the producers’ high level of frustration. Farmers’ prices have bounced below $9.90 per hundredweight, the minimum level established by Congress for the dairy price support program.
Not getting fair share. Hardin said a major source of that frustration for farmers, and not just dairy farmers, is a declining share of the food dollar spent at the supermarket.
“The farmers gets only 25 or 26 cents of the consumer’s dollar spent on milk and butter at the supermarket,” Hardin claimed. And this is at a time when the farm milk price is the lowest in 25 years.
“The farmer’s fair share is simply not there,” he said, adding that if something isn’t done soon, “we’ll kiss a good part of this country’s livestock production goodbye.”
“It’s too much profit on one side of the table to be healthy.”
Hardin said the farm price problems go well beyond the farm family paycheck.
Farm assets and the value of a farmer’s labor, time and skills are being devalued. “Who will be left to buy your farm?” Hardin asked.
“The communities are suffering and the nation’s security and economy is suffering.”
No surplus. Hardin hammered home his idea that there is no surplus of milk being produced in the United States.
“There is no milk surplus in the United States,” he stressed. “That is a myth. That is a lie.”
The downward pressure on milk prices is not domestically driven, but is coming from imports, Hardin said.
“Farm commodity after farm commodity is seeing its price structure shattered by imports,” he said.
He passed around a bottle of milk that was purchased on a supermarket shelf in New York, imported from a Russian dairy. Hardin also showed a six-pack carton of drinkable yogurt imported from Strauss Dairy in Israel.
“Imports are killing us,” he said. “They’re not enforcing the laws.”
Getting good numbers out of the federal government as to what’s coming across the border is nearly impossible, Hardin said.
“I don’t think the bean counters know what’s coming in.”
Broke MPC story. Hardin’s publication, The Milkweed, helped spread the news on the level of milk protein concentrate, or MPC, imported tariff-free into the country.
These milk protein imports are displacing domestically produced nonfat dry milk powder in the manufacture of U.S. cheese and other foods, taking about $150 million in income per year out of dairymen’s pockets between 1994 and 2000, according to the National Milk Producers Federation.
It is largely because of Hardin and his publication that the MPC issue is on the industry’s radar screen. Identical bills in the U.S. House and Senate now seek to impose tariff-rate quotas on MPC imports.
Manipulating the system. Hardin hinted the current dairy situation is a result of direct manipulation by large cooperatives and food companies, even going so far as to call it a “conspiracy.”
“I think it is intentional,” Hardin said. “We are viewed as expendable, which I think is disgusting, immoral and wrong.”
Watch this one. Hardin is also keeping a watchful eye on the Food and Drug Administration and efforts by major food companies and importers of food ingredients to change the legal definition of milk and milk products.
“They want to ‘dumb down’ the ingredients in our dairy products,” Hardin said of the effort to remove or change standards on certain manufactured dairy products.
Two quick solutions. Although Hardin expects a short-term turnaround in milk prices this summer, he listed two things dairymen could do immediately to impact the milk supply and milk prices.
First, he encouraged producers to stop using Monsanto’s Posilac product, or bST. He estimates that 4 percent of U.S. milk production is directly attributable to bST.
Second, Hardin recommends dairymen stop buying milk replacer and use cow’s milk to feed their calves.
Look to Lancaster. Hardin also encouraged Ohio milk producers to talk to organizers of Lanco, a Lancaster County, Pa.-based marketing co-op formed by Amish dairy farmers.
Started by a group of about three dozen producers, the co-op now has between 700 and 800 members.
“It’s a model folks should emulate,” Hardin said.
He also said there are opportunities out there for smaller startup cheese or yogurt companies.
“If you’re in the dairy industry, you better have a Plan B.”
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