Pa. Dairy Future Commission lays out fixes for state’s dairy industry

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jersey dairy cows eating
Jersey heifers eat at a farm in Mercer County, Pennsylvania. (Farm and Dairy file photo)

There is no silver bullet to fix the dairy industry’s numerous problems, but the Pennsylvania Dairy Future Commission has a few ideas of how to make things better. Fifty-four ideas to be exact.

The commission released a report — Recommendations for a Vibrant Future for the PA Dairy Industry — Aug. 1, after nearly a year of research, discussion and deliberation.

The 54 recommendations range from specific things like lowering the somatic cell count limit to 400,000 and exempting milk trucks from weather bans to big picture thinking like expanding broadband infrastructure and promoting agritourism.

“This commission has risen to that call for bold recommendations,” said Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding during a webinar Aug. 12 discussing the report. “This is an important moment, in my mind, for the Pennsylvania dairy industry, and one of great optimism.”

How it worked

The commission was born out of Act 66, a package of agricultural programs Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law July 2019. The group was formed to take a hard look at the dairy industry and make suggestions on how to strengthen and improve it.

The final report was sent to the governor and house and senate leadership, as well as dairy industry leaders.

The commission was made up of 24 people representing legislators, government officials, farmers, processors and others in the dairy industry.

The commission was broken down into four subcommittees to tackle different issues: farm, state, market and consumer-level. Even after the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the group from meeting in person and revealed vulnerabilities within the industry, they continued on.

What they found

The report breaks down the recommendations by targeted implementation dates — in one, three or five years — and points out which group would be best to lead the effort.

For example, extending Pennsylvania’s 17-day code for fluid milk should be able to be done within a year by the state department of agriculture and the general assembly. This recommendation was identified as one of particular interest and a quicker fix than, say, eliminating bloc voting in the Federal Milk Marketing Order, one of the five-year recommendations.

Pennsylvania is one of three states that has fixed code dates for milk in their regulations. It means milk produced in-state must have a sell-by date within 17 days of when it was pasteurized. Milk code is not a food safety issue with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or state regulatory groups.

According to the report, this rule puts Pennsylvania milk at a disadvantage to plant-based beverages and extended shelf-life milks traveling from further away and printed with longer codes.

Another fix that came straight out of the COVID-19 pandemic was to allow more flexibility for on-farm disposal of milk during a crisis. Many farmers were asked to dump milk when dairy product markets turned upside down at the beginning of the coronavirus panic.

Much of that dumped milk went into manure storage, which would later be spread on fields, but milk degrading in manure causes some issues with bad smells and larger fly populations.

The report asks for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the department of agriculture to provide short term waivers of nutrient management plans and CAFO plans to allow shallow injection or soil incorporation of manure/milk mixtures. It also asks for the agriculture department to set aside funding to pay farmers during such a crisis, to alleviate some of the extra costs of different manure applications.

“The work of the commission was important in pre-COVID, when we launched the commission’s work, and it’s even more critical now in this pandemic and certainly in the post-pandemic period,” Redding said.

Other recommendations include:

  • Crediting farms for best management practices when assessing stormwater fees. The report asks the Pennsylvania General Assembly to consider enacting legislation that would require municipal governments that assess stormwater management fees to recognize and credit farms for practices already in place on their farms.
  • Supporting the National Dairy FARM program, an animal care program, or an equivalent to ensure dairy farms and processors are being held to higher standards of animal care, environmental stewardship, antibiotic stewardship and workforce development.
  • Reducing the regulatory burden for agritourism. At least 20 other states have legislation protecting agritourism businesses from lawsuits where no party is at fault for injuries or damages, but Pennsylvania has no such protections for its farm businesses.
  • Study existing regulations that impact the state’s ability to attract manufacturing and processing plants. It’s believed that Pennsylvania’s regulations impact a company’s decision to invest in the state, although there’s only anecdotal evidence to suggest that.
  • Incentivizing farmer participation in risk management programs like Dairy Margin Coverage and Dairy Revenue Protection Programs. Other states subsidize the premium costs for the DMC and have subsequently seen higher enrollment levels.
  • Repeal Pennsylvania’s prevailing wage requirements for agricultural and dairy grants. It can be hard, if not impossible, for farmers to find local contractors in rural areas that can meet the prevailing wage rate requirement. This prevents the grant recipients from using the money awarded to them or applying for grants at all.
  • Provide federal year round guest worker visas for dairy operations. Immigrant labor is a resource seasonal farms and processors can use, but there is no guest worker visa for year round workers.

The full report and an interactive dashboard with the recommendations and progress reports can be found at centerfordairyexcellence.org.

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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