EPHRATA, Pa.—Farmers need to be involved. That was the message as their culture and future was on the front burner Tuesday night here at the Martindale Mennonite Fellowship Center, where 120 gathered for an informational meeting on milk pricing and dairy policy and to hear from DPAC organizers.
Formed last November, the Dairy Policy Action Coalition (DPAC) is run by a board of grassroots dairy farmers as an outcome of meetings across Pennsylvania and in eastern Ohio, kicked off by a pasture meeting of 500 in Gordonville, Pa. last August. In nine months, the coalition has focused on truth and transparency and attracted active participation from dairy farmers, farm organizations, and agribusinesses in 23 states—from the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, to the Southeast, Midwest, and Upper Midwest.
While DPAC is making progress in Harrisburg on the issue of ‘stranded’ over-order premiums—paid by consumers but not reaching the dairy farmers in Pennsylvania—the road to positive change in Washington proves a bit bumpier. But progress is happening there as well, said DPAC board members during Tuesday night’s meeting.
Questions and discussion centered on topics that have been covered in depth over the past several months in Farmshine and at DPAC’s website: www.dpac.net. Farmers were quick to thank organizers for giving them time to ask the questions that were on their minds.
Many of these questions were about the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME), the futures markets and how dairy prices are figured, set, and reported.
At the federal level last week, the Senate and House Agriculture Committees added a section on electronic reporting for dairy products to a bill reauthorizing daily reporting for beef and pork. DPAC has been pushing for Congress and USDA to implement “daily” electronic reporting as authorized in the 2007 Farm Bill, but the measure that passed both Congressional Ag Committees last week simply requires “weekly” electronic reporting.
DPAC organizers told farmers this is a good first step, but that the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) lobbied late last Tuesday night to prevent Senators from offering amendments to the bill on Wednesday morning to require “daily” reporting. The processors and cooperatives say they want electronic reporting to stay “weekly,” at least until the Federal Order milk pricing system is reformed.
At the state level, discussion continues to move forward on legislative changes. Senator Mike Brubaker—a Republican representing northern Lancaster County and chairman of the Pennsylvania Senate Committee on Agriculture and Rural Affairs—joined the meeting later in the evening. He reported that state lawmakers are studying Pennsylvania’s milk marketing law and considering legislative changes to help ensure farmers are receiving what is due them under the law.
The Senator said that if a change in the law is needed, a vote could happen by the end of this year.
At issue are loopholes in the current law, which cause 20 to 30% of the 25-cent premium paid by consumers on every gallon of milk to be swallowed by the system instead of being passed back to the dairy farmers this over-order premium is intended to support.
“In state government, we hear from farmers who want more government involvement and from farmers who want less government involvement,” said Sen. Brubaker, as he talked about the dilemma for lawmakers as they discern: What is the “right kind” of government involvement? He noted that DPAC’s formation from the grassroots, and in building consensus, helps lawmakers answer that question.
“Government involvement ought not occur in your industry without your insight and involvement (as dairy farmers),” the Senator said. “It takes a team of people—from the haulers to the cooperatives and processors—on top of the farmers. You need these entities. But one point of the market chain should not be able to exert undue influence to disadvantage another point in the market chain. When that happens, the government should step in and right the ship.”
Sen. Brubaker encouraged the dairy farmers to continue connecting with each other and to be involved in the future of their industry. “It is encouraging when landowners—producers like yourselves—get together and talk about what is right for you,” he said.
“There is support from lawmakers in Harrisburg. We may get this,” said Bernie Morrissey about potential changes to the Pennsylvania milk marketing law. As founder of Morrissey Insurance based in Ephrata, he is “retired” but going full steam ahead as a supporter of the DPAC coalition he was instrumental in getting up and running. He talked about how the coalition began and the philosophy of farmers “controlling their own destiny.”
DPAC lobbies lawmakers on behalf of dairy farmers, and is represented by former state ag secretary Dennis Wolff, now a partner in the Harrisburg, Pa.-based Versant Strategies.
“Things have changed while we were busy running our farms,” said DPAC board member Paul Horning, a dairy farmer from Stevens, Lancaster County, Pa. “We don’t have the time to leave our farms and do all of these things, that’s why we need a guy like Denny Wolff. He has the contacts and knows the political system. Even if we are successful in getting changes to dairy policy, it still may be necessary to have a guy like Denny Wolff keeping an eye on things for us farmers.”
Horning encouraged his peers to talk to their friends and neighbors and the people they do business with.
“There are 7300 of us in Pennsylvania,” added DPAC board member Nelson Troutman, who operates a dairy farm with his brother in Richland on the border of Berks and Lebanon counties. “If everyone gives a little, we can do a lot. You can’t just go to a meeting like this and then go home and think everything’s going to be alright. We have to stay involved.”
“When you go to the lawmakers, you have to speak with one voice,” added Morrissey, who is well-versed in how politics work.
Answering questions about why DPAC isn’t targeting more aspects of failed dairy policy—all at once—Troutman said: “It’s like trying to make hay, chop corn silage, fix machinery and take care of the baby all at once. How is that going to turn out? Right now we are making hay.”
DPAC organizers stressed the fact that this is not simply about raising the milk price. “If the price went to $20 or $25 tomorrow, we’re not done,” they said. “The system would still be broken.”
The DPAC board is committed to continuing this effort even as prices go higher. That’s what has been lacking in the past: The price goes up and everyone loses interest in seeing things through for a positive change.
“We have to stay unified, and we have to stay focused. If we don’t fight like a pit bull, they will walk all over us,” said Horning.
“This is what it’s all about. We’re contributing to this effort because we feel we owe it to our dairy farmers to help in this effort. I can’t think of anything more worthwhile to give to right now,” said Mike Sensenig of Sensenig’s Feed Mill, New Holland, Pa., who organized the two meetings for local farmers this week and is one of seven agribusinesses that are providing substantial monthly donations to DPAC as the coalition continues to build momentum. He recognized Alan Graves of Mark Hershey Farms and Dennis Milhoan of Lancaster Dairy Farm Automation, who were also on hand for Tuesday’s meeting. In addition, Hoober Inc., Binkley & Hurst, and E-Zee Milking Equipment were recognized for their monthly support.
“This is a David and Goliath situation,” Sensenig added. “We know how that story ended. It’s about keeping the faith.”
Invited guest, Pennsylvania State Senator Mike Brubaker addresses the crowd of 120 dairy farmers during a meeting hosted by Sensenig’s Feed Mill near Ephrata Tuesday evening. DPAC supporter Bernie Morrissey (center) is flanked by board members Paul Horning (left), a dairy farmer from Lancaster County, and Nelson Troutman (right), a dairy farmer from Berks and Lebanon counties. They updated local farmers on the coalition’s efforts in Harrisburg and Washington.