Saving the dairies: Federal government promises to help get farmers through the hard times

February 7, 2009 

While local dairy farmers scramble to try to make it through tough times and low milk prices, legislators and others are working hard to try to help them out.

Congressman Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, said that after asking the dairy industry to come together and provide some potential solutions, he and others met with the new federal Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, this week.

"We had a long meeting on Tuesday, and he assured us that he would take every measure within his power to try and assist," Cardoza said.

Cardoza added that he's invited Vilsack to come to the district to see the devastation that the dairy industry has suffered. "He understands the gravity of the situation," Cardoza said.

Dairy farmers have been getting some of the lowest prices ever for liquid milk. Some studies have shown that dairymen are losing $10 for every hundred pounds of milk they produce.

Michael Marsh, chief executive for United Western Dairymen, said his group has worked closely with Cardoza and hopes that steps will soon be taken that will help dairymen in California.

"The secretary indicated that he would immediately utilize the dairy incentive export program," Marsh said.

The program has around for awhile, Marsh said, but during the Bush administration it was dormant. The program will fund up to $200 million a year to subsidize the exports of American dairy products overseas.

"The goal of that program is to release some of the pressure within the United States dairy market and also expand the dairy market overseas," Marsh said.

Marsh said that Vilsack indicated he was willing to exert his authority inside the Department of Agriculture to move into domestic and foreign feeding programs. That would help get dairy products into the hands of the poor and unemployed, he added.

Another way legislators are looking at helping dairy farmers is to bring supply into line with demand, Marsh said. This could be done with the help of the Cooperatives Working Together program. The program was designed by dairy farmers for the benefit of dairy farmers. It works to strengthen and stabilize milk prices by balancing supply with demand.

The program, if approved, would accelerate the culling of dairy cattle. Because the dairy industry doesn't want to affect the beef cattle industry, the timing and quickness of the culling will affect beef producers minimally.

"We would be bringing cattle to market in the spring, normally not a time that beef producers sell their cattle," Marsh said. Because most beef cattle calve in the spring, it's a slow time for selling. Marsh said dairy farmers would also work quickly to get the culled cows through the market process, making the impact on beef prices a short-term affair.

Cardoza hopes to hear news about those programs and possibly others next week.

"These issues facing Valley farmers are devastating, and we are doing everything we can to help (Vilsack) get up to speed on the issues," Cardoza said.

Dairy farmers hope it's fast enough.

Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or creiter@mercedsun-star.com

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