With desperate milk farmers taking their economic concerns to the state capitol, valley candidates have an opportunity to showcase ideas for solving one of California's most complicated issues.
Campaigning in Merced and Stanislaus counties, the Assembly District 21 candidates are vying to represent the leading dairy industry region in the state.
Republican contender Jack Mobley and Democratic hopeful Adam Gray agree that dairy farmers need help. But they have expressed a difference in how they would deliver that relief.
"I do think we need swift action," Gray said, who's worked as an aid to several members of the Legislature. "Whoever's representing this area is absolutely going to have to be a driving force in this debate, and quickly."
"To my reasoning, the problem is they're not talking -- the secretary and the producers and the processors," said Mobley, owner of a Service Master Clean franchise in Merced. "I say, let's go talk to the secretary of agriculture, get a cup of coffee and see where we are."
California's dairy industry is the state's leading commodity, pulling in more than $7.6 billion last year. Merced County had more than $1 billion dollars of that business.
However, over recent months, high feed prices have driven many milk producers to the brink of bankruptcy. Scores of the state's roughly 1,600 dairy farms have gone under this year, according to industry reports.
"They tell me, long-term, six months out from now on down, they think that things are going to be OK," Mobley said. "But it's just the intermediate time, this next six months when ... they want a little bit more responsiveness in term of helping them."
Petition for price bump
Over the summer, dairy farmers petitioned the State Department of Food and Agriculture to raise the minimum price that processors pay to farmers for raw milk.
"We're in a really bad situation, and it's not a near-term, last-six-month or next-six-month thing," Gray said. "You've got dairy guys who are indebted to their feed suppliers."
Secretary of Agriculture Karen Ross granted a small increase in the pricing formula for whey paid to dairy farmers. But officials cited concerns that a larger increase could scare processing plants out of the state, and possibly put smaller cheese makers out of business.
"It seems to me that the producers maybe didn't get as fair a shake in that decision," Mobley said. "And I'm not casting aspersions at her. But I don't understand why. And that would be a question I would ask."
Gray has said he would consider a change to the price formula of whey that would affect larger processors more significantly than smaller operations -- an idea that producer groups have pushed for in the past.
"We need to give some kind of relief to our guys here locally," Gray said. "Hopefully we can do that in a fashion that doesn't drive those small processors out. But I think we need to side with the dairy guys and make sure they can keep a sustainable business going."
In September, dairy farmers held a rally on the steps of the Capitol, demanding that the governor and the Legislature take action. Vowing to keep the pressure on, farmers recently scheduled another protest for Oct. 18.
While the Legislature might not take action on the issue, both candidates agree that the district assemblyman can work with state leaders to advocate solutions. And in November, voters will decide who that will be.
Gray said his family background in dairy and his experience working in state government make him particularly suited to address this issue.
"I think, clearly, I'd be more effective in the position of a legislator for our area," he said. "The ins and outs of how to work with the agencies, the administration, the (agriculture) secretary -- it's complicated stuff. I've been exposed to it over a number of years."
Mobley said his experience as a small businessman would give him an edge when it comes to understanding the milk pricing formula.
"I think on a certain level, I will have an appreciation for that pricing formula more than Adam does," he said. "In terms of working with people, the government in a large organization, I've been in large organizations in the Air Force. And I've been a part of ridiculous situations where we came to a positive conclusion."
Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
At a Glance
Campaign finance standings for Assembly District 21 contenders Adam Gray and Jack Mobley, according to disclosures to the California Secretary of State:
As of Sept 30, Gray has raised $554,228 for his campaign and spent $527,791. Because of money raised at the end of last year, Gray still has $232,413 left in his war chest.
Gray's campaign received significant donations from public safety unions, the medical and pharmaceutical industries, real estate associations, and a short list of mega corporations, such as Verizon, Safeway, Anheuser- Busch, General Electric, Walgreen and Pepsico.
As of Sept 30, Mobley raised $137,188 for his campaign and spend $97,815. He has $41,708 left to spend in the run up to the November election.
Mobley's campaign received donations primarily from private individuals and small local businesses, including J&J Marchini Enterprise, Hilltop Ranch and Rucker Construction.
More public information is available on the secretary of state's Web site at http://cal-access.sos.ca.gov/campaign/candidates.