STOCKTON — Despite missing an important deadline last week, a California legislator seeking to change the state-regulated price of milk used in cheesemaking pledged to carry on the fight.
"This is something that is a very high priority for me. We are determined to get this done," said Assemblyman Richard Pan, D-Sacramento.
Milk is the top-grossing farm product in the Northern San Joaquin Valley and statewide, but farmers say they have operated at a loss over much of the past half-decade because of high production costs.
Pan supports dairy farmers' claims that the state's current pricing scheme severely undervalues milk used for cheese, especially compared with the rest of the country, where a federal price system holds sway.
While prices have been on the rise recently, the cost of corn and other animal feeds has been rising faster, keeping many milk producers in the red.
"Dairy farmers are telling me they're facing the worse economic situation since the Great Depression," Pan said.
However, his legislation, Assembly Bill 31, failed to get out of the Assembly. It is still an active bill, but now a two-thirds vote, instead of a simple majority, is needed to send it to the state Senate.
That is entirely possible, Pan insisted.
"There is interest by many legislators on both sides of the aisle to see a solution," he said. "They don't want to see, and I don't want to see, the demise of the dairy industry here in California."
The bill initially drew opposition from California cheesemakers and other dairy industry interests, who successfully got much of AB 31's original language removed.
Pan said he's working with all sides of the issue to try to find a compromise.
"What we need to do is have all of the stakeholders at the table talking to each other. That's where we are now," he said.
Michael Marsh, chief executive of Modesto-based Western United Dairymen, which represents farmers' interests, is one of those.
"We're happy to work with Dr. Pan, and we appreciate his ongoing concern for the dairy families of California, who continue to struggle with an unfair pricing structure for milk going into cheesemaking," he said.