Frustration over pitiful milk prices spilled over into a dairy farmers protest Thursday outside the downtown Modesto office of Rep. Dennis Cardoza.
About 15 dairymen from Merced and Stanislaus counties carried signs at Tenth Street Plaza, while the wives of some dairymen talked with a Cardoza representative on the fifth floor of the government building, where the Merced Democrat has an office.
"There are 2,000 dairies in this state that can't pay their bills," said Mary Fernandes, co-owner of an 800-cow dairy in Hilmar. "Mr. Cardoza is a voice. He is our voice. We are hoping he can do something."
The sign-toting dairymen in the plaza were less diplomatic. They charged that Cardoza and other valley representatives such as Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, were ignoring the industry crisis.
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Milk is the No. 1 farm product in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, bringing $2.26 billion in gross income to farmers in 2007, according to county crop reports. Several thousand people in the region work at dairy processing plants.
Not breaking even
The milk prices paid to dairy farms started to tumble in the fall and were at 80 cents a gallon this week, about 60 cents less than what the dairies need to break even.
At current prices, Fernandes said, her family's dairy operation can hold out for another two months. She said the hardship spreads to the feed suppliers, lumber yards and other community businesses that sell supplies to dairies.
Experts say a few factors are hurting dairies, including an increase in feed costs, the recession's effect on export markets and excess milk production.
DeeDee D'Adamo, a senior policy adviser for Cardoza, assured the dairy farmers that their troubles are a priority for the congressman.
She produced a letter showing that Cardoza and Costa discussed the milk prices with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in February, soon after his appointment by President Barack Obama.
Cardoza and Costa have supported federal action to address the issue, including $200 million in federal subsidies to make dairy exports more competitive on foreign markets and the distribution of dairy products for programs to feed the poor.
Michael Marsh, chief executive officer of Modesto-based Western United Dairymen, said the industry association has been pleased with the support from the congressmen. He noted that dairy farmers have not received help from the state's milk pricing support system, however.
Federal action should help
Marsh said the federal action, along with a national herd reduction program, should have a positive affect on milk prices in the coming weeks.
To address the oversupply of milk, 103,000 dairy cows are being taken out of production through the cooperative that oversees the herd reduction program.
Even so, more dairies are expected to go out of business. Almost 100 were lost in California last year and an equal number of failures are expected this year, according to Western United.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2321.