Dairy farmers poured out their frustrations Wednesday to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who told the Modesto crowd that he would do his best to boost milk prices.
"We know these are stressful times, and we know part of our responsibility is to help you through these stressful times," Vilsack said at the Stanislaus County Agricultural Center.
Most of the 400-plus people there were dairy farmers, who have been getting much less for their milk this year than what it costs to produce.
"Right now, for every 500 cows you own, you are losing $50,000 a month," said Linda Lopes, a Turlock-area farmer and president of California Dairy Women.
Vilsack talked about steps the U.S. Department of Agriculture has taken this year to help producers of milk, the No. 1 farm product in the San Joaquin Valley and statewide. They include export subsidies, increased federal purchases for nutrition programs and talks with bankers on easing farm loan terms.
Vilsack said he would like to do more but needs a fresh injection of cash in the fiscal year starting in October. And he said the "pay-go" rule among lawmakers means they can boost dairy spending only if they cut something else.
Milk prices, which were strong for most of 2007 and 2008, cratered at the start of this year as the recession reduced global demand for dairy products.
About 10 percent of the state's dairy farms could go out of business this year, according to Western United Dairymen of Modesto.
This group's president, Turlock-area farmer Ray Souza, said the federal government should buy 100 million pounds of surplus cheese and give it to food banks that are running out of supplies for the poor.
Other speakers said the government should increase the price it pays for surplus products.
Loren Lopes, who is Linda Lopes' son, said some food processors seeking cheap dairy ingredients are not acting in the interest of farmers.
"Dean (Foods) and Kraft are having record profits, and we have a record depression," he said.
This was Vilsack's first visit to the Modesto area since being appointed by President Barack Obama. It was the 17th stop this summer on the administration's Rural Tour, conducted by Vilsack and a few other Cabinet members.
'Fabric of our community'
Vilsack was invited to the area by Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, who is on the House Agriculture Committee and has worked with the secretary on the dairy crisis.
"These are third- and fourth-generation farmers," Cardoza said. "They are more than just farmers. They are the fabric of our community."
Vilsack also went on private tours of a Modesto-area dairy farm and the Del Monte Foods fruit cannery near Empire.
During the public event, he heard calls for reduced environmental rules on farming, for immigration reform that boosts the farm work force and for increased water supplies.
"I certainly don't want the federal government to control my water," said Modesto-area dairy farmer Jake Verburg, noting a bill in Congress that could do just that.
Vilsack said he has talked with Obama about the severity of the water shortages in parts of the valley and has helped create a task force to find solutions.
"It is localized for you today, in terms of your farming operation, but it is a large problem for the entire nation," he said.
Governor of a farm state
Vilsack served eight years as governor of Iowa and ran briefly for the Democratic nomination for president in 2004. He said he started his career as a lawyer helping distressed farmers in his state in the 1980s.
Vilsack said a new advisory committee will look into long-term changes in dairy policy that could ease the price swings. And he said the Agriculture and Justice departments plan to hold hearings on why low farm prices do not translate into low retail prices for food.
At a news conference after the event, Vilsack said he was impressed with the speakers.
"We will take back with us that there are serious issues with dairy that have to be resolved — and long-term solutions so we are not in the same place 18 months from now," he said.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2385.
Modesto-area farmers voiced their concerns before, during and after Wednesday's visit by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack:
Earl Perez, grower of crops on the West Side of Stanislaus County: A solution is needed that protects the Sacramento- San Joaquin Delta ecosystem while still diverting some of its water for agriculture.
"We are going through some tough times, as you well know," Perez said. "... We are concerned about the next generation that's coming up in our family, so give us all the help we can get."
Carlos Estacio, Turlock-area dairy farmer: The government should look into possible price-fixing on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, where dairy products are traded.
"Give me a fair price and I will hire people," Estacio said. "I will put people to work. That will stimulate the economy."
Ray Ratto, vegetable grower west of Modesto: Emerging rules on dealing with climate change could burden U.S. farmers while other nations do not do their part.
"We're getting whacked every day with environmental regulations," said Ratto, who also noted the tight profit margins in his industry.
Vito Chiesa, Stanislaus County supervisor and Hughson-area peach and nut grower: "The nice thing is (Vilsack) gets out here to see the frustration, especially in the dairy industry."
Robert Woolley, owner of Dave Wilson Nursery: Shortages of farm labor are hurting agriculture, said Woolley, whose Hickman-area company produces trees for commercial growers and retail nurseries.
"It is critically important to us as farmers. One of the problems we see is big growers leaving the country."