5 Things Congress Must Do Differently to Save Our Family Farms
The 2018 Farm Bill is a weapon aimed at family-owned dairy farms. For decades, especially since 2000, the federal government has set the price of milk BELOW the cost of production, guaranteeing farm debt and assaulting rural America.
Along with this unreasonably low price, fees and assessments are levied on dairy farmers after their milk leaves their farm. Confused farm agencies then allow predatory banking to exploit vulnerable farm owners, and international investors move in and buy out local agricultural resources and land.
Meanwhile, the nutritional value of whole-fat milk and real butter is sideswiped by advertising budgets promoting nut beverages and fake dairy products.
Farmers are flexible – droughts, floods, blizzards and even changing consumer tastes they take in stride. The last eight years have been a triple assault of:
- politically-driven, artificially low milk prices;
- higher feed and other costs; and
- food trends that eliminated whole-fat milk, real butter, beef and even all meat from menus and dinner tables.
Since 2013, net farm income has declined 52% with predictions for farm income in 2018 at a 12-year low.
Today, the national average cost of production for 100 pounds of fluid milk is $21.39, while the New York State pay price is approximately $15.50 for August-produced milk. Other assessments may be charged to the dairy farmer. At the end of the month, dairy farmers are receiving $6.85 per hundredweight of milk, and with a pay price so far below their costs of production -- around $21 per hundredweight -- bankruptcies loom large.
New York has lost 27% of its dairy farms over the last ten years. Every dairy farming region of America fielded similar losses of small, family-owned, dairy farms.
In a May 2018 report, the American Farm Bureau Federation summarized court data for “Chapter 12: Farming or Fishing Bankruptcies.” The Farm Bureau found 501 such bankruptcies during 2017, the highest number since 2012. With a burst of bankruptcies in the first quarter of 2018, Farm Bureau economist Dr. John Newton wrote:
“The March data highlights the tough financial conditions across much of rural America. From the Northeast, into the western Corn Belt and Upper Midwest, down into the Southwest and into the West, farm bankruptcies are higher than year-ago levels."
The public perception is that farmers get big government subsidies and now a $12 billion bailout for losses related to tariffs. In reality, the bailout is predominantly for grain farmers only – soybeans, corn and wheat. Farm subsidies and crop insurance are for grain farmers, not dairy farmers. Dairy farmers as a whole have no government support systems in place.
Farmer or Mega-Industry
These comments carry a clear distinction between family farmers and agri-business. Mega-industries with cow-herding, milk producing and animal slaughtering production units lead to environmental, economic, nutritional, worker rights and animal-rights disasters. These mega-industries and agri-businesses are not held accountable for environmental damages including water and soil contamination.
Dairy, meat or produce farmers have a relationship with the soil, the weather, water, the environment, their animals and their crops. Family farmers understand sustainable agriculture and how our food supply relies on clean, safe water and soil without toxins. Family farmers want to provide healthy food and especially want to stop hunger in local communities. Government control of the price of milk makes this impossible.
Connections and Demands
Agriculture has deep roots in America’s history, culture and economy. Family farms, especially farms that go back generations, often sustain a small town’s economy. These generational farms have strong ties to a network of veterinarians, food distributors, milk processors, seed suppliers, equipment sales, hardware stores, fueling stations, town groceries, diners, and even road or utility maintenance crews.
Farming serves as the connective tissue in our small towns and rural America. Family farms also connect to the heartbeat of our urban centers. The farms of rural America feed our urban centers.
Right now, big money, big government, international agriculture and international banking are destroying family-owned farms and especially dairy farms. When we lose family farms, we disrupt America’s small towns and our historic, farming traditions.
More than that. We all eat. Every time we lose a family farm, we lose more local control of our food supply. Brazilian investments in our beef industry and Chinese interests in our pork industry set the stage to drive out family-owned dairy farms and globalize our food supply. This is a crisis for farming and agriculture, and also an ethical, legal, healthcare and constitutional crisis.
The urgency of the situation is stark. Says one farmer:
"With the current federal price of milk, for every one hundred pounds of milk I sell, I lose $8.65 because of how low USDA [United States Department of Agriculture] prices milk. We milk 140 cows and are losing $20,000 a month."
Congress is on a summer recess. The current Farm Bill is in conference, to work out differences between Senate and House versions. As the Green Party candidate for Congress in NY-21, on August 7 at the Franklin County Fair in Malone, NY, I issued a demand for five changes to the 2018 Farm Bill:
1: Emergency supports and financial relief including:
- Set federal floor price at $20 per hundredweight for milk used for manufacturing
- Seek $500 million emergency funds for New York dairy farms
- Set 2-year halt in state taxes that impact family farms
- Provide emergency tax credit in January 2019
- Provide restitution for the failed Margin Protection Program
- Fund innovative solutions to bring more fresh produce and farm products to local communities and bring leftovers efficiently to food pantries; increase SNAP benefits used at farms and farmers' markets; solve SNAP processing machine and software problems.
2: Legislative hearings to investigate: how we set the floor price of milk with testimony from small, medium and large dairy farmers; add-on fees imposed on dairy farmers after their product leaves their farm; key issues for any supply management system.
3: Legislative hearings to investigate: predatory lending practices aimed at farmers; anti-dairy and anti-meat messages in advertising; influence of lobbying on nutritional guidelines and farm policies.
4: Dedicated budgets to: fund improvements to agriculture infrastructure; financial services that help dairy farmers in debt; support services in rural communities.
5: Streamline bureaucracy and fund programs that put New York products in New York schools and businesses.
The Rural and Urban Divide
The crisis in dairy farming impacts urban and rural America. Lorraine Lewandrowski, New York farmer and lawyer, remembers a better understanding across this divide:
"Growing up, we had such a love for New York City and knowing that we were shipping fresh, good milk into New York City. I would like to see that relationship restored and people in New York City to enjoy the various food regions of New York as much as the French love and know about their food regions.
I hate to see rural/urban New York as a divided state. We have so many issues at hand. I also think about the next generation and what it is that we will pass on to them. Will it be a New York where people can earn a living, where our rural resources feed our population centers?
Or, will it be a future of more imported food as the ports are expanding up and down the east coast for bigger containerized vessels? Will it be the risky situation of food owned by a few large corporations?"
What You Can Do Now
Rural America feeds our population centers. The well-being of our farming communities nourishes our cities. Right now, family farms and especially dairy farms need our help,
Actively shop to save our family farms. Shop at Farmers' Markets and buy just-picked tomatoes, lettuces, corn, kale, squash, potatoes, onions, apples or berries. Buy farm fresh eggs, grass-fed meat or fresh caught fish. Buy directly from the farmer.
Visit Farm Stores or Creameries outside the city right on a family farm and try fresh-made, cream-topped yogurt. Taste cream-on-top pasteurized and not homogenized whole-fat milk. Buy pork, beef or chicken directly from the farmer or rancher. Buy cow or goat cheese direct from the cheesemaker. Appreciate the extraordinary variety and deeper flavors of crafted cheeses, grass-fed meat, today’s produce, and the true nutritional value of farm-fresh, whole-fat dairy products.
Shop to save our family farms.