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More dairy assistance sought

Bipartisan and bicameral support providing direct assistance and giving USDA additional authority to help struggling dairy farmers.

As U.S. dairy producers are facing the business-crippling burden of multiyear price lows, some are seeking more direct assistance to give producers a boost. However, the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) is keeping its eye on the goal of fixing the Dairy Margin Protection Program (DMPP) in the next farm bill.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) led a bipartisan, bicameral coalition of 56 members of the House and Senate in urging Office of Management & Budget (OMB) director Shaun Donovan to free up safety net funds to help dairy farmers across the nation who are struggling with declining milk prices.

In a letter sent Oct. 13, Leahy and his partners requested that Donovan do all he can to support Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in using existing authorities to expand and maintain U.S. domestic markets, encourage the domestic consumption of dairy products and help dairy farmers through the ongoing financial crisis.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Oct. 11 announced another attempt at purchasing $20 million of cheddar cheese to reduce a private cheese surplus that has reached record levels as milk prices have plummeted. This move by USDA will also help food banks and other food assistance agencies, but many dairy farmers see it as a minimal investment compared to what is needed to help cope with low prices for producers and with surplus supplies.

Recent reports, according to USDA data, suggest that more than 43 million gal. of milk were dumped in fields, manure lagoons or animal feed or have been lost on truck routes or discarded at plants in the first eight months of 2016.

In the letter headed by Leahy, the coalition of lawmakers wrote about how the last financial crisis that hit the dairy industry forced many families to go out of business and sell off their herds.

“Farms that had been in families for generations were driven into ruin and forced to close their doors for good. Through the support of this Administration, we can hopefully prevent many farms from needing to make that same difficult decision today. We hope you will work with us to support all of our dairy farmers across the country,” the letter stated.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D., N.H.) also sent a letter to Senate Appropriations Committee leaders urging the committee to allow critical assistance for dairy farmers in appropriations legislation for fiscal 2017.

“Despite current budgetary constraints and the need for future statutory changes, we believe that there are key measures that can be taken in appropriations legislation for (fiscal 2017) that will provide critical near-term support to dairy farmers and pave the way for longer-term sustainability in the industry,” Shaheen and 17 lawmakers wrote in the letter to Senate Appropriations Committee leadership.

In their letter, the senators requested that appropriations legislation not contain restrictions on the secretary of agriculture’s ability to directly assist dairy farmers, which is currently the case. They also requested that $3 million within the budget of USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) be designated for a survey of average feed costs by state. Furthermore, the letters asked that the committee explore feasible solutions for cash-strapped dairy farmers who paid $73 million into the DMPP in 2015 and received limited financial support in return.

In the past two years, milk prices have dropped by more than 40%. As both letters explain, the DMPP has not provided dairy producers with the safety net needed to cope with this decline, and as a result, additional avenues for direct assistance must be explored to help struggling dairy farmers.

Last month, the National Farmers Union (NFU) sent a similar request to Congress. While USDA has taken several steps within its existing authority to help dairy producers who are struggling to stay in business, NFU president Roger Johnson explained that the most meaningful relief will come from Congress providing USDA with additional authority.

“Allowing additional authority for USDA to aid in this crisis could result in direct assistance to those struggling the most. NFU remains committed to seeking meaningful financial support for family dairy producers whose livelihoods are on the line,” he concluded. 

NMPF spokesman Chris Galen said NMPF’s focus remains on strengthening the DMPP “to make it a more effective safety net for dairy farmers for the long term.” Galen said asking Congress for “some sort of direct payment doesn’t recognize political reality or budget constraints and is a diversion from where the focus needs to be: ensuring that dairy producers have a workable safety net to protect against catastrophic conditions.”

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