Pat on the back for Upper Midwest dairy industry

posted May 8, 2017 10:23 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Heidi Clausen, Regional Editor |

Now that the dust has settled for dozens of Wisconsin and Minnesota dairy producers who lost their milk market this spring, it’s time to give some credit where credit is due.

A little more than a month ago, some 70 farmers were reeling from the uncertainty that surely comes with suddenly no longer having a place to ship your milk after they received pink slips, so to speak, from Grassland Dairy Products.

Wisconsin Farm Bureau President Jim Holte may have said it best: “April has been a long month for Wisconsin’s dairy community.”

The situation these past few weeks has looked dire as farmers scrambled to find homes for their milk by May 1, and we’ve reported on it weekly in these pages.

Now, some good news.

Within just a few weeks, a handful of other processors across the region, many with full plants themselves, had come to the rescue of dairy farmers and, as of May 1, managed to make room for 99 percent of the displaced milk.

Kudos to those processors for stepping up to make the best of a bad situation. A big thanks also is due to the many dairy organizations, farm groups, state departments of agriculture and others who have worked so tirelessly to seek a solution, if temporary.

Backing each other up is not a new phenomenon in the dairy industry. Time and again, this industry has proven to be one that pulls together in times of crisis. Between crashing milk prices and dairy policy changes, there has been no shortage of adversity.

Saving those affected by Grassland’s release of dozens of farms was no small feat, and time was of the essence as the May 1 deadline neared. This took a huge collaborative effort that shouldn’t be overlooked and can’t be taken for granted.

Ben Brancel, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, last week expressed his appreciation for processors making arrangements, if only for the short term, to give these farmers the opportunity to keep doing what they love and plan for the future.

“We understand the huge amount of work that had to be done to locate capacity, arrange transportation and complete contracts quickly,” he said.

“I have said, and will continue to say, that the Wisconsin dairy industry is a family, and family looks out for each other,” Brancel said. “This past month has shown how our dairy family can come together in challenging times to accomplish great things. I am truly thankful for the efforts of the farmers, processors, milk handlers, lenders, agricultural organizations and our government partners. You are and always will be part of my family.”

The immediate crisis, it seems, has been averted, but some lingering issues need to be addressed in the longer term.

There’s plenty of blame to go around for the dilemma the dairy industry found itself in last month. Most fingers have been squarely pointed at our neighbors to the north with Canada’s blockage of ultra-filtered milk from the U.S. Officials say this move was in blatant disregard of the country’s obligations under the North American Free Trade Agreement, a more than 20-year-old pact that President Trump recently vowed to modernize for the betterment of U.S. businesses that export, including dairy.

Few would argue that our farmers need — and absolutely deserve — a level playing field when it comes to global trade, but we don’t have to look as far as Canada to see where other improvements can be made. The Grow Wisconsin Dairy 30x20 Initiative — aimed at increasing state milk production to 30 billion pounds by 2020 — was well-intentioned but, in light of recent developments, maybe not very forward-thinking.

The current milk oversupply and its consequences should serve as a wake-up call to the Upper Midwest dairy industry that stronger market signals are needed to prevent an emergency situation like this from happening again.

As the Upper Midwest dairy industry continues to grapple with overflowing cheese vats, we all can continue to do our part to ease the pressure on markets through more purchases of Wisconsin and Minnesota milk, cheese and other dairy products. Celebrate June Dairy Month a little early. Throw a little extra in the grocery cart to drop off at the local food pantry.

It may not seem like much, but if we all do something, it can go a long way toward keeping our hardworking farm families right where they want to be and where our rural communities need them to be — on the farm.

The Upper Midwest dairy industry is second to none in the world, and it’s been encouraging to see everyone pull together this past month. More of that kind of teamwork will be necessary in the months ahead to address difficult issues related to trade and the milk supply.

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