Wisconsin dairy farmers seek Canadian advice

Some American dairy groups are pondering implementing inventory management to avoid oversupplies of milk

CHIPPEWA FALLS, Wisconsin — Not long ago in America’s dairy industry, supply management was about as popular as a rodent at a garden party.

Mentioning it out loud in Washington or at state legislatures was “toxic,” said Julie Keown-Bomar, executive director of the Wisconsin Farmers Union.

“It had so much baggage attached to it. People were thinking government control.”

In 2018, it’s no longer verboten.

U.S. dairy farmers are more comfortable talking about supply management in public but they don’t use those exact words.

The Wisconsin Farmers Union prefers “inventory management” or “inventory control”, said Danielle Endvick, communications director for the organization.

Dairy producers and farm leaders are now using those phrases because many believe it’s the only viable solution to overproduction in America’s dairy sector.
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This spring the Wisconsin Farmers Union launched Dairy Together — a movement to “rebuild a viable dairy economy for family farmers,” the campaign website says.

Endvick, who grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm, said something has to be done because the status quo isn’t working for family-run dairies.

“(Farmers) need to think about efficiencies but we can’t just allow the dairy industry to push small to mid-size farmers out,” Endvick said, sitting at a board table inside the Farmers Union office in Chippewa Falls, on a Tuesday morning in mid-September.

This spring, the Wisconsin Farmers Union invited dairy producers from Ontario to speak about supply management at meetings across the state. Hundreds of dairy farmers showed up to hear the message, many more than expected.

Based on the positive response, the Farmers Union decided to pursue a nationwide campaign — to address volatile milk prices and the loss of dairy farms across the country.

In August, U.S. farm groups and co-operatives interested in inventory control met in Albany, New York. More than 300 attended the meeting, including representatives of Agri-Mark, a dairy co-operative, Holstein Association USA, the National Family Farm Coalition and the Wisconsin Farmers Union.

About a dozen proposals were discussed in Albany and most were based on some form of supply management to curb the oversupply of milk.

“Farmers are caught in a vicious cycle. When markets are up, farms often expand and production increases to take advantage of better prices,” wrote Chris Holman, Wisconsin Farmers Union director, in a blog post. “When the milk supply goes up and markets are down, farms often expand and production increases as they try to keep their heads above water. If that’s not a recipe for more of the same, I don’t know what is.”

There could be an appetite for inventory control in states like Minnesota and Wisconsin, where most dairy farms are small scale, with 100 to 200 cows. However, in Idaho and California the industry is different. The typical dairy in those states is more than 1,000 cows.

Matt Nunes, who grew up on a California dairy and now runs a 130-cow dairy near Chippewa Falls, said supply management will never happen in the U.S. because the industry is too large and too diverse.

Endvick admitted it may take years to establish a grassroots and political movement, necessary to make inventory control happen. With that in mind, the Dairy Together initiative is separate from the Wisconsin Farmers Union.

“We want it to feel open to farmers of all organizations,” she said, adding some American Farm Bureau members are part of Dairy Together.

Still, it’s unlikely that the U.S. dairy industry will arrive at a consensus on inventory control. Which means Washington politicians will have to take it on.

“We need to get… some sort of legislation, at the federal level, to make this happen,” Endvick said.

It is an uphill battle, probably a Mount Everest type hill, but when family farms are going out of business it does resonate with the public.

In Endvick’s own family, her dad, her father-in-law, grandfather-in-law and uncle all had small dairy farms in Wisconsin.

Those herds are all gone.

“It takes away this life that they’ve known for their entire lives,” she said. “Our stance is we need to pause as a nation and really think about what kind of future we want our food industry to have.”

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