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A New Year, with New Challenges

January 1, 2015

The past couple of years began, for those of us in dairy, with hopeful expectations that Congress would pass a new farm bill, and with it, a new dairy program. Having finally crossed that hurdle last year, we begin 2015 with USDA’s implementation of the new Margin Protection Program for dairy, and look forward to the coverage it will provide.

While an official announcement is expected sometime soon regarding the specific enrollment rate for 2015, the margin program is a welcome improvement to federal dairy policy, and comes at an important time to help farmers deal with what will be a more challenging economic outlook than in 2014.

With MPP in place, other important and pressing issues — both old and new — will dominate the agenda at National Milk in the coming year.

At the top of NMPF’s list of priorities is the continuing challenge of assuring an adequate workforce for our farms. That quest runs smack up against the inadequacy of current U.S. immigration policies that prevent aligning the supply of farm workers with the demand that exists on our farms. Hence, the number-one priority issue for our organization in 2015 is working with Congress to pass meaningful immigration reform.

President Obama’s executive action on the immigration issue is likely to prompt a response in the coming months from the Senate and House. The concern of those of us who represent the small businesses across agriculture is that policy changes are needed to allow for the future flow of workers that our sector needs to keep the cows milked. The White House action last year didn’t address this issue; we need to work with Congress to ensure that the immigration issue gets resolved this year.

Another issue where the dairy sector must work with both Congress and the White House is trade policy. We’re currently advising U.S. trade negotiators about how important it is that the Trans-Pacific Partnership provide access to new markets in places such as Japan and Canada. Those talks are likely to be wrapped up later this year.

Before any TPP agreement can be voted on, Congress will have to pass so-called Trade Promotion Authority legislation, which allows for an up or down vote on the treaty. If that is approved, then the TPP trade package will be sent to Congress for a vote. NMPF remains hopeful that the TPP negotiations will result in a final package that can garner the endorsement of the U.S. dairy industry. President Obama recently expressed interest in working with Republicans in Congress to pass the TPP, meaning that this is one issue where bipartisanship may help carry the day.

Another area where there is initial optimism for bipartisan cooperation is in tax reform. It’s been nearly 30 years since the last major overhaul of the federal tax system, and there is widespread agreement that comprehensive reform is overdue. A simpler, fairer tax code will be good for business, especially for small businesses such as dairy farms. While Democrats and Republicans may have somewhat different views on how to address certain elements of taxation, from corporate to individual tax rates, we need to work with both parties to demonstrate that an revamping of tax laws will stimulate the economic and help create jobs, on farms and elsewhere.

Congress is also going to work this year on reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act, which is the umbrella policy authorizing how the federal government manages the school lunch program and other crucial feeding programs. On a related track, the federal Dietary Guidelines advisory panel has been meeting during the past year to review and update federal nutrition guidance. The final version of the new recommendations is expected later this month.

We have previously expressed concern about this advisory panel of scientists appearing to veer off a science-based path into ill-defined relationships between nutrition and sustainability. We will review the committee’s recommendations when they are released, and formulate our response. What is certain is that we will continue to affirm the fact that milk and dairy products provide an unparalleled package of nutrients to children and adults, with milk serving as the number source of nine key nutrients in children’s diets.

In addition to these Washington-focused policy priorities, NMPF will continue to provide leadership within the dairy industry on a host of other complex challenges. These include animal care, where our National Dairy FARM program continues to evolve and expand, and will get a boost as the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy makes animal well-being a higher-profile issue across the dairy value chain.

It also includes our efforts to advance new opportunities for dairy farms to help capture the value of the nutrients in cow manure. Environmental issues generally and, in particular, the impact of nitrogen and phosphorus in our waterways, are going to continue drawing the scrutiny of federal and state regulators. We need fresh thinking on how to incentivize private-sector based solutions to controlling nutrients, which is why NMPF’s resource recovery initiative also will continue to evolve in 2015.

The common thread among all of these issues is that we will need the active engagement of farmers and their cooperatives in order to achieve the best outcomes for our members. On every public policy battle, there is no substitute for enthusiasm and grit in helping get the job done. This dynamic was evident in the recent struggle over the farm bill, and it will again prove to be the difference between 2015 being a great year in Washington for farmers, or a year of missed opportunities.