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Dairy Defined: Rep. ‘GT’ Thompson Praises Safety Net

September 28, 2020

The Dairy Margin Coverage program has worked well for the farmers who signed up for it, while other federal programs ranging from emergency loans to disaster payments have helped keep dairy farms afloat during the coronavirus crisis, said Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-PA, in an NMPF podcast.

On DMC, “I think we got it right,” said Thompson, the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee’s General Farm Commodities and Risk Management subcommittee. He’s also a hopeful to become the top Republican on House Ag in the next Congress. “It has proven to be very, very helpful for those farmers that had the inclination the foresight to be able to sign up for that program.”

Thompson also decries the rise of “chalk water” rather than whole milk in school nutrition programs, advocates for improved milk options in the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, and discusses the state of politics this election season in the full podcast here. You can also find the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify,  SoundCloud and Google Play. Broadcast outlets may use the MP3 file. Please attribute information to NMPF.



Alan Bjerga: Hello. On today’s Dairy Defined podcast we have the privilege of speaking to Congressman Glenn “GT” Thompson, who represents Pennsylvania’s 15th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Republican, representing Pennsylvania’s geographically largest congressional district, is a member of the House Agriculture Committee, where he is the ranking member of the General Farm Commodities and Risk Management Subcommittee. That panel was key to designing the farm safety net in the last Farm Bill and is crucial to agriculture’s response to coronavirus. He’s been mentioned as potentially becoming the top Republican on House Ag in the next Congress.

But agriculture isn’t all he’s about. He’s in his fifth term as co-chairman of the bipartisan Congressional Career and Technical Education Caucus. He’s a volunteer firefighter and a former Boy Scout council president. For 28 years he was a therapist, rehabilitation services manager, and a licensed nursing home administrator. The graduate of Penn State University and Temple University lives in Howard Township, Pennsylvania with his wife. Thank you for joining us, Congressman Thompson.

Congressman Glenn Thompson: My pleasure. Thanks for the opportunity.

Alan Bjerga: Speaking of opportunities, in the last Congress you had the opportunity to serve as vice chairman of the House Agriculture Committee during the crafting of the 2018 Farm Bill, and of course you played an active role in improving the dairy program. What’s your take on how the Dairy Margin Coverage program and the Farm Bill as a whole have performed since their enactment and how has the coronavirus crisis changed your perspective?

Congressman Glenn Thompson: Well, the coronavirus actually has really reaffirmed that, especially when it came to risk management with specifically the new program of the Dairy Margin Coverage, DMC, that I think we got it right. It has proven to be very, very helpful for those farmers that had the inclination, the foresight to be able to sign up for that program, I think, in combination with obviously a number of other programs that we put forward specifically for the COVID-19 crisis, so the Paycheck Protection program, the Economic Incentive payments, the EIDL loan program, the CFAP most recently, both one and now two coming out, and perhaps a three when we get that across the finish line.

When I talk with dairy farmers, the ones that, because we’ve been in some difficult times when it comes to the rural economy and specifically dairy, and that largely was driven by the fact we lost an entire generation, if not two, of milk drinkers when back in 2010 Congress took milk fat out of our schools and basically left these kids to drink chalk water, or lowfat chocolate milk. Now, if you’ve ever tried that, quite frankly, it’s just plain disgusting. And so we lost a generation of milk drinkers.

And so things were difficult, although I will say there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Prior to COVID-19, we saw milk prices, milk futures, things were coming up, things were looking better, and then this light at the end of the tunnel turned out to be a highly contagious virus. It disrupted our food supply chain. And so my evaluation though, and I’ve hosted a number of dairy summits, almost all of them virtual, but we have started doing that in person, some in-person agriculture meetings, which is really refreshing. I tell people that feels like it’s prison work release being able to be out and about and sitting in, whether it’s in the field or the barnyard or wherever talking with farmers. But my evaluation is that for the farmers who signed up for the Dairy Margin Coverage, they’re very thankful for that program, that that’s been one of a number of effective tools to help them during, through some pretty difficult times.

Alan Bjerga: You’re seeking the top Republican spot on the Agriculture Committee for next year. Can you share your vision for the committee and would there be any must-do items at the beginning of your tenure in 2021?

Congressman Glenn Thompson: Yeah, absolutely. You know, my vision for the committee, because I think that’s important, you have to lay out a vision, you have to lay out the pathways to achieve that when it comes to the agriculture committee, and my vision is that we have a future-focused policy agenda that really restores a robust rural economy and empowers rural communities.

I think we can see that by obviously where our farm families, our ranch families are doing better financially, rural communities restore a robust rural economy, and we begin to grow, or regrow is the best way to say it, rural America. Our number one export unfortunately has been our youngest generations who we lose. They move on to other areas, and quite frankly we can do better than that.

And so how do we achieve that vision? For me, one of my priorities starts with investment in rural broadband. Connectivity impacts absolutely every aspect of our lives, certainly from a business perspective, and our dairy farms, our farmers are all businesses, that they have to manage their expenses and their revenue and hopefully have more profit at the end of the day that they keep for themselves. But it impacts connectivity, impacts education, healthcare and so much more.

And so, with precision agriculture today, you know agriculture’s always been science and technology, but now we have the types of technology opportunities using the virtual world by using connectivity. And I’m talking about high-speed broadband. We need to have confidence that every American family, certainly every farm family, every family in rural America has as much access to high-speed rural broadband as they do electricity that we tend to take for granted today.

And then we need to grow new markets. That’s incredibly important. The best way to really support our farmers and ranchers is with increased market opportunities, and that’s both domestic and foreign. So, we know and we celebrate USMCA, the China trade deal, the Philippines, I know we’re working now on Great Britain, European Union’s out there, and those are all markets that will be good for agriculture and specifically good for, certainly good for dairy.

And then its domestic markets. That’s innovation here at home. I mean, one of the new innovations when it comes to number one, the utilization of milk, what new dairy products are out there on the horizon that will expand domestic markets, and what innovations are out there in terms of making connection with those domestic markets. It’s been interesting to see the number of dairy farmers and dairy farm families that are taking advantage of the USDA Value-Added program so that they not just produce the milk on the farm, they’re actually doing home deliveries again, they’re processing it, they’re manufacturing ice cream and cheese. And so that’s all that.

And then certainly strengthening the safety net. The Dairy Margin Coverage is an important part of that. We need to make sure that that safety net is reliable and secure. And that’s important. It’s critical to giving our farm families peace of mind. And then finally, on just a brief checklist of four things, identifying climate solutions. I think that is so important today because it gets so much attention. The fact is that our farmers are, they’re the original environmentalists. That’s my perspective of someone whose family was in farming for generations. We do through our voluntary conservation programs precision agriculture, the healthy soil applications using cover crops and different techniques, and you couple that with quite frankly, our healthy forest management, and trees are a crop, we actually, agriculture and rural America contributes the largest carbon sinks in the world, and yet we fail to take credit for it. And sometimes we become a target of those who want to impose more environmental regulations.

But the fact is what we’re doing voluntarily today is taking more carbon out of the air, and the great part of that in my mind is we not only take it out of the air we’re manufacturing top soil so we can continue to feed ourselves, our nation, and quite frankly, parts of the world.

Alan Bjerga: I want to talk to you a little bit about what you were saying regarding dairy innovation. When you talk about solutions for dairy, it’s much broader necessarily than what even the Agriculture Committee is dealing with. You are also on the Education and Labor Committee, where you’ve been working to make sure that students in school have access to healthy, nutritious dairy products. Could you tell us a little bit about your ongoing efforts there and the broader effort to expand access to dairy?

Congressman Glenn Thompson: Quite frankly, the Democratic-led Congress in 2010 demonized milk fat. We just saw the amount of waste that we’ve seen in schools. The amount of the decrease in consumption of milk because we were no longer giving them number one, the most nutritional experience because that’s what milk fat offers, right? But we were also, we were not giving them the best milk experience for taste and that really disrupted the milk market domestically for us.

Now, I’m really pleased and really thankful to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, who actually implemented my language to restore at least 1% milk fat and flavor into the schools. So we’ve actually seen consumption go up. So that has been very beneficial. Something that, sort of an unintended consequence of this virus is we’ve seen the demand for whole milk increase significantly.

Interestingly, 53% of all meals prior to the virus were eaten in restaurants, at restaurant tables, and all those families were forced back to the family dining room table. This virus had terrible consequences, but one of the things that was unintended and was positive, I think, is that there are many children, and I would argue there’s probably tens of thousands, if not a hundred thousands of children in this country that had their first experience with whole milk at those family dining room tables because whole milk was flying off the shelf as people were sheltering in place at home.

I am trying to advance legislation to restore the use, the option for whole milk in schools. I think that’s incredibly important. We’ll work on developing, and I’ve got great bipartisan co-sponsors for that. Now, again, I wish that was in the jurisdiction of the Agriculture Committee because we’d have it done already. In fact, one of my original co-sponsors on that bill was Congressman Collin Peterson, a friend of mine from Minnesota, a Democratic chairman. And then we have Congressman Mike Conaway was an original co-sponsor as well, a Republican leader. So was strong bipartisan issue. Unfortunately, the jurisdiction for this falls in the Education and Labor Committee. And although I think if I could get the chairman to give an opportunity to vote, I think I have enough Republicans and Democrats on those committees that we could get it out of committee. So we’re obviously still working on that. The Healthy Kids Act is the name of the bill.

There’s another bill that I was proud to work with a colleague of mine, Congressman Fred Keller, also from Pennsylvania, part of my delegation. And that is one that restores, it allows WIC participants, those families that are struggling financially, allows them to select both 2% and whole milk. That’s incredibly important. WIC, the Women, Infant, and Children program, it’s families that are in financially hard times.

I’ll be honest, that was my wife and I. When we were first pregnant with our first son, which has been well over 30 years ago now, we qualified for that. And it was helpful to make sure that both Penny and the baby she was carrying, our son Parker, got access to the nutrition that they needed to have. And so this piece of legislation is called the Give Milk Act. Proud to do that with Congressman Keller. And again, it just provides a more healthy options for WIC participants.

Alan Bjerga: One of the big successes we saw in the last Congress was the passage of the USMCA agreement. Dairy was at the center of that debate. What do you think needs to happen to make sure the U.S. gets all it bargained for in dairy regarding the agreement?

Congressman Glenn Thompson: In the past, it’s been my observation as I look back in history when things like NAFTA were negotiated or other trade agreements, that when the trade agreements were adopted, were signed, were approved by Congress, that members of Congress kind of washed their hands and said, “Look at us, didn’t we do such a great thing of approving, getting these trade agreements, that were negotiated by the administrations, approved legislatively?” And that falls short.

I don’t see that in the 116th Congress, certainly not going to see that, I can tell you, in the 117th Congress. We’re going to make sure that we fulfill our role of oversight. I’ve been very pleased that we have done that with meeting with various members of USDA’s Secretary Perdue’s staff, also with the U.S. Trade representative. Now that major successes like USMCA are on the books, and China, China’s another important one, we need to make sure that our trading partners are living up to the promises that they’ve met, promises made, promises kept, and that’s important with our trade partners.

So, I think oversight going forward is extremely important. I think communications, I’m looking forward to communicating, obviously both with my corresponding colleagues, the agricultural leaders in both Canada and Mexico and their legislatures so that we can communicate on how are we doing, how are both countries doing in fulfilling their obligations.

Canada in particular had created sort of an isolationist policy with a class six, class seven ultra-filtered milk, which really was just about stopping export. Number one, stopping U.S.-produced milk being exported into Canada. Number two, they were saturating Third World country markets where we used to sell some of our dairy components to. And so all of that should be, and I think is opening up at this point. But again, we need to have the oversight and have some transparency.

Alan Bjerga: Looking at the weeks and months ahead, many in the agriculture community had hopes for additional stimulus from Congress through one additional piece of coronavirus-related legislation this year. We saw the announcement of the CFAP 2, which came from legislation passed earlier in the year, but it seems like for a fresh round of aid, the hope seemed to be ebbing with the calendar running down and the Senate now being consumed by a Supreme Court nomination. Would you have more hope that a stimulus package could be done in a lame-duck session and would such legislation even be necessary?

Congressman Glenn Thompson: Well, the need for it we’ll have to see because I do believe that as somebody who, I practiced healthcare for 28 years, right? So I always learned that you start out with an assessment of where you’re at at any point in time to really determine what the measurable needs are. I know their needs remain in the agriculture sector. We still see some modest, it’s getting better, disruption in the food supply chain, but we also need to take the proper steps to build resiliency so that the next time something like this happens we don’t have all the struggles that we have struggled with now for four to five months. And so I am pleased that there is a CFAP 2. It doesn’t require any type of legislative authority, or it already has legislative authority from the CARES Act, and that is helpful.

I support what Secretary Perdue is putting forward. There was replenishing of the Commodity Credit Corporation, which is so essential to being sure that we’re able to cover all the agriculture programs that are out there, whether they would be risk management, conservation, the monies that have been utilized for the pandemic. And also, I put a plug, I really appreciate the extension of the pandemic EBT card from nutritional support for kids that are, and families that are still struggling because of work disruption or poverty.

So, I think that’s about $20 billion or so that will be coming out. So certainly encourage all farmers, certainly dairy, but all farmers to be applying for those. That application period opened back up. People need to understand that just because you got the first time doesn’t mean you get the second time. You need to check with your Farm Service Agency and get that application with one of those agents to get that application going.

And then I think we need to measure where we’re at. As restaurants start to open up, colleges maybe with reduced attendance are opening back up, a lot of kids are back in school. You know, those were the factors that really created that supply chain disruption. Now, it’s all reduced at this point. So that means that the supply chain is still somewhat disrupted. So we’ll roll out CFAP 2, and to me then it’s about keeping my pulse on the agriculture community or farmers and ranchers to see how are they doing, are they struggling.

The key thing is we need to keep them farming because when you lose a farm, you lose a ranch, you’ll wind up with a housing development. You wound up with impervious surfaces that cause more runoff and increased flooding. You wind up with more environmental issues and concerns, more concerns on the climate. And that’s why we need to keep our farms farming. So I guess the question for what’s next is really monitoring and see how well are we doing as the next round of CFAP 2 is deployed.

Alan Bjerga: We of course are going to soon be adjourning Congress for election season. As a member of the House of Representatives, you are up for reelection. You’re campaigning and you’re meeting with folks in Pennsylvania, a state that is certainly very high on the national radar these days. Regardless of the election outcome, regardless of which party controls the White House or the House or the Senate, what kind of country should we be aiming to be a year from now, taking account political transitions, coronavirus vaccines, what should a normal America look like in 2021?

Congressman Glenn Thompson: Well, I would hope, and I pray about this that we look united. Our country is as divided as it has ever been, probably since the time of the Civil War. You know, we all have differences, right? I mean, we all have disagreements, but quite frankly we can learn to live with those differences. And we couldn’t do that. Anyone who thinks that we actually should agree all the time about everything has never been married. All right? But unity, coming to the table and looking at what can we agree upon and making that the basis for the discussion for building solutions to the problems that our nation and this nation’s families are facing. We don’t need to spend a lot of time talking about what we disagree upon. Quite frankly, we can all be overwhelmed by 24/7 cable news with that, but it’s what we can agree upon and making that the basis for cost-effective solutions.

And so that would be my hope and my hope that perhaps we can at that point be a country once again and certainly a Congress that puts people before politics because we have certainly, sadly, even in the middle of this crisis, which it should… You know, we haven’t seen a national health emergency like this since probably the, on this scale probably the polio epidemic, I would say. And we’ve had other pandemics since polio, but polio lasted over a decade before we had a vaccine. It impacted all aspects of our lives. In fact, most of us probably have a family member or somebody that we know that has the physical impairments as a result of the polio epidemic still alive today.

That is my hope and my prayer that we… So unity and quite frankly that we can be a deliberative elective body where we come together and we put people before politics. I’ll be honest with you, that’s what the Agriculture Committee has always done. That’s why I love working on the Agriculture Committee. We’d have never run into this milk situation if we’d had that jurisdiction in the Agriculture Committee in our schools. And so that’s what I’m hopeful for.

Alan Bjerga: Congressman Glenn “GT” Thompson, Republican of Pennsylvania, thank you for joining us today.

Congressman Glenn Thompson: My pleasure. Thank you so much.

Alan Bjerga: That’s it for today’s podcast. You can find it online on NMPF’s new Sharing Our Story page. That’s a drop-down from our homepage. And you can subscribe to the podcast on Apple podcast, Spotify, SoundCloud, and Google Play under the podcast name Dairy Defined. Thank you for joining us.