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The Other Front Burners

May 2, 2011

During the course of the past year, much of the discussion in this column has been about the urgent need for comprehensive reform of dairy policy. I’m pleased that the broad and deep work that farmers across the country have undertaken toward that end is bearing fruit, and we hope this spring to have new legislation in Congress that encapsulates the details of our Foundation for the Future package of policy reforms. The arrival of this legislation will then give us a once in a generation opportunity to make dramatic and positive changes in the safety net programs that farmers need.

But even as that process continues, so does a great deal of effort on other fronts. I’d like to single out three of them, as each signifies something important about what NMPF is also tackling in other areas.

First, somatic cell count limits. As May begins, so does the biennial National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments. The NCIMS process allows federal and state regulators to meet with industry representatives every two years to in an effort to improve the safety of the nation’s milk supply. It’s what allows us to rightly assert that milk is one of the most heavily-regulated and tested foods in the country, and that the U.S. milk supply is the safest in the world. As always, there is room for improvement in those regulations. And at this year’s NCIMS meeting in Baltimore, NMPF is supporting a major change: reducing the allowed somatic cell count limit from 750,000 cells per mL, down to 400,000, effective Jan. 2014. In the past, we have not supported similar efforts, but now, we believe, is the time to reduce those limits – over a three-year period – to bring the U.S. closer in alignment with world standards.

National SCC averages are already in the range of 227,000, so the impact of this change will be felt mainly by the roughly 11% of the milk supply that periodically exceeds a 400,000 limit. The three-year phase-in will give those farms that may be at risk of non-compliance the opportunity to make management changes so that they are not vulnerable in the future. And let’s face it: this new threshold is the future, both for domestic milk supplies, and the international market. This is an area where we have to demonstrate a commitment to make changes for the better, because this way, the terms of that change are under our control.

The second issue I want to cite is our continued support for the enactment of trade agreements that offer us new export opportunities. In particular, we’ve been working with both the White House and Congress to pass new free trade pacts with South Korea, Panama and Colombia. Just last month, there was progress in resolving some lingering issues with the latter country, meaning there’s now light at the end of the tunnel for all three agreements.

The combined potential value of the additional U.S. dairy exports to the trio of countries exceeds $400 million annually. We saw in 2009 what happens when we lose a portion of our export business; these FTAs are a way to gain entirely new markets through lower trade barriers. Although the work on these has been slow and rife with politics, it’s exactly the type of long-term, steadfast pressure that our industry has to undertake in order for it to grow in the future.

The third and final issue is doing something about federal immigration policy. NMPF has, for at least five years, supported comprehensive efforts to deal with the labor needs of dairy farmers, because the reality is that there is a mismatch between what needs to be done on farms today, and the availability of workers who will do those chores. The survey we commissioned in 2008 found that 41% of dairy workers are foreign-born, and that if those workers were removed from the equation, a significant number of other jobs would also disappear.

Unfortunately, broad immigration reform remains a radioactive issue politically. So we have focused on where there is a more realistic chance of success, specifically, reforming the H-2A visa program. New legislation in the Senate would provide a technical fix to this existing program, allowing dairy farmers to bring in foreign-born workers to their farms, the same as other agricultural enterprises can already do under the existing H-2A regulations. Even during this period of high unemployment, and all the other challenges we have faced on farms, labor issues remain a paramount concern, and we mustn’t forget that.

Which is the point of this exercise: we have to remember that as dairy policy simmers on the stove, there are other issues that are also front-burner concerns to our industry. Some are offensive opportunities, while others involve playing defense. But they’re all part of the work that must be done here at NMPF on a regular basis.