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With Dairy’s Strong Will, There’s Always a Way

February 1, 2019

A new year always brings hope, but dairy’s economic conditions remain difficult. In response, NMPF has continued seeking ways to get the best policy solution to help dairy farmers – the dairy provisions of the new farm bill – off the ground and into effect. It’s been a greater challenge than we’d hoped because the recent government shutdown took resources and attention away from USDA implementation of the new legislation that will provide greater stability for dairy finances.

But with the shutdown’s end – at least for now – taking shape late last month, we decided it was time to write Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, noting that our members were eager to see the dairy reforms put in place. Because the new Dairy Margin Coverage program is, essentially, a revision of the previous Margin Protection Program, we suggested there are ways to fast-track implementation.

“Dairy farmers have just completed a fourth consecutive year of depressed milk prices and are facing an uncertain outlook for 2019,” I wrote in a letter to Secretary Perdue on Jan. 25. “The significant dairy policy reforms we worked successfully with Congress to enact in the new farm bill will be critically important to helping farmers better manage difficult periods of low margins.”

The 25th was a Friday, the day the shutdown ended. Before federal employees had even reported to work on Monday, the Secretary had reaffirmed that yes, USDA aims to start work on implementing the DMC immediately. We appreciate the department’s responsiveness, and we look forward to working with them on ways to make sure that dairy producers see farm bill benefits fast. This is an important reminder that, as difficult as the economy remains for dairy producers, we can still make progress in policy work even during what are, in some ways, unprecedented times in Washington.

We are moving forward on several fronts, the first of which is implementing the farm bill. Securing well-written USDA rules will be an important part of any dairy farm’s financial toolkit as we try to get past tough times of the last few years and experience a more prosperous 2019. As soon as decision-making tools are available, we will alert our members and help walk them through the process. Stay tuned for new materials and expect positive developments in the weeks ahead.

We are also engaging Congress and trade authorities to support deals that are good for dairy and press for resolution of disputes that are holding us back. A crucial piece of unfinished congressional business from last year is the ratification of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement governing North American trade. We support its ratification for the gains and certainty it will provide. We are also looking ahead to future agreements, such as a deal with Japan that we need to increase our market access as competitors gain tariff advantages, and a potential accord with the post-Brexit U.K.

Still, we need immediate action to lift retaliatory tariffs on dairy from Mexico and China. Hoped-for gains from the USMCA won’t be realized as long as the Mexico tariffs are in place. The simple fact is we need greater export opportunities and we’re wary of entanglements that stifle our progress. Free and fair trade boosts our bottom lines – and our bottom line is, we need freer and fairer trade. Now.

We also won’t lower our efforts on one of our longest-running, most important issues: integrity of dairy standards of identity and clarity on dairy-product labeling. While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s comment period on fake milk labeling concluded on Jan. 28 (thank you for filing yours!), that milestone only completed one leg of a journey that won’t end this winter. Once FDA has its comments, it still needs to take final action that protects consumers by enforcing dairy’s standard of identity. We are preparing more materials to outline what we know FDA should do, and we will continue to impress upon lawmakers and regulators that this issue isn’t fading. Expect us to keep the volume high on this issue in the coming months. The next phase is about to begin.

The issues above are crucial for our industry, and our goals for addressing them are ambitious. And the list above is far from exhaustive. We are looking forward to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency releasing its revised Waters of the U.S. rule that was delayed by the shutdown. We continue work on the rollout of Farm 4.0 in 2020, which will be crucial to meet our members’ labor and workforce needs. And we remain in close coordination with allied organizations, both inside and outside dairy, to tell our positive story and draw attention to policy needs that affect producers and consumers here and abroad.

Our efforts to help our members are only more important as we seek to advance our industry in challenging times. We know this much: When we speak to important policymakers on Capitol Hill or at USDA or FDA, they listen. That’s a tribute to the strength of dairy’s voice, and it augurs hope as we work together toward our common goals.