U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack’s Dairy Industry Advisory Committee met for the first time this week in Washington. The Secretary opened the three-day meeting by telling the 17-member panel things cannot go on as they are in the dairy industry. Vilsack noted that USDA cannot step in to buy additional product or increase the support prices temporarily like it has in the past and charged the group with coming up with suggestions by the end of the year.
Wisconsin Agriculture Secretary Rod Nilsestuen is one of the committee members; he says that while the panel is very diverse, representing large and small producers, processors, government and academia, they all agreed dairy producers are in serious financial shape. “I’ve been around dairy all of my life and I don’t ever recall such unanimity.” The “silver lining” in all of that according to Nilsestuen is there is unity in the need for reform, the need to “put together a comprehensive set of strategies that fit rather than the relative mish-mash of policies that have been put in place over decades.”
Nilsestuen says the first order of business is to determine what needs to be done in the short term to keep those still in business in business. “At the top of that list is credit access and availability.” Part of the problem is the tighter restrictions place on banks as a result of the financial meltdown in 2008; bankers are trying to stick with their producers but are forced to be more restrictive. The Secretary points out that while the Farm Service Agency has money available for producers, the staffs are overwhelmed and extra help is needed. He thinks that will be resolved in the near future.
Longer term, perhaps the biggest challenge is whether or not we need some type of supply management system in the United States. Nilsestuen says as diverse as the committee is, most see that as the most important question they need to address. They heard from numerous groups including the National Milk Producers Federation who have had their own task force working on this issue for over a year now, Nilsestuen says a number of proposals have been put on the table and no one proposal carries more weight than another. “There certainly is serious consideration of various ideas for ways to stabilize prices and production in a way that isn’t just eliminating farmers.”
The next committee meeting will be in June, “but there will be a lot of discussions between now and then.”