Attendees of the Minnesota Farmer’s Union Rural Dairy Discussion voice their solutions for the agricultural economic crisis June 12 at Mike and Krista Osendorf’s farm near Paynesville, Minn.
Attendees of the Minnesota Farmer’s Union Rural Dairy Discussion voice their solutions for the agricultural economic crisis June 12 at Mike and Krista Osendorf’s farm near Paynesville, Minn. PHOTO BY ABBY HOPP
    PAYNESVILLE, Minn. – All across the nation, dairy farmers are at the end of their wits waiting for the economy to turn around from what has been several years of low milk prices.
    In an effort to find solutions, dairy farmers, industry professionals and government representatives gathered for a rural dairy discussion June 12 at Mike and Krista Osendorf’s 40-cow dairy farm near Paynesville, Minn.
    The event was put on by the Minnesota Farmers Union (MFU) as part of their rural dairy discussion series in Stearns and Wabasha counties.
    “Farmers’ voices are not being heard,” said Gary Wertish, MFU President. “We want to hear your ideas and suggestions on the dairy situation, and report back to senators, congressmen and state officials.”
    Andrea Vaubel, Minnesota Department of Agriculture Assistant Commissioner, and Patty Edelburg, National Farmers Union Vice President and dairy farmer from Amherst, Wis., joined Wertish as part of the discussion panel.
    Throughout the event, area dairy farmers and state representatives discussed possible solutions to the dairy crisis. While the group could all agree milk prices should reach and remain at stable and profitable levels, there were several ways to achieve that goal.
    Over the years, several government-led initiatives have been designed to assist farmers when commodity prices are low. However, the success of each program is continually critiqued.
    At the discussion, many farmers agreed the programs are short-term reliefs and a permanent solution could be found at the processing plants and on dairy farms.
    “We’re in a different situation than what we were in the ‘80s when things were lousy,” said Ken Schefers, who dairy farms near Paynesville, Minn. “I don’t have a fix, but curbing production is where I’ve always thought we might find relief.”
    Dairy farmers throughout the countryside are closing their barn doors, but production has not subsided much.
    In Minnesota, alone, year-over-year production has only dropped 2.2 percent from April 2017 to April 2018, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
    “The farmers who have quit have been more than made up by larger dairies and investors …” Schefers said. “We can try and cut back production on our 80-cow farm, but that’s not going to make a difference.”
    Mark Rohr, of Bluffton, Minn., agreed.
    “I think we need to quit culling dairy farms and start culling cows,” he said.
    Likewise, those in attendance expressed concern over processing plants’ ability to disperse dairy products.
    “How come in the United States, our co-ops are not selling more by dollar value than they were 10 years ago?” Mike Orbeck said. “It seems like sales haven’t increased over time. There are only [two] national U.S. co-ops ranked in the top 10 for sales. Do foreign investors have easier access to our market?”
    Orbeck milks cows near St. Martin, Minn.
    In response to Orbeck’s question, attendees spoke up about international businesses investing in cheese plants and other U.S. dairy infrastructure.
    “Part of the reason other countries are investing in our dairy [industry] is because the federal marketing order has granted them an allowance,” Rohr said. “If they can keep their plants full, they can make a profit. We’ve got the USDA guaranteeing a profit to foreign businesses, but we don’t provide that same thing to U.S. citizens.”
     To facilitate a fair milk price for dairy farmers, attendees tossed around the idea of a two-tier pricing system or one that mimics Canada’s.
    There are several components of the northern country’s policy that makes it successful for dairy farmers. The system does not allow foreign investment and unnecessary expansion. In following those primary objectives, among others, the processing industry and consumers are guaranteed an ample supply of dairy products, David Kaseno said.
    Kaseno is the director of operations for the dairy department at National Farmers.
    Canadian farmers are then provided a milk price that supports their cost of living and production, as well as a profit in the business.
    “We have a perfect storm,” Kaseno said. “We have technology and genetics that have gone through the roof. We’ve got facilities that are conducive to expansion. We have policy in place to facilitate large, non-family dairies. Every dairyman that is concerned should take a good look at [Canada’s] system. It would address this problem and keep rural communities intact.”
    Krista Osendorf envisions part of the solution to be much simpler – educate consumers.
    “My wheels turn when I’m in the skid loader, and all I can think of is a solution that is education based,” she said.
    In the United States, the average consumer is several generations removed from agriculture and retaining much of their information from online sources.
    “What we’re seeing in the media is speaking louder than us,” Osendorf said. “Consumers aren’t drinking milk or not consuming dairy based on principal. We need to change our image.”
    The pressure conventional farms are feeling in today’s industry carries over into the organic sector. Dairy farmer Joe Borgerding, of Belgrade, Minn., operates an organic dairy being influenced by the conventional market.
    He suggested addressing the labor concerns as a way to boost milk prices.  
    “They say you have to get huge or get out,” Borgerding said. … “At the large scale with immigrant labor, there is a social class not being paid and the small producers feel that. We need to protect our local milk.”
    The discussion panel appreciated the comments and possible solutions for today’s dairy crisis. From the event at the Osendorfs’ dairy and another program in southern Minnesota, the panel gathered their notes for state and federal lawmakers.
    Most importantly, they encouraged farmers to continue expressing their needs.
    “We’re on the path to vertical integration, and if we don’t keep talking we’ll see that happen in dairy, just as it killed two other livestock industries,” Edelburg said. “We have to keep these conversations going until we have a champion for dairy in D.C.”