No Easy Fix

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Farming at its best is a challenge. Every farmer deals with adversity; it is a part of being involved in agriculture. However, for the past several years Missouri's dairy farmers have experienced more than their fair share of hardship -- extreme volatile high-low price cycles with skyrocketing feed costs since 2008. In simple terms, a disaster for economic survival.

Hundreds of Missouri dairy farmers have either been forced to exit the dairy business or chose to leave it on terms they could manage. Missouri, once a top 10 dairy state in the United States, has slid to 26th and still sliding. This is one of the reasons the Missouri House Interim Committee on Emerging Issues in Agriculture was appointed earlier this year. The committee's primary focus at a series of three hearings across Missouri has been on the decline of the dairy industry in the state.

Several dairy farmers took time from their never-ending work on their dairy to help the lawmakers on the committee better understand the challenges and adversities the dairy farmer has been trying to manage to keep their family business and heritage in existence. These hardworking, taxpaying, community-minded, Missouri citizens did not want a handout. What they were suggesting for consideration by the lawmakers were myriad options that dairy farmers could use in their management tool box to help adapt their business models to the economic challenges they are facing.

Some of the more noteworthy suggestions included a dairy apprentice mentor program to help high school and college students interested in agriculture to get practical hands-on experience working on a dairy farm while earning educational credits and/or a salary. Others urged the committee to develop state programs that enhance dairy profitability and incentivize additional "new" milk production from Missouri's existing dairy farmer base.

Another topic was aiding the expansion and development of markets for Missouri produced milk. The local and regional foods movement is creating demand and opportunities for farmers to supply niche markets. Consideration should be given to developing technical assistance programs and financial incentive programs for individuals and/or small groups of farmers who want to add value to their milk and capture that value at a higher level in the supply chain.

By now you may be thinking what's the big deal here anyway. All of us have our own economic crisis at times. And besides, there always seems to be plenty of milk at the grocery store. And, you would be right. But approximately 60 percent of that milk is produced in some other state and trucked into Missouri at a cost, an additional cost to you the consumer and our own Missouri dairy farmers who thru a complicated federal marketing order system affectively receive less money for the milk they produce.

Missouri does have a dairy processing industry that bottles milk and makes cheese, yogurt, ice cream, butter and other dairy foods for consumption. Processors depend more and more on non-Missouri produced milk to meet their needs. Missouri is starting to see some plants close due to the dwindling supply of local milk. So, why should we care? Bottom line, if Missouri becomes more dependent on outside milk, the probability of more Missouri processing facilities closing increases. That probability eventually translates into the reality of higher fluid milk and dairy product prices for Missouri consumers.

There is no easy fix to this complex issue. Let's hope policy makers have the wisdom to provide real solutions to help stabilize and regrow this important sector of agriculture and our rural communities. It will take commitment by our dairy farmers and public support from Missouri citizens if it is to happen.