CRESSON – It takes a lot more than milk to keep a dairy farm afloat.
Trade, labor shortages, consumer consumption trends, regulations and minimum price formulas contribute to making or breaking dairy farms of all sizes.
Each of these issues was touched on during a dairy summit hosted by U.S. Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson at Mount Aloysius College on Monday morning.
Along with Thompson, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding and U.S. Reps. Fred Keller and John Joyce attended to listen to farmers’ concerns and questions.
Stories of family dairy farms selling off their herds after years of struggle have become numerous in recent years.
Maggie Curtis, a dairy farmer from Erie County, said she’s facing that reality without help of legislators and industry leaders.
Curtis said her farm, like many others, is taking on 90% or more of production costs, but only receiving about 40% back in revenues.
“That’s not a sustainable business model,” she said, noting the state’s formula to calculate minimum milk prices has not seen significant change since the 1930s.
Curtis said she’s in danger of losing her farm to back taxes. She’d like to purchase a nearby processing operation to make up for the losses of the farm, but can’t afford the cost up front.
“I don’t have any capital to work with,” she said.
There are limited grant opportunities available through federal and state programs specifically focused on farmers, but changes to overarching issues such as regulations and trade are what legislators are working on to refresh the dairy industry.
As trade agreements settle between the United States, Canada and Mexico, Perdue said President Donald Trump is also working to ratify a trade agreement with Japan that would allow American dairy farms to export products.
“The more markets, the better,” Perdue said.
Trump has taken a firm stance in trade talks with China, Perdue added, insisting on an agreement that’s fair.
“The question is really China, and the ball is in their court,” he said. “We’re ready to trade with China any time.”
Along with the potential to trade with other countries, many dairy farmers are hopeful to send more products to their neighbors, especially schools.
After working to bring back 1% flavored milk back to school lunch programs, Perdue was asked about the chances of gradually returning 2% and whole milk varieties to cafeterias.
The challenge, Perdue said, is not getting healthy foods to students, but healthy foods students will eat.
“This starts with dietary guidelines,” Perdue said, referring to the national guidelines for school lunch programs that will need factual, scientific information to support and Congressional backing to change.
Thompson said bringing whole milk back to schools is not only nutritionally beneficial, but would boost local economies.
“We need a robust dairy industry for a robust economy in our areas,” he said.
Outside of student consumers, farmers have seen fluctuating trends in consumers choosing milk alternatives, such as almond milk, soy milk or coconut milk.
With more than 7,000 farms in his district, Joyce has been supportive of changing packaging of these plant-based, non-dairy products to remove “milk” from labels for these items, which are often marketed as healthier options over milk.
“It is so important that dairy represents dairy,” he said.
Within the last four years, Redding said innovation, premiums and changes in consumer trends have been critical topics in the dairy world.
“The balance between what’s produced and what’s consumed matters,” he said.