Ulla Kjarval and Adriana Velez

Archive for April, 2010|Monthly archive page

Notes from Anti-trust Hearing In Batavia, NY

In Farmer's Concerns, Food Chain, Food System, Policy, Uncategorized on April 26, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Room Filled with New York Dairy Farmers Listen to Anti-Trust Investigator Christine Varney.

After attending the anti-trust hearing hosted by NY Senator Charles Schumer and Assistant U.S. Attorney General Christine A. Varney in Batavia, NY, I have more questions than answers, but one thing was made clear: New York State dairy farmers have had a very bad year. Consolidation in our milk processing system and in major retail chains has left area farmers with little bargaining power when it comes to pricing their milk.

Senator Charles Schumer Speaks to a Packed Room of New York Dairy Farmers

Our farmers also face growing debt, reduced access to credit and for many, especially small dairies, a bleak future. Senator Schumer stressed how important dairy was to rural New York’s economy and how antitrust investigation must be conducted to see how consolidation disadvantages New York farmers. “We have to stop this and stop this now. We do not want to wake up to a tomorrow with no NY dairy farms. Consumers pay more and farmers get less. Someone is making the money. Lack of transparency and competition in processing hurts farmers AND consumers.” Schumer pointed out that “with such concentrated market conditions, farmers have less options for selling their product and see higher prices on the farm, while consumers aren’t seeing more competitive prices at the store.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney General Christine A. Varney

“We will not let you down,” Assistant U.S. Attorney General Christine A. Varney said : “We know the problem you’re facing.”

Here are some of my condensed notes from the hearing!

Barbara Brown, a county legislator in Oswego County and Dairy Farmer

Interestingly, there seemed to be more talk about dairy cooperatives than there was about consolidation among many of the attending farmers. In western NY there are two large cooperatives, UPSTATE Farms and Dairy Lea, which were both well-represented. Many producers spoke about how vitally important cooperatives were to their farms, and how their bargaining power was instrumental to the-well being of milk operations. Other farmers, especially those with smaller herds, spoke about how the major cooperatives did not help them lower hauling costs or bargain against processors who insist on paying below their input costs. The CEO of Dairy Lea testified and said that cooperatives provided leveraging power to farmers because there was strength in numbers. Others did not paint such a rosy picture. Barb Brown was the most critical voice, saying that Dairy Lea had in fact bankrupted her father and had done little to prevent the decline of the family dairy in New York State. Her words were poignant and sad: “It’s genocide of the American dairy farmer. We are losing a whole way of life.” She also spoke about the severe stress dairy farmers are under and how many are at a mental health breaking point. She stressed how she now prays for a neighbor whom she visited and burst into tears when she walked onto his lawn. Because he is losing money as a dairy farmer he feels like a failure, and cannot understand how he struggles to survive as a farmer on the same farm his father raised seven kids on. She also mentioned how stressed the farm children were(something close to my heart) , because they see how financially strained their parents are and become depressed themselves. Barb also noted how hauling costs can be the same for large dairy farms as they are for a small 100-head dairy, making it impossible for smaller farms to compete.

Farmers gathered from across the state to share their concerns and grievances.

Another farmer reiterated many Senator Schumer’s points, but went further by speaking out against what he perceived as rampant crookedness and manipulation in the dairy industry. He stressed that the numbers speak for themselves: The number of American dairy farmers has dropped from 250,000 to 50,000 since the dawn of the Reagan administration. Another farmer pointed out that this was David vs. Goliath, NY family farmers against huge corporations. “We need the help of government”, he pleaded. Yet another farmer pointed out that they did not want hand-outs, but a fair market.

The milk pricing issue was explained in Adriana’s article Take Back Our Milk: Unraveling the Dairy Crisis, which really illustrates how complex this is from a policy and distribution perspective. Many questions remain for me, but hauling costs seem to be an issue that, if examined, might help us keep our family farms closer and local. We also need more stability in our pricing structure if we want to encourage young people to become dairy farmers. NY farmers also receive the lowest mailbox rate for their milk east of the Mississippi, a statistic which demonstrates how more local milk systems could benefit our farmers.

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