Rep. Ron Kind (D-La Crosse) and members of the Wisconsin Congressional Delegation sent a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue, pressing him to take immediate action on behalf of Wisconsin dairy farmers and dairy processing businesses during this crisis.
The push came after Wisconsin dairy farms became dumping thousands of gallons of fresh milk daily because of a drop in demand for dairy products typically consumed in schools, restaurants and food services.
“We have to support our family farmers and the food security system which is essential at a time like this,” Kind said. “They are also an important part of our rural economy. They support local businesses. It’s also important because I don’t want to wake up in a country where we’re completely dependent on a few, but very large businesses for all of our food needs and the monopoly manipulation that they would be able to control in that situation.”
In addition to the drop in domestic sales, dairy industry groups also anticipate a decline in dairy market exports, the first in years.
“I’m talking to the president’s trade representative to see if they are willing to ease up on some of those tariff restrictions that they put in place that is engendering this responsive retaliation by other countries,” Kind said. “I think it is another short-term way of relieving some of the pressure our family farmers are undergoing.”
For the past two years, Wisconsin led the nation in farm bankruptcies with an average of two dairy farms closing a day, according to Kind.
“Our dairy farmers were already struggling, and this pandemic puts them into even more of a crisis. They cannot afford to have the USDA stall on helping farmers in Wisconsin by reopening the Dairy Margin Coverage (DMC) program,” Kind said. “It is baffling to understand why Secretary Perdue is dragging his feet on helping dairy farmers when he has full authority to reopen enrollment for the Dairy Margin Coverage program right now. Congress did its job to give him the tools he needs to support dairy. Now he needs to do his.”
Kind and the delegation asked Secretary Perdue to use tools that were created under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to connect Wisconsin dairy and cheese producers to consumers. The plan was threefold.
One step was to reopen DMC enrollment and make payments retroactive for all of 2020. The idea was to utilize existing authorities and distribute funds from the $23.5 billion provided by Congress last month.
“Earlier in the year when the farmers were making that determination, we were looking at an entirely different market satiation,” Kind said. “Now that things have changed, we think it is appropriate for the agriculture secretary to use his authority to open up DMC.”
The second part is to provide $450 million authorized by Congress to buy agricultural products for food pantries through the Emergency Food Assistance Program.
“Buy some excess commodities so we can maintain the food programs, senior and children nutrition programs,” Kind said. “It is another temporary measure where we can intervene to help stabilize prices until we can get a grip on the virus and start opening up the economy.”
Finally, provide funding to Wisconsin and other states to help resolve food supply chain disruptions and keep agricultural products supply chains functioning in order to reach consumers when and where they need it.
Kind said under CARES, farmers would qualify as a small business which means they could qualify for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). That program offers loans that may be forgiven to help cover payroll costs and costs of utilities and rent, according to Kind.
In addition to Rep. Kind, the letter was signed by Senators Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson and Representatives Mike Gallagher, Glenn Grothman, Gwen Moore, Mark Pocan, and Bryan Steil.
The full letter to USDA is available here.