Time is of the essence. That was the message delivered by Wisconsin Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin following a meeting with area dairy farmers about the Canadian trade barriers that are threatening their livelihood.
The discussion took place Thursday morning at Five Star Dairy, LLC in rural Elk Mound, an 1,100-cow operation owned and operated by Lee Jensen and his wife, Jean Amundson, for the past 17 years.
“We talked about a broad array of issues, including an issue that is front and center on my agenda which is significant concerns about unfair trade practices in Canada,” Baldwin said, noting that exports are crucial to the viability of the dairy economy in Wisconsin and other states in the upper Midwest.
Grassland Dairy Products of Greenwood recently sent a letter to 75 dairy farmers in Wisconsin notifying them that as of May 1, the company was cancelling their milk contracts. Policy changes in Canada forced Grassland to reduce their milk intake volumes by up to 1 million pounds a milk a day.
According to Grassland’s website, “After years of selling milk product into Canada, our Canadian partners notified us that due to their new Canadian dairy regulations, they would stop purchasing our products effective immediately.”
The ripple effects of the lost sales due to the Canadian trade restrictions on the ultra-filtered milk used to make cheese are being felt throughout Wisconsin and the nation.
Baldwin explained that last spring, the Canadian province of Ontario began a dairy pricing policy that gave preference to Canadian dairy products over those imported from the U.S. In February, the policy change was implemented throughout Canada, further blocking American dairy products.Thanks to alerts from both processors and producers, Baldwin said her office has been aware for a while about the possible expansion of the policy. “But it’s moving fast, and it’s of great concern to me that even though we’ve been sounding the alarm since last fall, this issue isn’t resolved yet.”
That lack of resolution has been hampered by the transition still taking place following November’s U.S. presidential election. Noting that the impact of the change in Canadian policy is costing millions of dollars, Baldwin said, “One of the frustrations right now is that just as a new administration comes in, it takes time for them to put together their Cabinet. So we don’t have people in the position of Secretary of Agriculture and the position of U.S. Trade Representative who need to be sitting at the table, across the table from their Canadian counterparts and having this negotiation.”
Doing her best to convey the urgency of the situation to him, the senator said she has brought her concerns to Sonny Perdue, President Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Agriculture who is expected to be confirmed in a little over a week.
“We need our leaders engaged ... to see what we can do to walk this back,” Baldwin said. “I believe it’s a very unfair practice, as we’re already seeing now for some time,” Baldwin said. “We’re asking for fair rules and a level playing field. That’s what we think has gone awry in Canada. We’re talking about preferences that they’re giving for their own.”
State level action
About the Grassland announcement, Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin President Marty Hallock noted on Thursday, “That went fairly fast if you’re looking at exports going back and forth. ... You can talk about it, but until somebody closes the door, you can still have a discussion.”
A dairy farmer from Sauk City and PDPW vice president Mitch Breunig reported that Wisconsin Agriculture Secretary Ben Brancel, the state’s dairy farmers and processors are working together on finding a solution at least in the short term to buy some time until the federal agriculture secretary and trade representative are in place at the federal level.
“We’re calling on the processing community to step up as a team in the state of Wisconsin to see if they can take some of this milk for a short period of time to allow negotiations to take place,” Breunig said. “As of this moment, nobody’s stuck their hands up and said we have room for extra milk, but they’re still working on it.”
While hopeful, Hallock recognizes that the state’s 120 manufacturing plants are running full: “Can each plant pick up a little? I don’t see one plant taking the whole thing. We hope and pray the processors can figure that out — or we can open the doors back up for exports.”
And then there’s this, Breunig points out: “It’s planting season. If you’re a dairy farmer, you’ve purchased your corn ... your alfalfa ... your soybeans. You’re planning to go out into the field tomorrow and plant your crop and you don’t know if you’re going to have cows.”
As for what happens when May 1 arrives and the farmers affected don’t have a market for their milk, Baldwin admitted she doesn’t have an answer. But the senator who is up for re-election in 2018 said, “I can tell you on a bipartisan basis — from House members as well as senators —that we are speaking out loudly on this.”
Although both Breunig and Hallock are glad that the folks in Washington, D.C. are paying attention, they wonder if Wisconsin farmers will be faced with the decision of selling their cows and leaving their family farms.
Baldwin hopes that President Trump will take seriously her March 28 letter to him in which she wrote: “The health of Wisconsin’s rural economy rises and falls with the strength of our agriculture industry. We must do everything we can to ensure our rural communities and farms make it through this challenging time for farmers and farm workers.”