Vilsak Visit

USDA secretary Tom Vilsack, center, talks about using local produce to create more nutritious school lunches with REAP farm to school program manager Sarah Elliott and Catholic Multicultural Center executive director Andy Russell Monday in Madison.

ROB SCHULTZ | Lee Newspapers

MADISON — U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, speaking Monday at Madison’s Catholic Multicultural Center, predicted major problems for dairy farmers and American consumers if a new farm bill isn’t passed this year to replace the version that expired Sunday.

Vilsack, who will speak to farmers Tuesday at the first day of the World Dairy Expo at the Alliant Energy Center, said the wholesale price of milk could more than double. That could force consumers to pay more than $6 for a gallon.

“My lord, the grocery stores, it’ll just be unbelievable,” said Vilsack, who added that the long-term ramifications of such an increase would more than offset any short-term gains for dairy farmers. “So Congress has to get this done.”

Milk prices will spike if a new farm bill isn’t passed or the old one extended before Dec. 31 because dairy price supports will end, farm policy will revert back to the 1949 farm bill and old parity laws will mean dairy producers could get twice the current cash price. Dairy processors would respond by raising their prices, too.

“I don’t know if there are too many dairy producers who would advocate that quick of a jump because there would be a backlash by consumers and that would have a long-term impact on producers,” said Vilsack.

Vilsack told a story about a dairy farmer in California who committed suicide because of the stress of the dairy industry during tough times.

“There’s that kind of stress in many parts of the dairy industry today,” Vilsack said.

The old farm bill expired after Congress adjourned last week and left in limbo a new, five-year farm bill that would spend nearly $500 billion in federal money.

The Senate passed its version of the bill in June, and the House Agriculture Committee approved a similar version in July. But the House Republican leadership declined to bring a bill to the House floor, contending that they did not have the votes to pass it.

A key factor was the food stamp program, which costs nearly $80 billion a year, or 80 percent of all the spending in the bill. House conservatives say the committee’s decision to trim that budget by about 2 percent was too small, while some Democrats said any cuts to the food stamp program were unacceptable.

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And while both the House and Senate take major steps to reform farm subsidy programs, some conservatives say farmers still get too much federal aid.

After touring the Catholic Multicultural Center on the city’s South Side and seeing fresh, local produce processed for school lunches, Vilsack announced $101 million in grants — including 19 for Wisconsin — to support specialty crop producers.

But Vilsack said all that grant money is on hold until a new farm bill is passed.

Two grants totaling about $6 million were awarded to UW-Madison. One focuses on encouraging more farm-to-school programs like the Research, Education, Action and Policy Food Group’s farm-to-school program, which supplies area schools with fresh, locally produced fruits and vegetables that it prepares and processes at the Catholic Multicultural Center. The food produced by REAP is sustainably grown and comes from just one acre of land.

“You can see the tremendous potential,” said Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa.

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