October 1, 2019

Secretary Perdue Talks Trade, Markets at World Dairy Expo

 |  By: Anna-Lisa Laca

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue spent time with dairy farmers Tuesday at the World Dairy Expo. During the town hall-style meeting, producers questioned the Secretary about everything from organic certification enforcement to supply management and trade. 

As has been his recent pattern, the Secretary opened the meeting with a joke. This one, about milking almonds with robots, hit the audience much better than the last time he was in the upper Midwest. 

Paul Adams, an organic dairy farmer, said the market for his milk has been devastated by “large-scale, mega-organic dairies.” Adams alleged those dairies don’t have to comply with the same requirements as his dairy. “How do I get exemptions like the mega-dairies?” Adams asked.

 “I don't know that the USDA blesses that. You're right about the market. There's been an overproduction of organic milk because of its popularity and price differentials,” Perdue said. “If you would point out to us the specific examples of those you feel like are not doing that, we will investigate that.”

The meeting attendees also brought up a concern that Wisconsin farmers who regularly plant alfalfa and grass mixes are not eligible for the Market Facilitation Program. Perdue said he was not aware of this issue, and explained that there are specific rules around which crops qualify for MFP. Farmers in attendance thanked the Secretary for the flexible prevented planting dates for 2019, which allowed many of them to plant new seeding alfalfa this fall on acres that were in the prevented planting program. When asked if USDA is willing to make the new, earlier harvest dates permanent, Perdue said it’s something USDA is working on. However, he said he hopes we don’t relive 2019 record-setting weather again. 

One milk cooperative manager asked Secretary Perdue to investigate the spread between block and barrel cheese. The price differential has grown substantially over the past few years, costing dairy farmers 16 cents per cwt in 2019, according to American Farm Bureau research.

“I think USDA's role--government's role, in general--is to be the balance between the producer and the consumer in that area, making sure that there are no predatory pricing issues there,” he said. “We're willing to assume that responsibility; obviously, we’re not trying to [interfere] with commerce and contracts, but certainly being a balance to make sure that people are being treated fairly.”

Perdue tied this discussion to the ongoing investigation of the fire at the Tyson plant in Holcomb, Kan., and the market price action that followed that incident. 

Perdue was hopeful on trade. When asked if he expects the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement to pass in 2019, he said he’s confident the deal will pass as soon as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi brings it to a vote. He added that he hopes recent “distractions” won’t delay a vote. Additionally, he said there is positive movement on the China trade deal. Although, he added, a timeline for completion is nearly impossible to nail down. 

Of course, no town hall discussion in Wisconsin would be complete without discussing supply management. When asked if he would support a federal supply management system, Perdue said, “If you need an answer right now, the answer is no.”