Editor’s Update: Advisory ‘advisory’

By Dave Natzke

The list of who’s on USDA’s Dairy Industry Advisory Committee was released in early January. Not to downplay future efforts or the quality of individuals on the committee, but don’t bet the farm on any dairy policy consensus. Don’t even bet last November’s small Milk Income Loss Contract Program payment.

First, the players. The 17-member panel includes nine producers or producer group representatives, four processors, and four people representing government, academia, retail and consumer interests (see list).

USDA Dairy Industry Advisory Committee

Name State Affiliation

Paul Bourbeau Vermont Paboco Farms Inc.

Jay Bryant Virginia Maryland /Virginia Milk Producers Co-op

Erick Coolidge Pennsylvania Le-Ma-Ra Farm

Timothy Den Dulk Michigan den         Dulk Dairy Farm, LLC

Debora Erb New Hampshire Springvale Farms/Landaff Creamery, LLC

James Goodman        Wisconsin Northwood Farm

James Krahn Oregon Oregon Dairy Farmers Association

Edward Maltby Massachusetts Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance

Rodney Nilsestuen Wisconsin Wisconsin Department of Agriculture

Andrew Novakovic New York Cornell University

Robert Schupper Pennsylvania Giant Food Stores

Manuel Souza California Mel-Delin Dairy, Western United Dairymen

Patricia Stroup California Nestle

Sue Taylor Colorado Leprino Foods Co. Inc.

Edward Welch Minnesota Associated Milk Producers Inc.

James Williams Georgia Williams Dairy Trucking

Robert Wills Wisconsin Cedar Grove Cheese Inc.

A diverse group, to be sure. The committee is charged with reviewing issues such as farm milk price volatility and dairy farmer profitability, and provide suggestions and ideas on how USDA can best address these issues – presumably through reforms of programs, policies and rules. Sounds like walking orders for consensus building to me.

While I am frequently called a naive optimist when it comes to groups of people working together toward a common goal, good luck with that. Any group that is long on diversity is generally short on consensus. Committees and commissions with even narrower ideological spreads than those represented by this group have tried – and failed – to come up with consensus on dairy issues even narrower in scope.

All members will serve two-year terms, beginning in January 2010, and expiring Jan. 1, 2012. That puts a timeline for any potential policy recommendations sometime around the 2012 Farm Bill.

The first meeting is planned for early 2010, and USDA is urging public participation. The first meeting should probably be a BYO, so we won’t dwell on what type of milk is served at breaks. Then, start with some ground rules: How about no “big” vs. “small”; East vs. West; private vs. co-op? Healthcare reform will seem like a cakewalk.

Any politically appointed group is bound to have political leanings. At first blush, the list seems tilted toward the East: Counting Minnesota, just five are from west of the Mississippi River; just four of the 17 appointees are from “Western” states. It’s probably of little relevance, but President Obama won 17 of the 23 major dairy states in the 2008 elections. Just one of the 17 advisory committee members isn’t from one of those Obama-leaning states – or at least they leaned that way in November 2008.

I know few of these folks personally; some professionally; some by reputation, having covered dairy issues for a couple of decades.

One blog site I checked lauded the selection of a couple of the advisory committee members, but called everyone else “Farm Bureau types,” which seemed like an odd statement, given the appointments were made by a Democratic administration.

Another group, with different political leanings, expressed the opposite sentiments. Their hope is that nothing gets done, because anything that comes out of this group will likely be detrimental to U.S. dairy.

While policy compromises are often judged on how equally unhappy all sides end up, it sounds like a hung jury to me. In reality, USDA is probably in a “no-win” situation. If the industry can’t reach consensus on its own issues, how can we expect the government to do it?

So, we can all feel good about having an “unbiased” group meeting in one room to discuss future dairy policy. But being in one room isn’t close to being of one mind.

If any members of the committee read this, I hope they don’t take this column as a criticism, but rather as a challenge. I was raised not to criticize unless I had a solution. In this case, I’m not sure can come up with one.

There’s wisdom in the old joke: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Dairy seldom can agree on where to take the first bite, and usually argues over who go the biggest piece. But hope springs eternal, so here’s hoping … for something.

U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack actually had two options in creating panels to look at dairy issues. In addition to the newly formed Dairy Industry Advisory Committee, the 2008 Farm Bill called for creation of a federal milk marketing order commission. However, because Congress failed to approve the necessary funding for that commission, USDA said it would not create it.

You can follow Dairy Industry Advisory Committee activities at www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/DairyAdvisoryCommittee.

The proliferation of ‘it’

I don’t remember when I started noticing “it,” but I know it wasn’t as prolific when I started down my ag journalism career path in 1978. My 30-plus years of reporting on agriculture spans the administrations of Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and Obama, three of which served in office for 8 years.

The “it” I’m talking about is typically tagged on the end of press release from a government agency (in this case, USDA). Although in a variety of forms, the message is always similar: “We’re from the government, and we’re helping you.”

Usually more political than newsworthy, the summary generally includes some evidence the current Administration really, really, really cares about you, and the proof is a regular reminder of programs and money the current officeholder and his staff have bestowed on you and your industry.

I can’t say the current administration is any worse than others, but “it” has become more noticeable. I guess you can’t blame them, now that presidential elections are a four-year (or longer) process, and policy victories are often measured in political points. Seems a bit ironic, however, that we have to be constantly reminded the government is doing something it was elected and hired to do.

FYI

To offer your own opinion or response, e-mail Dave Natzke, national editorial director, DairyBusiness Communications, e-mail:dnatzke@dairybusiness.com.

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