Can you imagine being a member of a group in which your vote counts, but you can’t cast your own ballot? Sadly, this very situation exists today within America’s dairy industry. Specifically, I’m referring to bloc voting, which USDA allows to dairy co-ops. The way USDA rules are written when it comes to voting on referendums for Federal Milk Marketing Orders — which USDA administers — a co-op has the right to vote for every member of their co-op. There are only three instances a dairy producer can vote themselves: 1) They are independent of any co-op; 2) Their co-op, such as National Farmers Organization, allows each member to cast their own ballot; or 3) the producer petitions their co-op— and is allowed by that co-ops’ leaders— to vote on their own. Dr. Corey Freije, Agricultural Economist, Federal Order 30, Minneapolis, Minnesota Federal Milk Marketing Administration office, says if the co-op does not release a producer to vote themselves, they cannot vote on the referendum at all. Only their co-op vote counts. And that situation does not sit right with many dairy farmers I talk with around the country as Vice President of National Farmers Organization.
Legislation authorizing the beginning of federal milk marketing orders began in 1933. Then, in 1937 modifications were made by the Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act and dairy co-ops were given the authority to cast a single vote representing all of their members. In that year, Federal Milk Marketing Orders established the rules which govern how much fluid milk should be priced in a specific locality. This was done in attempt to stabilize how much money producers received, based on their cost of production. For instance, the Florida FMMO receives a higher price for fluid milk than any other area. Governmental leaders in those days also realized the importance of milk as a necessary need for American diets, and those federal milk orders ensured everyone had access to fresh milk.
When those milk system rules were created 80 years ago, the industry was vastly different. At that time, milk was poured into metal cans when transporting to processors, and an average dairy farm only had 5 milking cows. In the 1930s, 2200 dairy co-ops were spread across the nation and there was one in just about every milk producing county. They only worked with one or two milk plants in just one single county. In those times, it is easy to see that a vote on a dairy issue that was in the best interest of one dairy farmer-member, most likely benefitted all members of a co-op. Fast forward to today, and that is no longer true. In 2021, a co-ops business footprint can stretch from one ocean to the other. Farms of vastly different sizes are now members of the same co-op. Do the needs of a Midwest corporate-owned dairy farm milking 10,000 cows match those of a 100 head family dairy farm in the Northeast?
When Franklin Roosevelt was president, communications were as slow as a turtle. Telephone service was questionable, as was electricity in some areas. Reaching the country’s five million dairy farmers was a very slow process. The idea of a local co-op casting a producer’s vote was done for timeliness and efficiency. At that time, there were still 2200 co-op votes cast and the logistics must have been difficult enough. Now we have a communications system that no one could have dreamed of then.
Farmers are smart, resourceful people. They care about the industry and the issues impacting them. Let’s allow dairy farmers themselves to cast their own votes based on their farms’ individual financial interests.
The writer is the vice president of the National Farmers Organization. He is a cow/calf rancher in Montana.