Milk processing to plastic jugs

In tough times, I sometimes think about my all-time favorite movies. Lately, I’ve been thinking about “Smokey and the Bandit”. The theme song particularly sticks in my mind: “We’ve got a long way to go, and a short time to get there.”

I think that line pretty much says where we are in today’s dairy industry. We are facing troubles that no one ever thought possible, and we are not fully ready to deal with whatever comes our way. What we know is coming is bad enough. What we don’t know, or can’t imagine, is even more frightening.

As I look ahead to the coming weeks and months, I see at least three problems that will challenge us all.

First, the workforce at processing plants and for our larger dairies is at risk. An outbreak of COVID-19 at one of these places will be terribly disruptive locally and could well cause problems on a regional level.

Second, plants are seeing demand turn on a dime as restaurants close. A plant set up to serve the restaurant trade cannot always easily switch to provide products suitable for grocery stores to sell.

Third, smaller dairy farms are less vulnerable to labor disruptions, but they are leaving our industry at an alarming rate. While labor issues hang over our larger farms, market issues threaten smaller ones.

What can we do? There is some good news. We have a Federal Milk Marketing Order (FMMO) system that has been working for decades to, among other things, assure the orderly marketing of milk. More than ever, orderly marketing in a time of potential chaos is what we need.

The FMMO system has two problems, however, that must be addressed before it can fully do its job. First, the system is now a patchwork of regional orders that does not cover the whole country. Second, so-called “depooling” allows participants to jump in and out of orders as they see fit.

The solution is right in front of our noses. We must establish a national milk marketing order that covers all producers all of the time. That system, once in place, will put us in the best position to deal with whatever the COVID-19 pandemic brings our way. It’s our best shot at orderly marketing in times that are anything but orderly.

Here at National Farmers, we are all in on the idea of establishing a national milk marketing order. We have written to Secretary of Agriculture Perdue and are contacting as many people and organizations as we can to seek their help.

We can’t do it alone, however. We need the support of all farmers and their cooperatives, and we need that support now.

Brad Rach is the director of dairy marketing for the National Farmers Organization.