There were many questions but few answers during a meeting of area dairy producers and Tennessee Commissioner of Agriculture Jai Templeton on Saturday.
Templeton and several members of his staff were on hand at Greene County’s Clyde Austin 4-H Center to hear concerns and answer questions from local dairy producers. The group was scheduled to travel from Greeneville to Athens for additional meetings Saturday.
Also present were State Reps. Jeremy Faison and David Hawk as well as representatives from the University of Tennessee Extension and Bill Darden, a representative of U.S. Congressman Phil Roe.
Everyone present agreed that the challenges of the dairy industry are substantial. However, no clear paths forward were given.
Nationwide, dairy farmers are currently receiving about $14 to $15 per hundredweight — 100 pounds or 11.6 gallons — of milk, industry experts say. That average fluctuates year-to-year, but the current number is down significantly from 2014, when it was $23.98.
The figure hit a 15-year low of $12.81 in 2009 during the height of the Great Recession.
In addition to lower prices for milk, farmers are also facing higher production costs. All costs for dairy farming have gone up — labor, machinery, fuel and the list goes on, they say.
Last month, Dean Dairy Holdings added insult to injury by announcing it will end contracts — effective May 31 — with dairy farmers in six states: Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania. Three Greene County dairy farmers are losing their Dean contracts, and 11 dairies throughout East Tennessee are losing theirs.
Templeton said his office has had “a number of conversations,” especially over the past six weeks after the letters about the contract termination went out to dairy producers.
“We began to hear conversations from other co-ops and other entities about the issues that they were facing,” he said.
Despite this, Templeton said, he and his staff still have no answers.
“I wish that I had a very positive announcement to make,” Templeton said. “Despite those conversations and efforts … really nothing has changed.”
He added, however, that he remains “hopeful that there will be some development that will open up an opportunity, and I pledge to you today that we’re not stopping … we’re going to continue to pursue opportunities.
“We do not have the answers. We want to hear what your ideas are and see how we can better improve on things that we’re doing.”
One step forward that the commissioner noted is state legislative efforts to place store labels on Tennessee-produced and processed milk.
“When you look at all of the supply and demand issues out there … it almost always comes back to the fact that we need to increase consumption [of milk] in this country,” Templeton said.
One dairy producer present, however, said that within the Southeastern U.S., at least, that consumption of milk is not the issue.
“We can’t supply enough milk in the Southeast to supply the demands of the consumers,” said Debra Boyd, a Cocke County dairy farmer. “We’re in trouble right now because of milk that is coming from other areas of the country — from Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania. You need to look at how you justify that and how you can get it under control.”
Boyd also referred to a recently published newspaper article in The Greeneville Sun where one person said if consumers want local milk, they will need to pay extra for it. She said that is “not necessarily so,” adding that if consumers want “quality milk they will pay more … no matter where it comes from.”
The problem, she said, is that milk processing plants are purchasing low-quality, cheaper milk from out of state. She said a milk processing plant being located in an area doesn’t necessarily mean that it is purchasing locally produced milk.
“It’s been really eating on me that some of these companies, they are claiming that their milk is all local. It’s not,” she said.
These plants could be taking care of the local dairy farmers “very easily,” but she added that “they chose not to do it.”
Some of the top questions from the audience included:
• Can state-owned and operated facilities, such as schools, colleges and prisons, use Tennessee-produced milk?
• Can the state offer incentives to grocery stores in Tennessee to sell and promote Tennessee-produced products?
Faison said the state education commissioner told him that “there is a national school lunch program,” which sets requirements in order to receive federal money.
Greeneville and Greene County schools, for example, get money from the federal government to buy school lunches, Faison explained. “That money that comes to them also has a requirement for what they buy and who they buy it from,” he said.
“The Department of Education here in Tennessee told me that we have the option to opt out … of the national requirements,” Faison said. “But the problem is when you opt out, then you lose that money that comes in.
“You can opt out right now, but this county’s going to lose [federal] money,” Faison added.
By: LISA WARREN
Source: Greeneville Sun