OPINION 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 currently within America’s dairy industry. Specifically I’m referring to bloc voting, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture allows to dairy co-ops.
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The way USDA rules are written when it comes to voting on referendums for Federal Milk Marketing Orders – which the USDA administers – a co-op has the right to vote for every member of their co-op.

There are only three instances when a dairy producer can vote themselves.

• They are independent of any co-op.

• Their co-op, such as the National Farmers Organization, allows each member to cast their own ballot.

• The producer petitions her or his co-op and is allowed by that co-ops’ leaders to vote on his or her own.

Corey Freije, an agricultural economist with the Federal Order 30 of Minneapolis Federal Milk Marketing Administration office, said if the co-op doesn’t release a producer to vote, she or he cannot vote on the referendum at all. Only the co-op vote counts. And that situation doesn’t sit right with many dairy farmers I talk with around the country in my role as the vice-president of the 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; dairy co-ops were given the authority to cast a single vote representing all their members. In that year Federal Milk Marketing Orders established the rules that govern how much fluid milk should be priced in a specific locality. That was done in an attempt to stabilize how much money producers received, based on the cost of production. For instance the Florida Federal Milk Marketing Orders receives a better price for fluid milk than any other area. Governmental leaders in the 1930s 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-plus 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 five milking cows. In the 1930s there were 2,200 dairy co-ops spread across the nation; 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’s 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’s no longer true. In 2021 a co-op’s 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 5 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 2,200 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.

At the midpoint of the year, the all-milk price forecast for 2022 is a whopping $26.20 per hundredweight (cwt), according to the June 2022 USDA/ERS Livestock, Dairy and Poultry Outlook report.

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