How many votes could represent the majority of America’s dairy farmers in a hearing concerning federal dairy regulations? The correct answer is 10. How can that be, you ask?
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File photo by Philip Gruber

To understand what’s going on, you need to know two things. The first is that more than half of America’s licensed dairy farmers belonged to one of the top 10 dairy cooperatives in 2019. The second is something called bloc voting, which allows cooperative managers to vote on behalf of all their members. It was authorized by the Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937.

If you want to think about that law, it might help you to have some (early) 20th century dairy farm data in mind.

Here are some highlights:

—Cows were being milked on over 5 million farms.

—An average farm had five cows.

—California, a state known for having larger-than-average dairy farms, averaged 10 cows per farm.

Fast forward to today. The corresponding highlights are:

—Licensed dairy farms tallied up to 34,187 in 2019.

—Average-sized dairy farms in the United States today have close to 200 cows.

—Most dairy farms in the United States have fewer than 200 cows. On the other extreme, the 2017 Census of Agriculture reported 714 dairies with at least 2,500 cows. Of those dairies, 189 had over 5,000 cows.

The Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937 established the authority of the executive branch, acting through the Secretary of Agriculture, to mandate marketing orders and promotion programs on behalf of farmers. Rules were set in place for farmers to vote their acceptance or rejection of the executive actions. All farmers are covered in the act, but I am only referring to dairy farmers here.

While I generally favor marketing orders for dairy farmers, the bloc voting provision has outlived any usefulness it may have once had. In 1937, there were millions of farmers, none having access to 21st century communications methods.

Furthermore, dairy cooperatives were generally small and local, so the interests of one member farmer were not likely very different from those of another. Efficiency, if nothing else, could be used to justify bloc voting.

Contrast this with today when dairy farm numbers are measured by the thousands rather than the millions. The communications options available to today’s dairy farmers far exceed those of the 1930s. Add to that the sea change in cooperative size and influence—the largest cooperatives have thousands of members, representing a range of farm sizes and geographic locations that make fair representation with a single vote impossible.

The time has arrived to amend the act so all executive branch decisions must be approved in a one farmer, one vote manner by all dairy farmers whose livelihood is affected by the decision.

The Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937 passed during a time when over 16 million horses and mules still powered much of agriculture’s field work. We need to bring voting provisions of the act more in line with the agricultural system that feeds us in the 21st century.

Victorian scientists in Australia will be working on methods to reduce the environmental footprint of the Australian dairy cow and to create a more profitable and sustainable dairy sector.

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