Dairy farmers, along with a number of organizations that advocate on behalf of family farms, are circulating a petition that will be delivered later this month to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The petition calls for an emergency milk floor price to be set at $18.
Right now, farmers are receiving $8-to-$10 per hundredweight for their conventional milk. The pay is well below 1970s prices, according to the National Family Farm Coalition and Farm Aid organizers.
"It was $20 six months ago, so farmers have received a collapse of half in less than a year," said Katherine Ozer, National Family Farm Coalition spokeswoman. "There has been an extreme drop. Our biggest concern is for the federal government to step in and take some action. We're calling for the emergency floor price to stop the bleeding right now."
More than 6,000 signatures have been collected thus far. Farm Aid spokeswoman Jennifer Fahy says the organization and dairy farmers are pushing hard to get people to visit Farm Aid's website at farmaid.org and add to the signatures that will be delivered to Vilsack when organizers meet with him on June 18.
Senate Bill 889, the Federal Milk Marketing Improvement Act of 2009, would help stabilize farmer pay price by factoring in farmers' cost of production in the milk pricing system. But it will take months to pass, and Fahy says farmers don't have that much time.
"If ever there was a time for the Secretary of Agriculture to use this power, it is now," she said. "He has the authority. Under the Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937, he could have increased the floor price yesterday."
The 1937 law requires the Secretary of Agriculture to adjust farm milk price to "reflect the price of feeds, the available supplies of feeds, and other economic conditions which affect market supply and demand for milk and its products."
The collapse in the pay price has threatened the livelihoods of family farms — some to the breaking point. Farmer suicides are on the rise.
The Sowing the Seeds of Hope crisis-line, a crisis network for agricultural workers, has experienced a 20 percent jump in calls over the last year. Operators of dairy and hog farms — those bearing the greatest brunt in farming during the economic downturn — are accounting for the largest numbers of those seeking help.
"People are being put in really desperate situations," Ozer said. "Suicides are not typically talked about (in the farming community). But getting the word out about what is happening may help save other people's lives. The magnitude of the cramming down because of the economy has us really concerned about the ripple effect."
The recession has resulted in fewer banks loaning money to farmers. Those farmers who are able to borrow in order to plant a crop likely won't produce enough money following harvest to pay back the loan, and when interest rates rise as pay price declines, farmers are left with loans that are impossible to pay, Ozer said.
Dairy farms are closing down as pay for milk dives more than 50 percent. Farmers are being told to cut their production by 20 percent. Fewer than 60,000 dairy farmers remain in the United States, Ozer said. In Vermont, for example, 32 dairy farms have closed since December.
It's even worse for organic dairy farms, many of which are buried under a mountain of debt, costs occurred from converting to organic, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"Dairy farmers … deserve to earn a fair price and when that product leaves the farm, they should get a price better than what it cost them to produce the milk," Ozer said.
The National Family Farm Coalition, Farm Aid, the American Raw Milk Producers Association and the Iowa Farmers Union, as well as other groups, claim U.S. farming policy has allowed the buyers of the milk to under-price this commodity. The makers of the end product have been paying a low price and the difference has been made up in subsidies, Ozer said.
SB 889, introduced in April by Pennsylvania Senate Democrats Bob Casey and Arlen Specter, would set a stable floor price that would be paid by the commodities buyers; not the taxpayer. The bill would amend the Agricultural Adjustment Act and require the Secretary of Agriculture to determine the price of all milk used for manufactured purposes. If passed, the Secretary would announce the minimum price for milk by Nov. 1 of each year.