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Desperate dairymen tell their stories at California rally

Capital Press

Posted 10/21/2012

SACRAMENTO — Gary Van Ryn has been feeling the pressure from low milk prices.

The 48-year-old dairyman milks about 1,200 cows at the Visalia, Calif., dairy his family has owned for 50 years. Like many other dairymen in California, he’s losing money because of high feed and other costs.

“We can’t keep going on the way it’s going,” Van Ryn said. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years. We’ve never had it like this. It’s horrible.”

Van Ryn was one of more than 100 dairy producers and their supporters who attended a rally on the steps of the state Capitol on Oct. 18. Many of the demonstrators waved signs appealing to the state for help.

Producers want California Department of Food and Agriculture secretary Karen Ross to change the pricing formula for Class 4b milk. The state’s price of milk used to manufacture cheese has been trailing the national price by about $2 per hundredweight, which is causing some dairymen to lose as much as $70,000 a month.

Dairy groups filed a lawsuit last month claiming the CDFA failed to follow the law in refusing to better align the Class 4b price with the prices being paid by cheese manufacturers around the country.

Ross has set a task force meeting for Oct. 24 to discuss the dairy producers’ plight, said state Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, who spoke during the rally.

“You being up here makes a difference,” he told the demonstrators. “People up here are paying attention.”

At the rally, many of the participants told their own stories. George Borba, a third-generation Bakersfield dairyman, said his business could have handled a disparity of 20 cents or 50 cents in the price for 4b milk, but not $2.

He said he relies on his Christian faith to cope — and his determination to fight.

“I will not sit down and take this,” Borba told the crowd. “Let’s not become discouraged … I challenge all of us to continue standing as long as we need to to take care of our businesses.”

Dairymen across the country are grappling with high feed costs — a fact that hay producers have said worries them greatly. Mark Lucio, owner of Lucio Hay Co. in Tipton, Calif., said he sees the struggles of dairy producers every day.

At one farm he visited, a couple in their 60s was crying “with no place to go,” he said. He used to have fun working, he said, but not anymore.

“I’m not a dairyman,” he said, “but I’m a dairyman at heart.”

Producers contend an average of one dairy a day is going out of business in California because milk prices aren’t keeping up with input costs. In recent months, dozens of dairy operations large and small have filed for bankruptcy, and others have sold their herds or sent them to slaughter.

Since 2008, California has lost nearly 300 dairies, with 1,668 remaining as of January, according to CDFA statistics. It’s an ominous landscape for students in California State University-Fresno’s dairy club who attended the rally.

“It is a little discouraging to be graduating in the state of where the industry is right now,” dairy science major Jami Lady said. “Hopefully with this protest and raising awareness, it’ll help fix the milk pricing problem.”

The CDFA “remains very concerned” about the business climate facing dairies, spokesman Steve Lyle told the Capital Press in an email. The department set up a website to address questions about regulated milk pricing in California.

Lyle noted that the scheduled November price of $23.17 per hundredweight for fluid milk will be one of the highest on record. He said 4b milk increased from $13.56 per hundredweight to $17.50 over a four-month period ending in September, and further increases are expected in December.

Several factors contribute to the disparity with federal prices, including transportation costs because of California’s distance from the highest-consumption cheese markets in the Northeast, he said.

The task force is reviewing a report from the California Milk Advisory Board on concepts for sustainability and industry growth over the next 20 years, and it will make recommendations for changes in the milk pricing structure, Lyle said.

However, producers are worried the task force won’t come up with solutions soon enough.

“We need action,” said rally organizer Jim Wilson, a dairyman from Riverdale, Calif. “We need action now.”



Rally for California Dairy Relief:

How Milk Pricing Works:

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