Farm Horizons, May 2001

Farmers come together to discuss issues at dairy forum

By Lynda Jensen

"Efficiency. I'm as efficient as I can stand." Farmer Winton Nelson summed up, in disgust, one of many issues affecting small dairy farms during a cracker barrel discussion April 10, hosted by a grass roots farm organization called New Ag America, based in Litchfield.

The group is comprised of volunteers and is dedicated to helping perpetuate the family farm.

The meeting was moderated by Stan Vanderkooi, a longtime dairy producer and farm management instructor from Wright County.

Farmers discussed the bleak situation of small dairy farms, in light of the market downturn two months ago, and how to help alleviate problems, from marketing to grazing.

"I'm tired of hearing that word (efficiency)," commented Ken Miller, who owns 100 cows in Eden Valley.

"It's not a popular word," agreed Al Gulbransen at the meeting. Gulbransen is a representative of the First District Association, a dairy processor in Litchfield.

It was noted by several that being more efficient does not help a market that is already glutted with milk.

Farmers also mentioned that being bigger isn't a good thing either, since this wouldn't help milk prices.

Find a niche

Vanderkooi suggested trying a hard-to-find market, such as raising Jersey cows instead of traditional breeds, which can bring higher milk checks. He cautioned farmers to find their market first, and then proceed with raising a herd, if possible, Vanderkooi said.

It was noted that Jerseys brought $1,200 at a recent auction. "That's an awfully good price for a small animal," one farmer said.

Another alternative idea is the mini dairy, Vanderkooi said.

This is a complete self-contained dairy processing unit, made in Israel, that is a subject of study at the University of Minnesota.

The equipment serves a herd between 50 and 200, and comes complete with cream separators, which can be used to manufacture yogurt, butter, ice cream and any other milk product. It costs $750,000, Vanderkooi said.

"You'd better have a milk market," Vanderkooi said. The only way something like that would fly is along a major highway such as Highway 12, Vanderkooi said.

In addition, a farmer trying to sell directly to the public would have problems with grocery store slotting fees - that is, when grocers charge to have something displayed on the shelf.

"Don't try to compete with the Wal-Marts, said farmer Stan Tuman Eden Valley. "They'll cut you to ribbons."

Quality could be used to promote the product, if a farmer went this route, Vanderkooi said.

Nelson pressed the idea of direct delivery, but other farmers objected to the bottling costs and potential government inspections that would be involved.

"The problem with processing on a farm is that you don't need a mother-in-law (for stress)," Tuman said, pointing out how it feels to be inspected.

"There used to be an appeal process, but not anymore," Tuman said. "If you commit a murder, you can appeal until the Vikings win the Super Bowl, but if I have one burned out light bulb, I'm stuck," he said.

Organic products are really starting to move, now that standards are in place that everyone can live with, commented Bruce Cottington, Litchfield.

That may be true, but this kind of product is the first to go during a recession, Miller said. "Right now, people don't mind paying more," he said.

The success of Quality Meats was not noted, which is a home delivery system of fresh meat.

Stick together

Having farmers work together instead of competing against each other was another point made.

"There's no unity," said Lichfield farmer Mark Hulterstrum.

Producers should stick together. For example, a farmer may consider trading off traditional roles with neighbors to work cooperatively, one farmer said.

Sticking together also applies to politics, attendees said. Having several different organizations working with different objections diluted the voice of agriculture on the national level, it was noted.

Jensen encouraged farmers to become reacquainted with their neighbors, so that perhaps some costs or sharing of equipment could occur.

Help for new dairy farmers

Young farmers don't have the support that once existed, commented Jim Turck, Litchfield.

As a young farmer, what Turck really needs is an experienced source of advice, he said. "You can have a nutritionist and veterinarian there, but you need someone who knows how to get milk out of a cow," he said.

"There's less rural people," Gulbransen said. "That makes a huge difference."

Consolidation of the market much like the hog industry

A real problem for dairy farmers is consolidation in the food agriculture system, which is exactly what happened to the hog industry, commented Andrea Fox-Jensen, a representative of New Ag America.

"The pork industry is owned by four or five players, who bought all the processing plants and shut them down," said Dale Pawlitschek, a representative of the National Farmers Organization.

When the larger slaughtering operations came along, they decided they didn't need the farmer in the equation, he said.

"What happened is that we all just wanted to farm (no butchering)," Nelson said. "Then they said, 'We don't need you anymore.'"

Antitrust laws are ineffective against this as well, it was noted. "They (the justice department) let anything fly," Hulterstrum said.

Cooperatives should return to their original purpose, Jensen commented.

The state of Minnesota will give $50,000 to a new cooperative, Nelson said. "Minnesota's good that way."

This is shown by the control exercised from engineering the seed right up to the processing, Jensen said.

"When are the producers going to set the terms of sale?" Pawlitschek asked. America has a cheap food policy, he said.

The family farm system was the best system in the world, Pawlitschek said, feeding the nation at bargain prices. "We're fast losing (the family farm)," he said.

Approximately 47 percent of farmers in Polk County are absentee owners, Pawlitschek said.

"There is a place for value added, if we work cooperatively among each other," Pawlitschek said.

The bigger dairy producers shouldn't be knocked too much, Miller said. "We need to appreciate them and not work against them," he said. "We're all in the same boat."

New Ag America

For those interested in joining New Ag America, contact Rev. Richard Ricker at First Lutheran Church, (320) 693-2487, email: 1stluthr@hutchtel.net, or Litchfield farmer Winton Nelson via email nelsons@hutchtel.net, or organic farmer Scott Anderson via email: save_ag@hotmail.org.

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