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Business/Economy

As dairy farmers recover from pandemic, questions arise over milk pricing

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Natasha Haverty / NCPR
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Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is calling on the USDA to restore support to dairy farmers that had been removed from a federal coronavirus assistance program.

When restaurants and schools last year due to the pandemic, dairy farmers were left pouring out milk and losing income. 

The federal government created the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) to help farmers. But this year, when the program was revised, it didn’t include direct payments to dairy farmers. Gillibrand wants the USDA to change that.

“CFAP payments have been a lifeline to our dairy producers during this time of financial stress. Especially our small and mid-sized dairy operations which have been hit the hardest by this pandemic,” she said.

Tony LaPierre is a dairy farmer in Clinton County where his family owns Rusty Creek Farm. They milk about 500 cows. He said CFAP aid really helped last year.

“I feel we’ve had enough assistance. I really feel it’s great to bridge the gap, but it’s our economy long-term that’s going to keep us in business,” he said.

LaPierre said there’s a bigger problem dairy farmers have that the pandemic didn’t create.

“I feel we’ve had enough assistance. I really feel it’s great to bridge the gap, but it’s our economy long-term that’s going to keep us in business,” he said.

LaPierre said there’s a bigger problem dairy farmers have that the pandemic didn’t create.

“It’s the pricing and that needs to change, how they determine the price,” he said. The prices of crops like soy and corn that LaPierre has to buy to feed his herd have gone up. Those prices are set on the commodities markets.

Milk pricing is set by the federal government. So, as LaPierre’s feed costs rise, what he earns doesn't always keep up. Milk prices have been very low for more than five years.

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Credit File Photo
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Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand says the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program has been "a lifeline to our dairy producers" during the pandemic.

Gillibrand is also critical of the milk pricing system. She’s the chair of the Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy, Poultry, Local Food Systems and Food Safety and Security.

“I think there’s corruption and some anti-trust issues in milk pricing and there needs to be a thorough review and recommendations,” she said. “So, I’m working on legislation now to change how we do dairy pricing in America but ultimately I think we need something like a 9/11-style commission to actually investigate the industry.”

She said it’s not just a matter of economics.

“I see food production in American as a national security issue. We cannot lose the ability to feed our own people,” Gillibrand said. “If you have a market that’s fundamentally flawed and constantly leaving producers unable to survive in the industry, there’s a problem.”

As for the current price of milk, LaPierre said right now, the price he gets is almost enough to break even.

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