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LET A look at two livestock reports

After reading the Governor's Livestock Task Force Report and the Citizen's Livestock Task Force Report, it is evident that both are concerned about the future of livestock farming in Minnesota and are in agreement on at least some of the problems facing producers.

One of the major obstacles that surfaced in both reports is repeated several times in the Governor's Report, "As input costs have increased and commodity prices have remained relatively static, profit margins for farmers have shrunk."

From this point on the Governor's Report focuses almost entirely on making the case for Western-style "modern" dairies as the solution. The Citizen's Report I feet takes a better look at the industry as a whole from a farmer's perspective and comes up with quite different recommendations.

Several times the Governor's Report sites information from a 2002 MDA Survey of dairy farmers but fails to mention two of the issues the survey shows farmers were most concerned about, low farm milk prices and the farm-to-retail price spread. I talked with one of the farmer representatives on the Governor's Task Force and she said those issues had not and would not be discussed. She said that maybe another Task Force might be necessary to address that issue. That doesn't appear to be happening.

Production peaked

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Minnesota's dairy production peaked in 1983 and began to lose cow numbers shortly after. The drop in dairy production in the state correlates with the increase in the farm-to-retail milk price spread. Is this just coincidence? It suggests to me that as milk production costs increased, and farm prices stayed flat, we began to lose dairy farms and cow numbers. At the same time retail prices increased steadily. The Governor's Task Force did not address this issue.

The Governor's report noted that annual production in the state dropped from 9.9 billion pounds in 1992 to 8.5 billion in 2002. This resulted in an income loss of $238 million over the 10-year period. ln 200l the price paid to farmers averaged $14.90. ln 2002 the price averaged $12.10. The 8.5 billion pounds of milk sold at a price of $2.80 less resulted in a one-year loss of also, $238 million. How ironic! The price dropped to $10.70 and did not begin to recover until July 1983. Retail prices did not drop significantly. The Governor's Report did not address this problem.

Not unique

The Governor's Report gives one the feeling that the decline in Minnesota is unique. The truth is that 40 states have lost cow numbers from 1994-2003, including 15 out of the top 20 dairy states. With possibly one exception, the states that have increased in cows rely heavily on cheap purchased feed. Even Harold Stanislawski from the MDA admitted the government's cheap feed grain policy was hurting our livestock industry.

Twenty years ago the MDA talked about the importance of family farmers to their communities and to the state economy. Now that MDA talks most about the importance of the cow as an economic engine in generating economic activity.

I won't argue that point but if the cow is the engine, profit is the fuel for the engine. I am sure businesses in dairy areas of the state are able to tell the difference between years like 2004 compared 2000 or 2002. It is not only a question of generating economic activity it is a question of economic justice.

Four of Minnesota's most active farm organizations were not invited to be a part of the Governor's Task Force. These organizations, The Farmers Union, NF0, the Sustainable Farming Association and the Land Stewardship Project worked together and created the Citizen Task Force on Livestock Farmers and Rural Communities. Their report focuses on creating more livestock farmers, not just on increasing the number of livestock. Their report addressed price, corporate concentration, beginning farmers and protecting local control.

This last year a number of factors have come together in the dairy industry, which enabled farmers to receive a fair price. There are many factors the farmer cannot control. However there are some which we have control over, if we work together.

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A I percent or 2 percent perceived overproduction can have a drastic impact on producer prices. The Cooperatives Working Together Program has shown that it has the ability to impact prices. Dairy farmers can use this to build on.

Work with others

Our Minnesota Department of Agriculture should work with other states to examine farm-to-retail-price spread, and also the effect that the cheap feed grain policy has on the environment and our local livestock industries.

I would encourage farmers to read both reports, and then ask yourself which one addresses the issues that you feel are most important to the future of the livestock industry. Important decisions affecting all livestock farmers and rural communities are going to be made in this legislative session.

As farmers we need to be informed and involved. The reports are available at Governor's Report www.governor.state.mn.us/documents/MNAgricultureReport.pdf Citizens' Report www.landstewardshipproject.org/pdf/citiz_task_report.pdf

-- Bill MicMillin, Kellogg, MN.

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