USDA Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue lauded a recent visit to Barrens View Farm in Dillsburg, Pa., as a “slice of Americana,” a welcome retreat from his time spent in Washington, D.C.
“This brings back great childhood memories,” said Perdue, who took a seat on a hay bale next to Congressman Scott Perry and answered questions from local farmers and political leaders.
But the visit wasn’t about just connecting with Pennsylvania’s farmers. He was there to answer some tough questions from farmers who wanted to know his stance on issues such as milk marketing orders, whole milk in schools and government regulations.
Perdue, who is finishing out his fourth year as ag secretary in the Trump administration, has been under fire for making a political endorsement of President Donald Trump during a recent official department event in North Carolina.
According to Politico, the Office of Special Counsel has ordered him to reimburse taxpayers for using an official event to promote the president’s re-election, a violation of ethics laws that prohibit certain political activity by executive branch employees.
Trump 2020 flags and even a truck with a large Trump 2020 banner were present at the farm owned by Daniel and Lori Baumgardner, but Perdue made no mention of the election and instead focused solely on the issues the farmers wanted to talk about.
Here’s is a slice of some of the big topics he addressed:
Country of origin labeling. A third-generation dairy farmer asked Perdue about country-of-origin labeling (COOL).
Perdue said this is a common question he gets as more consumers want to know where their food is coming from these days.
Congress repealed COOL regulations in 2015 after the U.S. was sued by Canada and Mexico at the World Trade Organization and won. WTO imposed a $1 billion judgement against the U.S.
Perdue said the government is working on a work-around label to meet consumers’ demand for more information on their food, but it’s a tight rope to walk.
“You can't say born, processed, grown and processed, but we are doing a labeling that says, ‘processed and packaged in the United States’ that way, so you can't bring in cut meat from other places and mix it in with our meat," he said. “We are making progress that way. Those rules are in the marketplace now, but we can't go back to the born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S. because of this pending judgement of WTO; that's the way international courts ruled.
“We believe in traceability. We want people … to have as transparent labeling as much as possible, but that's the world we live in.”
Whole milk in schools. The resurgence in interest in full-fat milk in schools is partially due to grassroots efforts by Pennsylvania farmers. You see it across the countryside with “97% fat free” haybales on many farms.
Congressman Glenn “GT” Thompson, who represents a wide swath of western Pennsylvania, has introduced a bill that would allow whole milk in schools, but a farmer at the event questioned why USDA doesn’t look like it’s getting behind the movement.
“We’re behind it from a health perspective,” Perdue said. “Fat’s coming back, and I think these are consumer preferences. Obviously, the fat component of dairy is healthy.”
He noted that one of the first things he did as ag secretary was reintroducing 1% fat milk in schools.
“We’re going as far as we can from a regulatory perspective, but statutorily I hope that will keep going forward," he said.
Dairy subsidies. Another dairy farmer asked about the industry’s over-reliance on government help in order to help farms stay in business.
Quipping about the industry’s ability to produce more milk from less cows, Perdue said, “The problem is dairy producers. You all have been more productive than the consumption demand has been. We know that the consumption of fluid milk has been going down.”
But risk management has been a big part of the government’s efforts to help dairy farmers the past couple of years. The 2018 Farm Bill introduced the Dairy Margin Coverage program, a reboot of the Margin Protection Program, to help dairies manage risks and the constant ebbs and flows of prices.
Enrollment, especially in the Northeast, has been low. Only 35.3% of dairy farms in Pennsylvania, 29.2% of dairies in New York and 19% of dairies in Vermont are currently enrolled in DMC.
"We want producers to participate in their own risk management because based on production and demand going up and down, we're not going to stop the roller coaster of prices. That's always been there," he said.
Milk marketing orders. No visit with area dairy farmers would be complete without at least someone venting frustration about the current milk marketing order system and the way dairy farmers get paid.
“I’m sure open to ideas,” Perdue said. “I hear a lot of comments about milk marketing orders and things like that. In America, we’re pretty much a free-market economy. Milk marketing is very complex. I was in the dairy business; I still don’t understand it even now.”
Rynn Caputo, co-owner of Caputo Brothers Creamery, said there is a good alternative: marketing local dairy products.
Caputo Brothers partners with a handful of farms, including Barrens View Farm, by contracting for milk and making it into cheese that’s sold in local grocery stores.
Dairy farmers get a one-year contract with a consistent price the whole year and a guaranteed market for their milk in cheese.
PUSHING LOCAL: Rynn Caputo, co-owner of Caputo Brothers Creamery, urged Perdue to think about local processing of milk and dairy, and how that could affect the dairy industry in the state.
“We have shifted the role of hauling milk where we're trying to go smaller, not bigger, so that we can actually reduce and shorten the supply chain, farmer to processor," Caputo said, adding that the creamery is currently partnering with three local farms and planning to add more.
“We do have better ideas we think in central Pennsylvania. We feel like we want to stabilize, shorten the supply chain, treat it like a free market, where they go out and find people who believe in the high-quality milk of local farmers,” she said.
Caputo Brothers cheese is sold in local Giant food stores and other smaller stores.
“I just can't move fast enough. There is not a single subsidy we're taking on those farms, we're just using the free market the way it should be and selling this cheese right here in Pennsylvania," she said.
And while Perdue said that he’d love to see “other Caputos” popping up all over the country, he pointed out that focusing on just local milk markets ignores the regional and national markets for fluid milk and dairy products.
“It’s not just local,” he said.