More than 100 organic dairy producers, plus a few conventional-dairy counterparts, last week forcefully asked Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack for solutions to current low milk prices and allegedly unfair corporate farming competition last week.

Vilsack was scheduled to speak at the La Crosse Interstate Fair in West Salem, WI, as a part of USDA’s Rural Tour on July 16. But he made an impromptu appearance at a “symbolic milk dumping” organized by several farm watchdog and lobbying groups just a few buildings down from the Rural Tour stage.

The number of large corporate organic dairy farms has grown from two to 20 in the past nine years, said Mark Kastel, farm policy analyst with Cornucopia Institute. “They’re producing, in our estimate, somewhere between 30-40% of ‘organic’ milk in the U.S. That is putting our farmers in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa – ethical farmers – at a competitive disadvantage. We won’t stand for that.”

More importantly, corporate organic dairies are disregarding current USDA organic rules, the previous administration did not adequately enforce those laws and it even catered to the “fat cats,” said Kastel and several farmers at the rally. Some corporate organic dairies own too little land for cows to adequately graze and produce milk organically, Kastel charged. “The (previous administration’s) USDA has let them get away with it. We want Secretary Vilsack to recognize this is a joke, but it isn’t very funny when people are losing their jobs over it.”

Vilsack was asked by the crowd to open up a previous investigation against a large corporate organic farm.

“We are making changes in the folks who are in charge of the organic program at USDA so that it accurately reflects the values and concerns and hopes and aspirations that all organic farmers have in this country,” Vilsack said. “We are focusing on rules that level the playing field so that small and medium-sized producers have a shot.”

After a direct question whether he would enforce organic rules on corporate dairies that may ignore them, the ag secretary stated that he would.

He was also asked to help struggling organic dairy producers being paid less than the cost of production.

“We are, as you are, asking questions about how producers can make so little and how others who are in the chain can make so much,” Vilsack answered.

Surplus products are already being moved from USDA warehouses – 200 million pounds of non-fat dry milk – and other commodities are being bought, he added. “Between milk payments and commodity purchases, we’ll invest about $1 billion in additional help and assistance in this fiscal year. We recognize the importance of the export market, so we instituted the DEIP (Dairy Export Incentive Program) for 2009-2010 to provide resources so we can potentially export more of our products and hopefully stabilize prices.”

Vilsack also promised that letters were being sent to farm service agencies and bankers, urging leniency with existing loans. “If interest rates can be adjusted, if payments can be deferred, if principle can be reduced so that folks can stay on the farm … and transition from bad to better times, then we have an obligation to look very close and very hard at every single loan and try to provide as much help as we can.”

USDA is looking at ways to stabilize prices and create new opportunities in rural America, too. “We have a program that we are working on that will be announced by the deputy secretary of labor in the summer. It is designed to invest in linking better – even more so than we have in the past – local production with local consumption so we have local markets.

“We are also making every effort to deploy the stimulus money available to USDA in a way that will expand economic opportunities in rural communities, the most immediate of which is making sure the SNAP payments – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program payments – get into the stream of Congress as quickly as possible.” About $20 million of stimulus funds go into those programs and 97% of that money is spent in 30 days, he said. In Wisconsin, $200 million has been invested the past couple of months “and we’re going to continue to do that in a way of trying to provide help.”

No milk was dumped at the meeting site. Kastel said it was to be fed to hogs or dumped on organic land so the nutrients could be recycled.

To read organic growers' comments at the rally, click here; for a recent USDA announcement on direct-loan funds now available, click here.