End free lunch for foreign dairy interests

The hard work that many of America’s farmers and ranchers do to put food on all of our tables doesn’t typically end on the farm. In most cases, farmers like me also invest their hard-earned dollars to develop consumer markets for their products.

That’s been the case in the dairy industry since 1984, when farmers in the continental 48 states started paying the equivalent of about a penny per gallon of milk to invest in promoting the value of consuming dairy foods.

In the past 20 years, U.S. dairy production has grown because the market for our products has expanded, due in no small measure to the promotion investment made by farmers. Imports of dairy products have also grown in the past two decades, at a rate even faster than domestic production. Yet even while imports enjoy a larger share of the U.S. market, importers of cheese and other dairy ingredients don’t pay a single penny to the same promotion checkoff that has allowed them to enhance their sales in the U.S. market.

Dairy farmers are hoping the 2007 farm bill closes this loophole. The farm bill is intended to enhance the marketing environment for America’s food and fiber producers, and it needs to remedy the uneven treatment currently affecting U.S. dairy producers.

Foreign importers, and those who represent them, have claimed that somehow it’s unfair they should pay the same checkoff assessment that U.S. farmers pay. In an op-ed in The Hill on Nov. 16, former Secretary of Agriculture John Block, along with former Rep. Charlie Stenholm, wrote that applying the import assessment to their clients’ products might invoke a challenge under international trade law.

But the fact is that the World Trade Organization allows for agricultural promotion programs, as long as imports are treated the same as domestic farm products. And that’s all that America’s dairy farmers want: a level playing field where imports no longer enjoy a free ride at the expense of our farmers’ investment.

What’s ironic here is that both Block and Stenholm are themselves former producers of agricultural products (pork and cotton, respectively) with active checkoff programs that collect a promotion assessment on imports. Neither of those programs, nor any of the other eight agricultural commodities that also have import assessments, has ever been the subject of a legal dispute. So where’s their beef?

It’s also misleading to assert that the dollars collected will be used only for advertising, and thus would be of no benefit to foreign interests. Today, the U.S. dairy checkoff program spends a great deal on nutrition research, including finding new uses for the same dairy ingredients that foreign countries are exporting to our market. The checkoff also builds a positive image for all dairy products. Foreign dairy interests know only too well how dairy producers around the world face a variety of challenges related to both animal and human health. And importers benefit from these generic efforts just as much as domestic producers.

For America’s farmers, this is an issue of fairness. In the past 10 years alone, the value of dairy imports sold in the U.S. has expanded from approximately $800 million to nearly $3 billion — so much for a restricted market! Foreign dairy products profit from our market, but rely on U.S. dairy farmers to promote it. Congress needs to make clear that there is no longer a free lunch for foreign dairy interests. It’s time that all who dine at the table contribute their fair share to the tab.

Camerlo is a dairy producer in Florence, Colo., and is chairman of Dairy Farmers of America, one of the largest farmer-owned cooperatives in the U.S.