Dairies & cheesemakers at odds during USDA hearing

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US Department of Agriculture hearings began in the valley for a California Federal Milk Marketing Order. (KFSN)

US Department of Agriculture hearings began in the Valley for a California Federal Milk Marketing Order.

Local dairy producers support the push to include California in the Federal Marketing Order because it would raise the prices they get for their milk. But cheese processors don't support the proposal.

Close to 500 California dairies in the past five years have gone out of business. Many of them cited rising feed costs and low milk prices. California dairy operators have long been paid less than those under the Federal Marketing Order.

Mark McAfee of Organic Ranches explained, "Two to three dollars per hundred weight difference which is significant. It's over a billion dollars in the last few years of lost money for California producers."

The USDA began hearing testimony at the Clovis Veterans Memorial District on a proposal to include California in the federal order. An administrative judge will preside over the hearing which could take a month.

Frank Mendonsa is the president of Western United Dairymen. He said, "We're excited. We view this hearing as an opportunity to hopefully get more money for more producers here in the state of California."

But Valley cheese processors did not support the proposal.

Rachel Kaldor from The Dairy Institute said, "A federal order fashioned like California now within the national system would create major price challenges and competitive challenges for us."

The Dairy Institute does not want to see a plan custom-made for producers in the state. The hearing illustrated the rift between milk producers and cheesemakers.

McAfee said, "It's kind of a processor's dream to have cheap milk."

The USDA will hear and document testimony from all sides before it recommends the next step.

USDA Order Formulation Director Will Francis said, "Then we'll issue a final decision. That final decision is what producers that are going to be affected by the proposed order they'll have an opportunity to vote on it."

But that was not expected to happen for at least another year.

California produces over 20% of the milk in the US with Tulare County leading the way.

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