About three dozen farmers, cheese processors and others got the undivided attention of the country’s top agricultural official Friday when Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative hosted a meeting with Sonny Perdue to discuss challenges facing farmers.
The setting was a 250-cow dairy farm in eastern Wisconsin run by Edge President Brody Stapel, his brother, Jory, and his father, Rudy.
“This is real America, and this is real agriculture,” said Perdue, the U.S. agriculture secretary. “We have people come to D.C. and talk about things there, but you get a real sense (of the issues) when neighbors come together at a farm like this… So, I appreciate the Edge co-op for hosting us here today and providing a venue for me to come out and figure out what we can do better. That’s all important.”
The mislabeling of non-dairy foods drew a lot of attention.
Amy Penterman, an Edge member with a dairy farm in northwestern Wisconsin, said that farmers have invested heavily in promoting dairy foods as safe and nutritious, and yet the Food and Drug Administration is failing to enforce current labeling standards that identify milk, cheese and other dairy products as originating from cows.
“It is extremely frustrating to see our investments in our own dairy terms be taken advantage of by imitation plant-based product manufacturers,” Penterman told Perdue. … “This is also unfair to customers who are misled.”
Edge co-commissioned a national survey in 2018 to measure customers’ views on plant-based foods that mimic dairy cheese. The results, released last year, showed that customers are confused about whether those products are indeed dairy foods and whether they carry the same nutritional value.
“Words do matter when it comes to customers’ buying decisions,” Stapel said. “People should be protected from deceptive names and packaging when they’re looking for real dairy products. We are not against customers having options at the grocery store, but they shouldn’t be lied to.”
Perdue fielded questions about many other topics also. Among them:
- The second round of the federal Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, which provides direct financial help to farmers struggling with low prices, lost markets and other supply chain disruptions tied to the pandemic. Signup for the program runs through Dec. 11.
- The importance of free trade agreements to U.S. farmers, who are looking for new markets for their products. Perdue pointed to efforts to capture dairy market share in China and capitalize on emerging opportunities in Africa.
- The challenges dairy farmers face in finding employees, given the lack of a year-round visa option for immigrant workers.
Stapel said it was a privilege to have Perdue visit his farm.
“I think it is crucial as president of Edge and also as a local dairyman that we get our farmer members and bring our voice right to the people who need to hear it,” he said.
Perdue said all farmers “share the same noble goal to feed their fellow countrymen.”
“Today, I got to visit with the great dairy men and women of Wisconsin and hear their concerns and bring them back to Washington to ensure their government is working for them, not against them,” he said.