This week is the middle of the five-week voting period for California milk producers to decide whether they want to become the Federal Milk Marketing Order (FMMO) system’s newest and biggest member. Voting began April 2 and all ballots must be postmarked by May 5.
It is easily the biggest decision that the nation’s largest dairy industry has faced in half a century, when the referendum creating the current state-run pricing program was overwhelmingly approved in 1968.
Like then, anger over low milk prices is at the center of the FMMO effort. But this time, frustration with how the state-run program has operated in recent years seems to have pushed producers over the edge.
In fact, the FMMO vote may be as much about milk price parity as it is about how much the relationship between producer groups and the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) has soured. Yes, it’s really that bad.
Last week I reached out to several longtime California producers and industry leaders to get a sense of how things are going. All of this is anecdotal, so take it with a grain of salt. But I hold each of them in high regard and their thoughts match my own.
All said that farmers’ frustration with CDFA reached a tipping point a few years ago and there is now a strong sense of “what do we have to lose?” when looking at an FMMO.
All said the state’s three biggest co-ops, who jointly petitioned USDA for an FMMO hearing and who jointly crafted the proposal that USDA closely followed in writing the final plan being voted upon now, are strongly expected to cast block votes on behalf of their members.
At least on the surface, that suggests the outcome is a foregone conclusion, since the co-ops account for about 75 percent of all milk made in the state — yet only a two-thirds majority is needed for FMMO passage, in terms of either total milk production or the number of producers who cast votes.
But as Britain’s recent “Brexit” vote and the last U.S. presidential election proved, there are no sure things anymore.