This article’s title seems appropriate when looking back at 2020. The numbers will show that 2020 was a record year for Idaho’s dairy industry, in both milk production and total milk receipts. Had you asked me in April if we expected to set records this year, I would have told you, “Absolutely, we will be losing a record amount of money and dairymen this year!”
Those of us in the industry know this year was anything but an easy year.
We came into 2020 with a decent tailwind. The House of Representatives had passed their first immigration reform legislation since the President Reagan era, and there was legitimate hope the Senate would take up similar legislation. Financially, 2020 was also shaping up to be a good milk price year. Industry experts were all predicting healthy prices, and the industry was filled with optimism.
Boom . . . the shoe dropped
Then the other shoe dropped, and we all got a crash course in COVID-19 and all the confusion that came along with it. Our healthy milk prices quickly fell to near record lows, and it began to look like 2020 would rival the economic downturn we had experienced in the aftermath of 2009.
The opportunities we saw to have the Senate take up immigration reform were quickly replaced with conversation about COVID relief packages, and there was no room for discussion about reforming our broken immigration system. One does have to appreciate the irony that so many “essential workers” were here without status and were needed to keep everyday operations of agriculture, health care, and so many other industries afloat. These are still jobs our domestic workforce will not take — pandemic or not.
Congress acted quickly on relief bills, and we saw those benefits within the industry. There was direct assistance for agriculture and other businesses so operations could continue during such uncertain times. Thanks to the efforts of Senator James Risch (R-Idaho) and Idaho’s other congressional delegation members, those relief packages were rightsized to better reflect the losses of our larger agricultural operations in Idaho. The most impactful benefit came in the form of the Food Box Program administered by USDA. This program was a win-win. Families finding themselves in need of food saw that need filled, and agricultural producers realized an increase in demand with the USDA purchases. For dairy, the cheese purchases were the most impactful, and that greatly benefitted Idaho, where the majority of our milk is converted into cheese.
So, how do we see 2021?
First and foremost, we are trying to anticipate our members’ needs and position our staff to be as helpful as possible. Starting with immigration reform, we remain optimistic. Representative Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) has already been in talks with Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) about the reintroduction of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act early in the new congress. Both are committed to working across the aisle to find bipartisan solutions to our broken immigration system. Surely there will be twists and turns along this political path, but the commitments from Congressman Simpson and his staff are as strong as ever.
A closer look at workers
Turning to our focus on worker safety, we anticipate OSHA coming out with new Local Emphasis Program (LEP) regulation focused on all of Idaho agriculture this coming year. This was a regulation that was near completion at the end of the Obama administration, and we expect it will be picked up by the Biden administration.
Ellissa Clark and Kady Hurlock from our staff have created new training resources for Idaho dairymen that will address the Dairy Dozen, the 12 key areas of dairy safety OSHA focuses on. They have created 19 Tailgate Talks designed for dairy owners and managers to deliver, surrounding the Dairy Dozen topics. We have also been able to partner with Dairy West to provide a Tailgate Talk kit to every dairyman in Idaho and Utah for free! Those should be arriving at dairies in January and February.
Environment will matter
There never seems to be a shortage of topics on the environmental front. Idaho Dairymen’s Association (IDA) continues to stay proactive in the arena, and we have two very talented staff members — Megan Satterwhite and Tanya Oldham — who are great resources available for dairymen to utilize. They have worked with dozens of farmers this past year to rewrite nutrient management plans, obtain lagoon construction approvals, and work through other environmentally related challenges.
Megan and Tanya also serve as in-house expertise for IDA. They are invaluable when it comes to helping us navigate environmental policy issues and work very closely with the USDA Ag Research Service and University of Idaho researchers on studies IDA and IDEAL funds. They have been particularly helpful in assisting our understanding of the Net Zero Initiative the industry has committed to. Through the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, we are working to reach Net Zero by 2050.
Net Zero is no small commitment, and western dairies will have some unique challenges in reaching it. IDA is well positioned to be an active part of the decision making processes surrounding this Initiative. We have been funding greenhouse gas emissions research for nearly two decades and have some of the best data sets in the country. That historical work, and the ongoing studies we continue to fund, will be invaluable in helping Idaho dairymen navigate the challenges of achieving Net Zero.
IDA’s investment and partnership with the University of Idaho in the Center for Agriculture, Food, and the Environment research dairy will also play a key role in the sustainability of Idaho’s dairy industry. Facility design is well underway, and we hope to be moving dirt this summer. This facility will have a key focus on environmental research and serve as a clearinghouse in testing emerging manure management technologies. We are excited to see the progress of the project and look forward to sharing more information as it moves along.
We never seem have any shortages of challenges within our industry. Please know that we work hard at IDA to do our best in supporting the industry as we meet these uphill battles.