A popular fairy tale describes the dilemma that three billy goats face when trying to cross a bridge. A fearsome troll lives under the bridge, so the idea of crossing the bridge is rather daunting. Then, the goats devise a scheme. The two smallest goats cross the bridge one at a time, each one telling the troll that he should wait for the biggest to come along because the biggest has more meat on him. Then, when the biggest comes along, he easily butts the troll into the river, causing it to drown.

The troll was no match for the fury of Big Billy Goat Gruff. But it took initiative on the goats’ part to find this out.

How many times do we simply avoid a “troll” in our lives because we think it will be a formidable challenge?

Increasingly, I am beginning to wonder if the federal milk-pricing system is a “troll” that Congress doesn’t want to deal with because it is so complicated.  Think about it, would any congressional representatives or senators really know the difference between over-order premiums and Class I differentials?

For years, I have wondered why federal milk-pricing is so complicated. But I dealt with it, learning as many of the basics as possible. Then, last month, while attending Dairy Forum ’07 (sponsored by the International Dairy Foods Association), it occurred to me that the level of discontent among producers and processors alike has gone way beyond the frustration of trying to comprehend a Byzantine pricing system. Some examples:

  • Southeast Milk Inc., the largest dairy cooperative in the Southeast, plans to seek substantial changes in the federal-order system. If those changes don’t occur, Southeast Milk members may decide to opt out of the federal-order system.
  • In December, the board of directors of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association expressed grave concerns with trends in federal milk-marketing orders and recommended that dairy producers consider termination of orders as the best course to preserve the dairy industry in the Upper Midwest.

To be fair, some see merit in the federal-order system. John Wilson, senior vice president of marketing and industry affairs for Dairy Farmers of America, says it provides a mechanism for supply-and-demand to be balanced and for milk to be shipped in a “fairly orderly way.” But he acknowledges that the price-discovery methods for milk and its various uses under classified pricing have been a source of frustration for producers and processors alike. 

Perhaps the drumbeat of events in recent months simply portends changes in the federal-order system rather than a complete elimination. 

As the billy goats in the famous fairy tale found, it pays to tackle the problem head on rather than simply standing back and being intimidated.