Several hundred people gathered in Modesto, Calif., yesterday for a chance to talk with USDA Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Agriculture Secretary Vilsack said he is very concerned about protecting the future of agriculture and the value system that agriculture represents. “The value system you (as farmers) represent is at the core of what it means to be an American. It’s not just about protecting agriculture it’s about preserving a value system that is the core of country.”

One hour was allotted for speakers, but those who did speak got their point across – the dairy industry is suffering and something needs to be done. And, the dairy industry is not the only industry suffering in California. Fruit, nut and vegetable farmers were also present to discuss the horrific water situation in the state and the need for comprehensive immigration reform.

Gary Genske, managing partner with Genske, Mulder & Co. Certified Public Accountants says the dairy industry as a whole is losing $36 million per day and more than $1 billion per month. “We need help and we need it right away,” he says.

“Thank you for what you’ve done so far, but it’s not enough. We haven’t seen any change in our milk checks. We are surviving right now on equity and if the price doesn’t come up and stay up, there won’t be any equity to borrow against,” says Linda Lopes, dairy producer from Turlock, Calif.

“California dairy producers have lost $2.5 to $3 billion in equity alone this year. We don’t have weeks or months, we need something now,” says Ray Souza, dairy producer from Turlock, Calif. Souza asked the USDA to purchase 100 million pounds of cheese and send it to the food bank. He says that this would solve two issues: 1. this would be a humanitarian effort that would help the food banks that are in dire need and; 2. it would move the price above $13.69 and eliminate $500 million in MILC payments.

Vilsack said he appreciates the stress the industry is under, citing a meeting he had with the wife and seven children of a dairy producer who committed suicide earlier this year. “That is something that affects you deeply and you don’t forget.”

But he says his hands are tied in the short-term because it is the end of the fiscal year. On Oct. 1 the USDA will have more funds available.

The USDA will continue to look at things like export assistance and raising price support levels in the short-term. But he would like to find long-term solutions as well. Vilsack is putting together a dairy advisory committee that will be looking at virtually every idea out there to try and find a long-term solution for the industry. Vilsack noted that it would be helpful if the dairy industry had consistency within the industry, consistency would help move things forward.

Vilsack did mention that Congress could possibly redirect $300 million that has been directed towards the Farm Services Agency to a dairy relief fund. In addition, Vilsack says the USDA has been encouraging banks to use the guaranteed loan programs to try and buy farmers some time.

After the first of the year Vilsack noted that there will be a series of public hearings to look into the reason there is no direct correlation or even a close correlation between the milk on-farm price and retail prices.

Dairy producers who have not had a chance to speak to Secretary Vilsack, can submit comments and questions online at: www.ruraltour.gov