USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack held a town hall meeting in Modesto Wednesday afternoon and heard several personal pleas for assistance from California dairy producers dealing with the impact of the current economic crisis.

The room at the Stanislaus County Ag center held a crowd of approximately 250 for lunch, while an overflow room held another 200 people. Dairy producers appeared to dominate the meeting as they took the opportunity to directly question the Secretary about steps being taken to help the industry.

Western United Dairymen President Ray Souza called on the USDA to take action “within a matter of weeks” by making a surplus cheese purchase of 100 million pounds for direct donations to food banks who are out of stocks.

Such a step would move cheese to consumers via food banks and send the market “a positive message.” Souza estimated that a cheese purchase could lift the all-milk price to $13.69 per hundredweight and save the USDA $360 million to $370 million by decreasing MILC payments.

Vilsack called the proposal “a very positive suggestion” but cautioned that USDA’s ability to take quick action is hampered in the short-term because the funds for such a purchase have been nearly depleted by the many programs USDA has implemented to help shore up declining dairy prices. “We don’t have any more flexibility because Congress has capped that resource,” pointed out Vilsack. “If Congress could come up with some sort of a dairy relief program, we could do it.”  

Vilsack noted that the funding source would be refurbished by Oct. 1. Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Merced) who hosted the town hall, told the audience that “When Congress gets back onto session Sept. 8, we will meet and see if we can get some action” on the cheese purchase proposal.

Source: Western United Dairymen