Cows in the streets? Local dairy farmers aren’t adopting the European approach

By Seth Nidever

In Europe, farmers have taken matters into their own hands, blocking traffic with tractors and bringing cows to the European Union capital to protest plunging milk prices. In California, the price situation is just as bad, but local producers say they aren’t going to use European-style protest methods.

The idea of not shipping milk for a couple of days was suggested at an impromptu meeting of producers in Tulare on Thursday, but was quickly shot down amid fears that it would generate negative publicity.

European farmers don’t seem to have the same qualms.

On Monday, they clogged Berlin roads with tractors and unloaded cows at European Union headquarters in Brussels. A few farmers skirmished with police.

At least one local producer admires the European approach to the crisis that is threatening to drive many farmers out of business.

“I think here in the U.S. we’re too passive. That’s the culture difference,” said Joaquin Contente, a Hanford dairy operator.

Contente isn’t alone.

“I applaud the fact that these farmers are willing … to take some action. This is something we never do in this country,” said Hanford dairyman Dino Giacomazzi.

But Giacomazzi, like many local producers, doesn’t want a government-run system similar to what Europe has, where the EU has managed farm prices for decades by guaranteeing minimum prices or buying up extra production to keep prices artificially high.

Giacomazzi said he agreed with the idea that California dairy farmers are largely responsible for the current glut.

And he is in favor of the major milk cooperatives cutting production by 5 percent, a move suggested at Thursday’s Tulare meeting.

By allowing the cooperatives to control production, government has already given farmers the tools to solve their own problem, he said.

Chuck Draxler of the JCJ Dairy in Hanford agreed that a supply management program is necessary.

The problem is getting enough people to participate.

Draxler doesn’t like the idea of the four major cooperatives cutting production because it would leave other cooperatives and producers out of the loop.

He wants at least 90 percent cooperation nationwide.

In the meantime, farmers face an unprecedented global glut that is causing a price crash. Farmers are reporting major financial losses every day and aren’t sure how much longer they can stay in business.

If a national supply management system isn’t implemented soon, a certain number of dairymen are going to go under, Draxler said.

Like others, he hopes he isn’t one of them.

Draxler said he believes that dairy operators got themselves into their current jam by producing too much milk.

He hopes they can get themselves out of it — without a government-run quota system.

For Contente, however, more government involvement would be welcome.

European farmers “get better results,” he said.

But for Draxler and Giacomazzi, protesting against the U.S. government in the European style doesn’t make much sense.

“Who are we protesting? We’re protesting ourselves,” Giacomazzi said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story. The reporter can be reached at 583-2432.

(May 27, 2009)

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