U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand announced yesterday that she had been named chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy, Poultry, Marketing and Agriculture Security. From the press release (via the Catskill Chronicle):
Senator Gillibrand will continue to work hard in the Senate to overhaul the milk pricing system with fair competitive pricing for dairy producers, make the pricing system more transparent, prevent looming cuts to the MILC program, bolster New York’s dairy exports, stabilize dairy trading prices, and provide dairy farmers with the tools and information they need.
“I am honored for the opportunity to serve as Chair of this Subcommittee,” Senator Gillibrand said. “New York’s dairy farmers are facing a crisis, and we cannot wait for the next Farm Bill to develop solutions. I look forward to correcting the outdated regulations and bad pricing structures that make it difficult for our nation’s agricultural sector to thrive.”
Gillibrand is currently one of the foremost champions of reforming the nation's complicated milk pricing system, which is set federally and influenced heavily by a small number of cheese traders on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. In recent years, milk prices have been so low that many farmers in New York State have been getting less for their milk than it costs to produce.
Over the past five years, nearly 25 percent of dairy farms shut down in New York State.
Senator Gillibrand says losing our farms is a matter of national security.
"When small dairies go out of business, you wind up seeing consolidation in the market to large dairy farms," Seantor Gillibrand said. "Once you have consolidation, the next step is outsourcing. We don't want to have to buy our dairy and our other produce from other countries."
There has been plenty of talk (but little action) about reforming federally-set dairy prices, particularly since the Northeast Dairy Compact -- an agreement that ensured farmers in the Northeast would get more for their milk -- expired in 2001.
But Gillibrand's appointment is a good sign. It's the first time in 40 years a senator from New York State has served on the Senate Agriculture Committee. And Gillibrand has proved herself a very sharp tack on agricultural issues. From a glowing profile in Vogue last fall:
Despite the fact that she is a Democrat (and a fairly progressive one, at that) and worked for fifteen years as a hotshot Manhattan lawyer, she seems utterly at ease among this crowd of mostly Republican farmers, with their rough hands and weathered faces. Indeed, when she arrived moments earlier—in a plain-Jane beige linen suit and flat shoes—she walked around the room and introduced herself to everyone, including the children, shaking hands and looking everyone directly in the eyes: “Thank you for coming out today.”
She tells the farmers that her goal is to understand their worries and concerns so that she can begin to create a list of New York State’s specific priorities for the farm bill, which will be written in 2012, as it is every five years. They will do most of the talking, she tells them. She is here to listen. And talk they do, with surprising intensity and an impressive fluency in the legislative language of Washington, D.C. Gillibrand studiously takes notes while the farmers talk for nearly an hour—about immigration policy, land conservation, the estate tax, the price of milk. When she does speak, she displays a dazzling mastery of arcane agricultural policy (Gillibrand is the first senator from New York to be on the Senate Agriculture Committee in nearly 40 years). In fact, when she is introduced by Chris Pawelski, the man who owns this farm, he says, “Often when you deal with a member of the Senate, you have to explain the issues in very simple terms. But the senator had an immediate grasp of complex issues; we were able to talk to her in technical terms. Her appointment to fill the rest of Secretary of State Clinton’s term was the best possible choice for farmers in this state.” After an enthusiastic round of applause, Pawelski says, “One final point: We were born one day apart. She is one day older than me.” After a beat, Gillibrand leans into her mic and deadpans, “You will be doing what you’re told,” and everyone laughs.