Dairy farmers across the country contribute part of their paychecks into a government program which pays for a national advertising campaign. Supporters say the “Got Milk?” and “3-A-Day” messages have helped keep the price of milk strong. But one small dairy farm is taking on the U.S. government. The farmers say their milk is different – and they don’t want to pay to advertise their competitors’ product. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Brad Linder reports:
Dairy farmers across the country contribute part of their paychecks
into a government program which pays for a national advertising campaign. Supporters say the “Got Milk?” and “3-A-Day” messages have helped keep the price of milk strong. But one small dairy farm is taking on the U.S. government. The farmers
say their milk is different — and they don’t want to pay to advertise
their competitors’ product. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Brad
Joe and Brenda Cochran wake up early every morning to milk the cows at 5:30. Joe says the 200 acre farm in Pennsylvania isn’t much, but it’s been home for him and his wife, Brenda and their 14 children since 1993.
“This farm here is just a basic dairy production facility. It’s nothing fancy whatsoever. It’s like most other farms in the country. But we do do things a little bit different. And we think that makes our milk a little bit different.”
Cochran says what distinguishes his milk from most of what winds up on
supermarket shelves is simple. His farm is what he calls “traditional.” No growth hormones for the cows. And when it’s warm out, they aren’t kept in a feedlot. They graze.
“It’s not organic, okay? But I think it is a better product. My family drinks milk out of that bulk tank straight. We don’t pasteurize it or touch it. We go up and get it and drink. And I’d like to think anybody could do that. I wouldn’t want to drink any milk that has this bovine growth hormone or a lot of the ways other people treat their cows
and treat their product.”
Like all dairy farmers, the Cochrans pay into the dairy checkoff program. For every hundred pounds of milk they sell, they pay 15 cents to a federal program. That amounts to about ten-percent of their profits. That money pays for dairy promotions, including the “Got Milk?” campaign, which made the milk-moustache famous.
The group that administers the advertising program and research into health benefits of milk is Dairy Management. Paul Rovey is the chairman. Rovey says the dairy checkoff was created in 1983 to raise demand for dairy products in response to falling milk prices.
“Each individual dairy farmer would not have that kind of opportunity to do the research, the advertising, and so by collectively together having this checkoff, where everybody contributes, and everybody benefits is how we can then afford to do the fantastic research we’ve done, to do the advertising.”
Rovey calls the program a success. Since Congress created the checkoff in
1983, the average person’s milk consumption has gone up by 12 percent.
But Joe and Brenda Cochran say the checkoff program hasn’t made any difference for their farm. Brenda says she doesn’t understand why they’re being forced to pay into a federal program which pays to advertise everybody’s milk, and not just their own.
“The government is forcing us to contribute materially to a program that gives consumers the message that food, in this case dairy products, are generic. And we’re saying that no food is generic. Especially our dairy products are not generic.”
The Cochrans says the dairy checkoff violates their freedom of speech, by
requiring them to pay for advertising that treats milk from their farm just like everybody else’s.
But Dairy Management’s Paul Rovey says that’s exactly how it should be
“Generic promotion benefits and raises the demand for all dairy, including the Cochrans. Milk is milk, and when we help increase demand for dairy and milk, it does it for everybody, and they benefit, we all benefit from the generic programs.”
Rovey says most farmers he talks to are very supportive of the program. But Joe Cochran asks if they’re so supportive, why can’t the program just be voluntary?
The Cochrans recently won their case against the checkoff at the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals. An appeal is pending. But as long as a group of libertarian think tanks are willing to pay the legal costs, Joe Cochran says he’ll take the fight all the way to the Supreme Court.
Joe Cochran is a third generation farmer, but he says with milk prices
still low and the forced payments to the checkoff program, he wouldn’t be
surprised if this is the last generation of Cochran farmers. His kids
can’t make money staying on the farm.
“I’d love to see them go into dairy farming. As a matter of fact, my oldest son farmed with us here up until last March, a year ago. And the reason why he had to leave is because of the financial problems. He was getting married, and he had to have an income, and we could not provide it for him.”
If Cochran succeeds in ending the checkoff program, then the true trial
begins. That will be when farmers discover whether it costs more to
contribute to the federal advertising program – or if it costs more not
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Brad Linder.