Dairy farmer's trip to DC was an 'eye-opener'
VERGAS, Minn. -- A local dairy farmer came away with a newfound respect for hardworking Congressional staff after a two-day trip to Washington earlier this month.
VERGAS, Minn. - A local dairy farmer came away with a newfound respect for hardworking Congressional staff after a two-day trip to Washington earlier this month.
Casey Schlauderaff grew up in the Detroit Lakes area and farms near Vergas and on land between Audubon and Detroit Lakes. He keeps 650 dairy cows.
He was one of a handful of farmers invited to Washington to represent the Dairy Farmers of America marketing cooperative.
"We went on the third and fourth of May," he said. "Everybody (in Congress) was busy because of the healthcare thing going on," he said, but the dairy farmers met with staff working for U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, U.S. Sen. Al Franken and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, among others.
Peterson is known for his agricultural expertise, and is "definitely a champion for Minnesota dairy farmers," he said, but the dairy farmers were pleasantly surprised by how knowledgeable Franken's staff also was on complex dairy issues.
In general, he said, "we talked about immigration reform, and the importance of our immigrant workers," Schlauderaff said. "They said they're working on it."
Good help is hard to find in all areas of business and agriculture in Minnesota these days, and dairy farms have long relied on immigrant labor. "From what our co-op tells us, 60 to 70 percent of milk collected in the United States is done with migrant or immigrant labor," he said.
But that key labor source is now threatened by the Trump Administration's crackdown on immigration. The charged atmosphere affects workers, regardless of their immigration status, he said. "There was a time we'd have people stopping by weekly looking for work, and we don't anymore."
Migrant workers are now afraid, perhaps with good cause, he said, pointing to the case of a worker he knows who has been in the United States for 20 years and is working towards citizenship. Schlauderaff said the man was stopped by a Perham police officer for a driving violation.
He said the officer contacted an Otter Tail County deputy to take the man to jail in Fergus Falls, but it was determined he should be given a citation, not jailed. So he was taken to a correctional facility in Grand Forks, N.D., which would not accept him either. "So they dropped him at a convenience store in Grand Forks and left him," Schlauderaff said angrily.
The Grand Forks County Correctional Center serves as a staging area for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees from Minnesota and North Dakota before they are sent to federal facilities in the Twin Cities.
A spokesman for the five-member Perham Police Department said he was not aware of any kind of incident like that, and the department is small enough that he would have heard about it had it happened in Perham.
Schlauderaff believes that immigration is always going to be an issue, and building a wall is not the solution. "Until there is safety and prosperity from Canada to the tip of South America, we will have an immigration problem," he said.
While in Washington, Schlauderaff said, they also met with Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin, who has sponsored the DAIRY PRIDE Act, which would call on the Food and Drug Administration to enforce its definition of milk ("lacteal secretion obtained by the milking of one or more healthy cows") on packaging of all dairy and dairy substitute products. Almond milk and soy milk producers have benefitted from using the word milk on their labels, and that's not fair to those who provide the real thing, he said. "It's a big deal to dairy farmers," he added. "It's like they're stealing the name, implying something is made of milk when it's not."
They also talked about the successes and failures of the farm bill, and how to improve it.
And Schlauderaff was impressed with how hard Congressional staff and lawmakers worked. "You really get a feel for how government works," he said. "We had 30 minutes and it was all business, no (shooting the) bull ... it was incredibly fast-paced and busy, it was a real eye-opener."
He also noticed how entrenched lobbyist are in Washington. "I found it really funny, the closest building to the Senate Office Building is the Teamsters building," he said. "The National Agricultural Cooperative Federation (of which his co-op is a member) was right there also. It was surprising how many people are employed by lobbying groups."
Schlauderaff voted for President Trump and continues to support him, but has concerns about the administration renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada.
"We can't screw up NAFTA," he said. "Mexico is our (the dairy industry's) biggest customer-one in seven days of our product go out of the country. If we talk bad about Mexico, make them think we're not a good trading partner, other parts of the world will try to take advantage of that," he added.
The European Union and Mexico are now holding negotiations for a new, reformed Free Trade Agreement, and the Europeans would love to sell dairy products to Mexico, Schlauderaff said. The American dairy industry "is worried they're going to get hung out to dry."
While Trump is "a mixed bag," he believes the president is smarter than the media generally gives him credit for, and that most of the noise he's making about NAFTA is just part of his negotiating strategy.
And he liked it when Trump said that dairy farmers were taking it on the chin from Canada. "When," he asked, "is the last time you heard a president talk about dairy?"