Capitol Alert

Brown administration trying to rewrite state milk regulation

Gov. Jerry Brown’s agriculture department is trying – so far without success – to gain traction in the Capitol for a major overhaul of California’s regulation of milk prices.

With scarcely a week remaining in the Legislature’s session, those close to the closed-door negotiations say, writing something that could pass political muster is unlikely, given a long and bitter conflict between dairy farmers and processors over prices.

Steve Lyle, a spokesman for Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross, confirmed the effort.

“Dairy producers and processors have been in almost around-the-clock discussions since last week to try to reach agreement on a modernized milk pricing system,” Lyle said in an email. “Discussions are continuing today. Secretary Ross is encouraged by the progress thus far. We hope a successful legislative proposal will be the result, but it will be up to the parties to find common ground.”

Earlier this week, a dairy farmer coalition called the California Dairy Campaign dispatched an “action alert” to its members, claiming that Ross was trying to deregulate 80 percent of milk production and saying, “California prices (to dairies) are the lowest in the nation and deregulation of dairy prices would drive prices even lower.”

Lower prices, the bulletin said, would thin the ranks of dairy farmers even more.

The legislative effort caps many months of infighting between farmers and processors, especially cheesemakers, over the prices that the latter must pay for milk.

Farmers have complained that minimum prices set by the state have failed to keep pace with rising costs, especially for feed, making milk production unprofitable. Last year, they accused Ross of favoring processors in setting prices and pushed legislation that would have changed the state’s price-setting methodology, tying it to federal price supports and thus pushing up prices.

The bill, carried by Assemblyman Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, was opposed by processors and didn’t make it through the Legislature.