Updated 02/18/2013 05:00 PM
Fighting For Fair Trade For New York's Dairy Industry
The Federal government is putting on the heat in a potential trade battle brewing between the U.S. and Canada. Proposed restrictions could hit Western New York dairy farmers in the wallet.
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"We milk about 2,000 cows here," said Eric Zuber. "We ship about 50 million pounds of milk a year."
It's been a big year for milk production on local farms.
"The cows, at least in the Northeast here, are milking really well right now."
But for Zuber and other farmers., that hasn't translated into great milk prices.
"The excess milk in the Eastern part of the country has depressed the milk price a little bit. So we're starting to get a little crunch again."
With the high cost of feed, getting paid is important. That means finding more markets for milk and dairy products.
"Foreign markets, as a total, have become crucial to the dairy industry."
But as farmers are finding out, getting milk into those markets is sometimes easier said than done.
"There's a lot of opportunities, particularly offshore. But these countries are always putting up barriers."
Zuber sends his milk to O-AT-KA Dairy. He's one of nearly 400 members.
Senator Charles Schumer visited the Batavia plant to talk to farmers about concerns with a Canadian government proposal to further restrict imports.
"This sort of lopsided tariff could choke off a huge market," said Sen. Schumer, (D).
Schumer is calling on U.S. trade representatives to make removing restrictions on milk a top priority in ongoing trade talks with Canada, and other countries.
"Given that the dairy industry is becoming more and more reliant on the growing global market, a level playing field is a necessity. And that's all we want, is a level playing field."
There are already restrictions in place for shipping milk to Canada. O-AT-KA gets around some by breaking milk down into what's called liquid milk protein concentrate, which isn't blocked by current restrictions.
"I'm sure the Canadians would call it a loophole. We call it an opportunity," said Zuber.
Just five percent of milk and milk products that go through O-At-KA make their way to Canada, but there's also the issue of a $16 million expansion at the plant, and the need for new markets.
"We have a number of high profile customers in Canada that we've been doing business with for a number of years. We'd like to continue to grow and develop that business. If those limits are put in place it will limit our ability to expand business with these customers," said Bill Schreiber, O-AT-KA COO.
"Milk as a rule has a tendency to seek it's greatest value," Zuber said.
Farmers are banking on finding, and keeping, expanded outlets for their milk. They'd hate to see the doors to the north close on them.
"If we can move some of this to Canada, it would mean more profit for Western New York dairymen," said Zuber.