Producers join IDFA at Washington Conference

Jim Oberweis of Oberweis Dairy was among more than 60 IDFA members participating in the Washington Conference.
Jim Oberweis knows a lot about ice cream and a little bit about Washington politics, too. As news broke in late June of a vacancy in the Illinois senatorial race he had only recently been eliminated from, the chairman of Oberweis Dairy, N. Aurora, Ill., was in the nation's capital, knocking on doors and minding his cell phone. But he wasn't there to talk about the race. He was there to talk about things like forward contracting, and an enhanced role for milk in school lunch programs.

"There was a time when there were 52 dairy processors operating in the Chicago area, he tells Congresswoman Judy Biggert (R-IL). "Now we're the only one. And it's no surprise when you look at how difficult the government sometimes makes it to do business."

The congresswoman and her chief of staff know Oberweis. And they know the issues. Biggert was a co-sponsor of some of the legislation Oberweis and other dairy processors were in town to talk about.

This is IDFA's Washington conference in a nutshell-dairy processors, most of them with less political experience than Oberweis, talking to members of Congress about the issues that affect their industry. Over the course of two hot days, June 23-24, more than 60 dairy processors from across the country made the rounds on The Hill.

For Oberweis the timing could not have been more interesting. Just days before the conference began, Jack Ryan, the Republican primary winner for the Senate seat being vacated by Peter Fitzgerald was embarrassed by the details of an old divorce settlement, and lost party support. Oberweis had been the next highest vote getter in the spring primary from a field of about a half-dozen candidates. With the race in question (Ryan withdrew on the second day of the conference) Oberweis' cell phone didn't get much rest.

"If the Republican Committee wants me to run, I'll run," Oberweis told a television reporter during a phone interview. "I'll do what I can to help the party, my state and my country."

Big issues

At Wednesday's lunch meeting held to kick off the conference, Kristin Pearson Wilcox, IDFA's senior dir. of legislative affairs briefed the members in attendance on the issues they would address and the best strategies for getting congressional members and their aids to take action.

"The International Trade Commission says that IDFA's position on MPC, casein and caseinates is correct," she says. "It does not cause low milk prices. Let them know that the ITC report is out there and ask them to oppose the tariffs."

The four issues members were asked to target were:

  • Forward Contracting: IDFA supported legislation that would give dairy producers and processors permanent use of forward contracting to mange risk.

  • The National Dairy Equity Act: Calling it a new dairy compact, IDFA asked congress to oppose this measure it says would create a complicated pricing scheme with a new layer of bureaucracy on top of the Federal Order System.

  • School Milk: IDFA sought support for the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act for another five years. It says this would give schools more flexibility to serve a greater variety of milk on the lunch line, inlcluding flavored milk, lactose-free milk and milk of various fat levels.

  • MPC, Caseins and Caseinates: IDFA opposed tariffs on these products, saying they are used in numerous popular and nutritious food, and disputing critics who say their use contributes to low domestic raw milk prices.
The handshakes, meetings, and ice cream may have done some good for the industry's causes. On the second day of the conference, the House approved legislation (HR 3873/S.2507) on the school milk issue. It was signed by President Bush a week later.

This year's conference included a special delegation. Ten Wisconsin dairy farmers joined IDFA members and staff to talk to legislators about forward contracting.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of (R-Tenn.) hosted an ice cream social in his offices at the Capitol Building.

Making the rounds

On Thursday Oberweis was in Congressman Ray LaHood's office talking to an aide about the issues. Patrick Carroll already knew a little bit about dairy policies, having once been a member of IDFA's staff. La Hood later joined the conversation, pledging support for the IDFA's positions.

As Oberweis breezed throughout the halls of the Longworth Congressional building he noted that the conference is great opportunity for dairy processor members to help their own causes. While most of his time was spent with GOP members, who are generally supportive of processor issues, he made a point of meeting with Democrats, too.

"I met with Congressman Bobby Rush, and he was very open to what I had to say," Oberweis said.

In the afternoon, a select group of dairy processors attended an ice cream social in the offices of Senate Majority Leader Bill First of Tennessee. First and other congressional leaders were dressed in seersucker suits for a special Senatorial group portrait.

Security in the Capitol building is tight, but well organized, and after a little more attention to these matters than in other buildings, those in attendance were able to enjoy an inside look at the capitol and of Firsts office which looks out over the mall.

The Capitol Hill Ice Cream Party drew more than 5,000 people.
With impressive portraits of Ronald Reagan and Gorge H.W. Bush surrounding them and the profile of the Washington monument visible from the office windows, those dairy processors including Oberweis enjoyed ice cream and sundaes First and other Senators.

The big Capitol Hill Ice Cream Party took place a couple hours later at Upper Senate Park.

Located close to several congressional office buildings and near Union Station, the annual party (this was the 22nd) draws quite a crowd. Congressional staffers streamed from those office buildings to one of a bout a half-dozen scooping stations to get a scoop of strawberry or bunny tracks, or a root beer float.

An estimated 5,000 people got a cold taste the dairy industries most indulgent product in a matter of about two hours.

Unused food from the ice cream party is donated to a local food pantry.

Ice Cream Party by the Numbers

  • 1,320 gallons of ice cream, frozen yogurt and sherbet
  • 45 cases of sundae syrups
  • 110 cases of soda
  • 15,000 spoons
  • 15,000 bowls
  • 12,000 napkins
  • 6,000 root beer float cups
  • 6,000 straws