Katelyn Allen, Associate Editor
April 15, 2021
If a proposed amendment to the federal milk marketing system advances to a final decision by USDA, the revised order is then voted on by the dairy farmers who would be affected by the change. It is a one farmer, one vote system, unless bloc voting is called into action.
In a way, bloc voting could be compared to the republic democracy we use in state and local politics: We elect individuals who then vote on issues on our behalf. In regard to federal order reform, cooperative leaders elected by farmer members may choose to “bloc” vote by casting one ballot for all of their farmers.
For an amended order to pass and be implemented, two-thirds of farmers or farmers representing two-thirds of the milk must return ballots that vote “yes.” Ballots that are sent out but not returned are not counted in determining that two-thirds threshold, explained Erin Taylor on the April 7 Hoard’s Dairyman DairyLivestream. Taylor leads USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) Dairy Program order formulation and enforcement division, so she is closely familiar with the ins and outs of the federal order amendment process outlined in the Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act that was established in 1937.
“The statute specifically allows for cooperatives to bloc vote on behalf of the membership. That’s an option for the co-op,” she noted. USDA does not require a co-op to bloc vote or not.
“Their board members decide whether to bloc vote on behalf of all of their members, or they may choose to ask us to send ballots to all of their members separately, and then those members can choose whether or not to return the individual ballots,” Taylor added.
Opportunity cost Where did the idea for this provision come from? It came to a head after World War II when many orders were being added or moved around or amended, said Cornell University’s Andy Novakovic.
“A lot of farmers just didn’t have the time to sit down and figure out what was going on, and they didn’t vote,” he remarked. “It became such an issue that cooperatives finally stepped back and said, ‘We’re responsible for marketing milk. We have to have people who understand how this system works, who can understand the pieces and make recommendations and explain it to our members and help them know how to vote.’
“That lead to cooperatives exercising bloc voting,” Novakovic continued. The issues were often more complicated and time-consuming to sort through than the average person had the ability or desire to. “Yes, you could find the time if you thought your co-op made the wrong decision. But it was a decision that educated, intelligent people made with your best interests at heart.”
Any number of complicated issues can be broken down if you have the time and effort to learn them. Balancing that opportunity cost with what needs to be done in the rest of the business, however, is where the rubber can meet the road and bloc voting can be beneficial.