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Butter and the Plight of Dairy Farmers

Butter and the Plight of Dairy Farmers

Julia Anderson |The Columbian, Vancouver, Wash.

Butter and the price of butter have been on my mind lately. That’s because pie baking season is here. I love making pies.

I love the start-to-finish experience of dough-making, mixing fillings, crimping edges, putting pies in the oven and pulling them out to critically determine whether the insides bubbled just so and the crust turned that perfect golden color.

We begin with strawberry-rhubarb pies. Now the mid-summer season of apple pies, with infinite options and combinations, is upon us. Huckleberries ripen at the end of August, offering the ultimate yin and yang of sweet-tart flavor and texture.

Butter is an essential ingredient in my pie crusts (not margarine, not lard), so when I see a grocery store bargain on butter, I stock up. That’s been hard to do since butter, along with other dairy prices, spiked last year. Butter over $4 for a 32-ounce four-stick package was hard to take.

Dairy people were probably the happiest they’d ever been last year when milk prices averaged over $18 to $20 per hundred pounds. Their happiness was short-lived.

Along with other commodities, milk prices fell through the floor last winter, when the economy soured like a carton of cream left too long in the refrigerator. Milk is selling now for as low as just over $10 a hundredweight. Dairy farmers say they are losing $5 on every hundred pounds of milk they produce because the costs of feed and labor have not gone down.

But while dairy prices plummeted in January, consumer prices in grocery stores have been slow to follow and only lately have begun to reflect the decline. I know this because scoring on butter means finding four-stick packages around $2. That happened just last week.

Making Us Wonder

So when Kroger Co., owner of the Fred Meyer store chain, reports a 12 percent increase in earnings in its latest quarterly report, I wonder. I wonder how much Kroger and other grocery retailers are capitalizing on the misfortune of dairy farmers because of the oversupply of milk and milk products. It would be darn hard to resist taking just a bit more profit before passing any savings on to consumers.