Call it the "Milk Cliff" or "Dairy Cliff" or "Cow-a-Bunga-Maggedon."
Due to an outdated price support law from the Truman administration, upcoming holiday breaks and recent recesses would have one significant consequence if Congress can't reach an important bipartisan agreement by January 1: $8 milk prices.
You see, due to permanent legislation from 1949, American dairy farmers have an outrageous incentive kick in on Jan. 1 without Congressional action. Without an updated bill, the U.S. government would purchase dairy products from producers at nearly double the current market rate.
Members of the House of Representatives and Senate have wrangled for several months. Though talks have progressed in the last two weeks, without an extension or overhaul of the 2008 farm bill, dairy subsidies could expire on New Year's Day and send the price of a gallon of milk to record highs.
Americans could see steep rises other commodities as well, including corn, soybeans, and wheat.
So why hasn't the Farm Bill passed yet? The reasons will surprise you…
An Outdated, Ill-Fashioned Law
More than 60 years ago, the U.S. dairy industry was far smaller and less efficient than today. The industry relied on significant price supports from the U.S. government.
The 1949 policy is based on parity pricing and calls for a minimum milk price relative to a 60-year-old formula to calculate production costs.
Agricultural innovation and economies of scale have since taken hold of the dairy industry. The ever-bureaucratic government, unable to rescind outdated laws and always seeking to curry favor with special interests, left this law on the books for decades.
In the event that U.S. policy returns to this law, the U.S. government would step in and offer to purchase milk, butter, and cheese from farmers at double the current market rate. Farmers would have the ability to either sell their products at a market rate or at a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) rate. Currently, producers sell milk for an average of $19 to $20 per hundredweight (approximately 12 gallons). But reverting to 1949 farm policy would move the support price to $38, the USDA support level.
In October, the U.S. average price for a gallon of milk sat at $3.46, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But an increase driven by USDA incentives could lead to an immediate jump of $2 to $3 per gallon.
Thanks to the USDA purchasing rule, the federal government, which is ill-equipped to handle vast quantities of dairy products, would become the owner of these products. Consumers could expect not only higher prices due to the government price hike, but also shortages in the grocery store.
With prices spiking to $7 or $8 a gallon, there would be a rather drastic impact on demand.
The Executive Office of the President predicts that a steep cost increase up the supply curve would lead to a decline in domestic demand of roughly "9%, and exports, which have seen much growth over the past decade, would likely disappear as the cost of U.S. dairy products would become prohibitively expensive." This would be a staggering decrease for a sector that increased production by 18% from 2003 to 2012.
Such a steep drop in demand would then send a ripple effect across the U.S. dairy supply chains, leading to production stoppages, a decline in dairy cows, and even tighter supply in the future.
But Congress continues to bicker.