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Dairy Industry Crushed Innovator Who Bested Price-Control System

Hettinga fought back by printing labels saying that Kyl wanted to "limit competition and raise the cost of milk to the Arizona consumer" and putting them on 50,000 gallons of milk shipped around Arizona.

In the House, Devin Nunes, a new Republican member from California's Central Valley, introduced a bill to close what he called the "regulatory loophole" that let Hettinga ship unregulated milk into California. Nunes's district is No. 1 in milk production in the nation. Nunes and Sons dairy, located a few miles north of Tulare, was started by Nunes's grandfather and was still in the family.

In Nunes's first run for Congress, in 2002, he pulled in $130,000 from dairy interests, second only to President Bush among federal candidates, election records show.

Nunes's bill and Kyl's amendment initially went nowhere. So Kyl, a conservative Republican, found an unlikely ally in Reid, then the Senate's fiercely partisan Democratic whip.

Reid was no newcomer to dairy issues. Nevada's population was growing faster than its dairies could supply milk, so prices tended to be high. Milk plants that had to import milk from far away thought they could get it cheaper if they did not have to pay regulated prices. In 1999, Reid helped them out. He slipped an amendment into a spending bill exempting milk plants in the Las Vegas area from federal pricing rules.

David Coon, vice president of Anderson Dairy Inc., then the area's largest milk plant, hailed Reid's amendment as a "good example of the good we feel he has done fighting for our state." Reid later listed Anderson as one of 51 "soft money" donors to his Searchlight Leadership Fund, which funds Democratic candidates in Nevada.

The 1999 provision still left the Las Vegas area subject to some federal milk regulations. By 2003, fixing that had become a pressing concern as Dean Foods began construction on a $40 million, state-of-the-art milk plant outside town.

That year, Reid and Kyl saw they could make a deal. Kyl agreed to back removing all of Nevada from federal milk regulation, and Reid agreed to support legislation cracking down on Hettinga and protecting Arizona dairies from competition from low-priced Nevada milk. In 2003, the senators co-sponsored an amendment with both provisions. In effect, Nevada bottlers would get some of the same rights that were being taken away from Hettinga. Under this arrangement, the money the Yuma dairyman would save by operating outside the federal system would have to be paid in to the pool.

Getting Around Lewis

In 2003, Hettinga still looked the part of a hard-working dairy farmer. He wore jeans, lunched on fried chicken and salad at the Hometown Buffet in Yuma, and seldom took a vacation. But he was no longer a little guy. He owned a private plane and kept a pilot on standby. His 16 dairies stretched from Texas to California, and his company, Sarah Farms, supplied nearly a fifth of Arizona's liquid milk.

As Kyl and Reid were putting together their deal, a milk-industry friend put Hettinga in touch with a Washington lobbyist, former representative Raymond J. McGrath (R-N.Y.). McGrath, who was president of the National Republican Club of Capitol Hill, had retained good connections in GOP circles.

During a swing through Capitol Hill with McGrath, Hettinga pitched his cause to House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.).

Lewis's district was home to some large dairies, including a Hettinga dairy in San Jacinto. The two men had never before met or talked, according to Lewis's spokesman. But Lewis was sympathetic. "This is not right, taking a rifle shot at one individual," Hettinga recalls Lewis saying.

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