Something different: My public comment on milk marketing rules

My great grandmother grew up milking cows in East Berlin, Adams County, Pennsylvania, not far from the battle of Gettysburg. She loved to cook. She always smiled. She was seldom cross, but you knew she meant business when she said: “Now, mind!” She was practical and daring. She wore pants before it was fashionable for ladies to do so and pierced her ears when the younger generations were still wearing clip-ons.

Growing up, I heard Sadie Phillips say more than once: “Trust your gut and Be bold!” Today, I have decided to do just that. I am using my blog to carry the public comments I will submit to USDA on the due date Monday, April 13 regarding the FEDERAL MILK MARKETING ORDERS and how they are (or are not) fulfilling their purpose and the effect on small businesses (A Section 610 Review). I’ll get knocked around for this in some circles, I am quite sure. And this is certainly very long for anyone to read. But here it is. Have at it. Or, if you are so inclined after reading it, shoot me a message, note, or thumbs up if you want your name added before I submit officially to USDA on Monday. 

April 11, 2015    

RE: Comments on the Federal Milk Marketing Order Program

Dear Mr. Rex A. Barnes, Associate Administrator of Agricultural Marketing Service: 

As a freelance ag journalist and market reporter for the past 30-plus years — as well as having as clients multiple small businesses and dairy farmer organizations for whom I do writing and photography — I get around the country and see firsthand what is happening to milk movement and dairy markets and the effects on dairy farm small businesses — as well as the small businesses that serve the dairy farms and the combination of jobs and revenue they provide to sustain rural economies.

Small businesses in the dairy industry — from the farm, to the service and supplies, to the processing, to the retailing — are in trouble. National Big-Business retailers and processors as well as national Big-Business cooperatives employ stables of milk accountants, attorneys and others in a centralized management model to re-shape the grid of milk movement within and between Federal Milk Marketing Orders (FMMO). Why would any small-business want to innovate in the fluid milk category when the two national Big-Business cooperatives (who work together through regional “marketing arms”) can come in and swoop the earnings away using FMMO rules to do so?

Yes, it has become increasingly difficult for the Northeast and Southeast milksheds to hold on to their Class I utilization in their respective blend prices. It is becoming more difficult to supply local milk beverage needs with a local supply of farm milk as the FMMO program of marketwide pooling actually facilitates the move to centralized models that displace milk from the local small businesses, local farms, local communities.

In effect, national Big-Business cooperatives are locking up regional balancing assets. By owning or controlling with full supply contracts most, if not all, of the dairy manufacturing in a region, independent bottlers and small co-ops find fewer options for selling extra loads to self-balance their local-to-local fluid market.

As a result, we are seeing individuals and small co-ops lose longstanding contracts with local bottlers in pockets all over the Northeast — especially in western Pennsylvania and central New York. In some cases, farms have been forced to sell their cows because they are now without a market at all.

These devastating effects have played out in other regions where small co-ops lost their markets to the Big-Business bottler and national Big-Business cooperative, and now this same effect is playing out in the Northeast — this time facilitated in part by complex FMMO rules.

The current FMMOs provide a needed structure and accountability in the buying and selling of milk. They also have the purpose of stabilizing prices through marketwide pooling. But opinions and analyses differ on whether the classification system — as it exists today — is stabilizing or instead contributes to price volatility. It also seems to detract from a competitive value being paid for manufacturing milk.

None of the above points are the actual defined purpose of the FMMOs. According to USDA, here are the 3 purposes of the FMMOs:

  • To provide for orderly marketing
  • To assure reasonable prices to both dairy farmers and to consumers
  • To assure an adequate supply of wholesome beverage milk to consumers

These 3 purposes (above) are not being realized in the current FMMO system.

  • A signal of DIS-orderly marketing is the fact that dairy farms within the Eastern markets are losing their access to milk marketing.

Milk produced in Georgia — that used to go to Florida — is moving North, while milk from Texas moves into Florida. Milk in Pennsylvania and New York is being displaced from its own milkshed by milk from Michigan. Milk from Illinois moves into Order 5 while milk from Kentucky has recently been trucked all the way to Texas, and vice versa. Truckers talk (more than tongue-in-cheek) about loads passing each other on the highways.

Both the Northeast and the Southeast are being chastised for having dared to increase their production. Farmers in Pennsylvania and New York are blamed for creating their own bottlenecks of surplus milk forcing tankerloads of milk to be dumped. Those ‘bad boy’ Eastern producers should not be growing their dairies. After all, that growth is throwing a monkey wrench into the planning of other regions to grow rapidly with eyes on filling the Eastern milk market deficit, using Class 1 sales in the East to sweeten the blend price paid to dairies that locate or relocate near huge dairy manufacturing plants in the West so those plants can enjoy the cheaper price paid for the milk they use to make dairy products.

  • The fight is on for the shrinking Class I piece of the milk market pie, when in reality other manufacturing uses have more value! In the process, consumers pay MORE for their beverage milk and farmers receive LESS. Farmers receive a shrinking percentage of the consumer retail dollar and a shrinking percentage of Class 1 sales. And yet…. the milk is all the same standard whether it goes in a bottle, in a cheese vat, a butter churn or a yogurt process. It’s all the same quality grade of milk!

As for current milk production growth. The truth is that the Northeast milkshed and the Southeast milkshed are not out-growing the needs of their areas. They are located in close proximity to consumer population growth, and their own milk production growth reflects an attempt to merely gain back some of their own formerly lost production that has weakened their infrastructure over the past 14 years for the farms that remain.

  • The Northeast milkshed and the Southeast milkshed are both deficit if just the milk within their borders is considered. My home state of Pennsylvania, for example, has lost 55,000 cows since 2002 and 100 million pounds of production.

Furthermore, leaders of states in the Northeast and Southeast milksheds — Pennsylvania, New York, Georgia, Kentucky for example — have implemented programs and incentives aimed at GROWING their respective states’ dairy small businesses.

The Governors and State Assemblies in these states have — in effect — said: “Our ag infrastructure of small businesses can’t stay in business here providing local jobs and revenue if you the local small business dairy farms don’t grow back to where you were!”

Now, the very dairy farms these incentives were implemented to uphold are cast aside as the milk is displaced from elsewhere.

The implementation of the Federal Orders has become short-sighted in the quest to simply “Assure an adequate supply of milk to consumers.” But what about the future when the small-business farms and infrastructure here in the East are so diminished they implode?

And look at the cost! Fluid milk consumption is down and we keep jacking up the price with all of these maneuverings. Maybe if a more localized model was respected and cMilkTruck#1onsidered, farmers and consumers would both benefit.

The purpose of the Federal Orders needs to be more considerate of the long term. It should not be declaring the winners and losers, but instead provide a level playing field where the real costs of transportation are factored into the value of local milk to local markets.

The large and powerful market movers take over the grid and push regional suppliers — mainly small businesses that are central to their own communities — to the side. These entities bring milk into the community and then drain local dollars out of the community.

As a result, small dairy businesses are going out of business at an alarming rate. Independent dairy farmers, small and mid-sized, as well as small cooperatives, are getting notices that they are being dropped by local bottlers in my home state of Pennsylvania and north into New York and in Ohio. Young Plain-Sect farmers are finding out in the Southeast they can’t just start milking cows like their fathers did before them. There is no market, they are told, even though the Southeast is a milk deficit area. The Northeast is as well.

The small regional bottlers are being squeezed by the large national co-ops who own or control the balancing assets (through both ownership and contracts) within the Northeast, and Southeast.

So, when milk from members of the national Big-Business co-op is produced in the rapid (double-digit) growth areas of Michigan and Texas, for example, that milk takes precedence at the national co-op-owned and controlled balancing assets in the Northeast and Southeast — effectively pushing the local small business independent shippers and small regional co-ops out of the bottling plants and into situations where they don’t have a market for their milk.

The Walmartization of food retailing has infiltrated its way to the farm-level because local small businesses have limited access to the dairy product processing plants where they once sold extra loads at a discount in order to balance the fluctuations of the fluid milk market. The set make allowance that is built into the manufacturing class milk prices also encourages large single-product plants versus a market-savvy and nimble processing class that makes for the market.

In Pennsylvania, some bottlers are working together with local food banks to balance the ups and downs of the fluid market so they can keep their longtime shippers instead of giving them up to the national Big-Business co-ops who in turn broker the milk back to the plants it went to in the first place.

TIE-STALL-FILE-PHOTO

What do the Federal Orders bring to this mix or — should I say — mess?

First, It is currently too easy to move milk and get paid more for moving it the farthest!

As a result, dairy manufacturing plants are being built where there are not many cows. “If you build it, they will come.” But then they will also send their milk back East to get that juicy Class I utilization to boost their blend price and keep the cost of milk down for the large new manufacturing plants.

The small businesses of the eastern region need a method by which to have the local-ness of their milk count for something in this equation!! If the government is going to be so involved, then it needs to look at the big picture.

Currently, not enough incentive is built into the FMMO structure to give local-supply-arrangements and advantage in the fresh fluid milk beverage market based on the fact that milk flows in smaller circles and does not have to move so far.

While I am not an expert on how all of the pieces of the FMMO came to be, I do know that some of the fixes have created new and worsening problems.

My ask of the USDA AMS — as a small business and as a consumer — is 3-fold:

1) Please extend the comment period to allow for more time to comment. Dairy producers are waking up to some disturbing activity in the Eastern markets. More is becoming known about the current failures of the Federal Orders to uphold their intended purpose! Dairy farms — in increments of half-dozen to a dozen at a time — are getting notices RIGHT NOW that they must find another market or sell out their cows, their investment, their vocation, their family-living, their heritage.

More and more of these producers losing their markets are the highest quality milk producers! Their only fault is they are small businesses (40 to 1000 cows) or part of a small co-op (8 to 12 producers). A large iron fist is coming down in the eastern markets and blaming the bloodbath of farms forced to shut down, dump milk, and go out of business on “too much milk” in the East.

All the while, milk from Michigan in the north and Texas in the south is displacing local eastern milk in the balancing assets of the two large national-and-centralized co-ops that work together. Members first, locals last.

2) Before considering the addition of California to the current FMMO system, please hold national hearings to first evaluate and devise a new pricing formula. Consider basing it on 2-classes of milk: fluid and manufacturing as well as component values based on an array of products — and evaluate removal of the “set” make allowance. This could facilitate competition among various entities buying milk for a variety of manufacturing uses — instead of declaring the winners and losers via set make allowances that encourage large single-product plants that are not nimble nor responsive to changing market conditions.

This could also cut down on some of the gaming we see among balancing assets and lead to more actual marketing of dairy milk products rather than large output of products the market may or may not want because the set make-allowance assures a margin where pure scale is the key to profit and efficiency.

An example of this is the difference between skim milk powder – a uniform product with a standardized protein content – vs. nonfat dry milk (on which the make allowance for powder is based) which is a lower quality product and not uniform in that the protein percentage falls into a 4-point range. If the market wants SMP for its repeatability in a recipe but the make allowance is based on NFDM, the response in a downtrending market is to make more of the latter because the margin is guaranteed by a set make allowance, which further depresses the market.

3) Re-evaluate the purpose, relationship and actual function of transportation credits, touch-base provisions, diversions and other aspects of how milk is supplied so that a premium resides wherever local milk supplies local markets and wherever the regional infrastructure of dairy farms and businesses is upheld in the movement of milk within a Federal Order. Perhaps instead of using such credits and rules to facilitate the bringing of milk from far away, the fund would be better used to get local milk to local markets.

Local small businesses are being forced out of business rapidly. The Department needs to move quickly to establish a fund where processors pay in what would have been spent to bring the distant milk so those dollars are used in the local community or within the Order to offset the balancing cost of keeping local dairy farms on the rolls.

In short, perhaps it is time to use the Federal Orders for their intended purpose and break up the centralized stranglehold of the two national Big-Business cooperatives working together (even sharing attorney and milk accountant assets) by forcing them to stop painting their milk movements with a centralized broad brush – forcing them to more aptly consider local to local, regional to regional.

It is also worth mentioning here that some shifts in the gap between the USDA “all-milk” price and the “mailbox” price released months later are becoming apparent as the national mailbox price has been higher than the all-milk price while the Southeast, Appalachia, Pennsylvania, and New York mailbox prices are falling further and further behind the all-milk price than ever before. This may have something to do with the 6% reduction in Class I utilization in the Southeast in 2014 and the 4% reduction in Class I utilization in the Northeast in 2014. The national reduction in Class I utilization is 3% by comparison.

This reflects not only the raw milk movement but also the infiltration of packaged milk coming from outside of the Northeast and Southeast milksheds directly onto the shelves of large buyers like Costco and Walmart.

On a personal note — as a former milking employee, 34-year veteran ag journalist in dairy and beef, and an eater of dairy products and drinker of dairy milk in the Northeast — I have this to say about “free markets”…

Some are calling for the abolition of the “archaic Federal Orders.” I would be on that bandwagon in a heartbeat — favoring open markets over the continued use and misuse of rules and structure to supress a region’s own supply of dairy farms, small businesses and infrastructure — if I didn’t think the Federal Orders still have a purpose of accountability and to be a running record for what is happening.

However, if the current problems are not fixed to give local milk, supplied by small businesses a fighting chance, then perhaps the FMMO system should go. We have seen the loss of too many small business in the dairy industry where nationalized Big Business processors and co-ops used FMMO rules to their advantage to take over markets. Without a change in FMMO rules, this will continue and accelerate, and we will see more losses of small dairy businesses that sustain rural communities.

If the current problems are not fixed, small businesses may find they are better off in a totally free market, unencumbered by the structure and rules that are increasingly designed by the national Big Business operators to effectively put them out of business as they increase their own centralized national footprint.

Please do not add California until after the current issues with the FMMOs are fixed to a point where local is rewarded in the formula and small business is respected. Once California is added, it will be much harder to make new changes that benefit local small businesses fighting for survival in the East. Thus, the current areas controlled by FMMOs should have a chance to improve the rules before adding the state that has wanted to be state-regulated for decades and represents almost one-fourth of the total milk production in the U.S.

File-Photo-Abandoned-Tie-Stall

Thank you for your consideration,

 

Sincerely,

Sherry A. Bunting

 

To file your own comments with USDA, click here

3 thoughts on “Something different: My public comment on milk marketing rules

  1. The dairy industry in the United States is at a cross roads. I am NOT one to waste the taxpayers money for needless subsidies and archaic rules. I AM for the sustainability of a long term food supply that sustains mankind AND sustains the environment. It is because of these reasons that the Federal Milk Order Program must be maintained. If we abolish it we decouple milk from a system that tried to protect our supply on a regional level. In days that the rest of agriculture is being challenged by the consumer to be more regional, should we not keep the FMO in place? The FMO fosters local dairies and ALSO fosters regional and local cooperatives. If the FMO is abolished you will lose many of these.

    If this is done, the industry will alienate itself with the consumer in the most drastic of ways. And, the consumer will slowly notice that the dairy products they are buying are coming from East Jabip and why aren’t they able to buy regional dairy items? The public outcry will be swift and once again, agriculture will be left having to explain its reasoning to a consumer that is becoming more and more alienated. I am concerned that the dairy industry will be left crying over spilt milk when that time comes.

    In closing, please consider this: It took the likes of a Pepsi to make milk look sexy. One of the largest beverage corporations in the world will perhaps do what a 17,000 member milk “cooperative” could not seem to do. My family is steeped in the heritage of milk cooperatives and for literally decades you would hear how milk coops had to get bigger so they could compete and offer more for the member. Now, we have coops as large as 17,000 members and they still wind up needing someone like Pepsi to take up the cause of fluid milk. Now, the FMO is up for grabs. If you abolish the FMO you must then allow the market to truly become a free market system. Then and only then would the smallest of dairies be able to compete by hopefully becoming very agile. However, that conclusion will be problematic and set up a chain of market reactions that I fear are not being considered.

    I want to thank the writer of this blog for bringing this to my attention. I did not know this was up for grabs. I am sorry to have made such a long comment.

    https://profitablegrowthservices.wordpress.com/2015/03/12/the-food-chain-who-will-hear-the-voice-of-farming/

    Like

  2. The dairy industry in the United States is at a cross roads. I am NOT one to waste the taxpayers’ money for needless subsidies and archaic rules. I AM for the sustainability of a long term food supply that sustains mankind AND sustains the environment. It is because of these reasons that the Federal Milk Order Program must be maintained. If we abolish it we decouple milk from a system that tried to protect our supply on a regional level. In days that the rest of agriculture is being challenged by the consumer to be more regional, should we not keep the FMO in place? The FMO fosters local dairies and ALSO fosters regional and local cooperatives. If the FMO is abolished you will lose many of these.

    If this is done, the industry will alienate itself with the consumer in the most drastic of ways. And, the consumer will slowly notice that the dairy products they are buying are coming from East Jabip and why aren’t they able to buy regional dairy items? The public outcry will be swift and once again, agriculture will be left having to explain its reasoning to a consumer that is becoming more and more alienated. I am concerned that the dairy industry will be left crying over spilt milk when that time comes.

    In closing, please consider this: It took the likes of a Pepsi to make milk look sexy. One of the largest beverage corporations in the world will perhaps do what a 17,000 member milk “cooperative” could not seem to do. My family is steeped in the heritage of milk cooperatives and for literally decades you would hear how milk coops had to get bigger so they could compete and offer more for the member. Now, we have coops as large as 17,000 members and they still wind up needing someone like Pepsi to take up the cause of fluid milk. Now, the FMO is up for grabs. If you abolish the FMO you must then allow the market to truly become a free market system. Then and only then would the smallest of dairies be able to compete by hopefully becoming very agile. However, that conclusion will be problematic and set up a chain of market reactions that I fear are not being considered.

    I want to thank the writer of this blog for bringing this to my attention. I did not know this was up for review. I am sorry to have made such a long comment.

    https://profitablegrowthservices.wordpress.com/2015/03/12/the-food-chain-who-will-hear-the-voice-of-farming/

    Like

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