Dumped. Desperate. Delivered. But is it over?

‘It will happen again if we don’t find a way to deal with this.’

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, April 17, 2015 Cover-041715

FULTONVILLE, N.Y. — Ray Dykeman does not want to see anyone go through what he and his cooperative of 8 producers did this week. He cites the feeling of not knowing where to turn as the worst part of the “bizarre situation.” But as the group began their phone-tree of calls last week, and the Albany television news cameras rolled at the 950-cow Dykeman Dairy Farm to produce what became the number one ‘shared’ story of the week… things started happening that led to a reprieve.

The co-op of 8 had lost their milk market. They were given notice 4 weeks ago that April 15 was the last day they would haul their milk to New York City’s only bottler — as they had for 13 years. Less milk was needed by Elmhurst Dairy, and another entity had stepped in to supply — and balance — that need.

“When we first lost our market, we spent 14 days thinking we were getting something lined up with another buyer,” said Dykeman. “When that fell through, we were faced with literally 7 to 10 days of hecticness. There’s not a tremendous amount of options. That is the other hard part.”

Dykeman served as the co-op’s point man communicating with other co-ops, processors, government officials and the media.

The 8 farms, totaling near 3000 cows, were down to 7 days to find a new home for their 110 million pounds of annual milk. Staring them in the face was the real possibility of selling their cows and shutting their doors.

“What do you do in 30 days, in that amount of time?” said Dykeman, who has ownership in 3 of the 8 affected farms, including the 500-cow Envision Dairy, Amsterdam, owned by a consortium of 23 people with expertise in different aspects of dairying and forage, along with young dairy startups from Cornell. Envision Dairy was accepted by another co-op 10 days before cutoff. That lightened the load a bit, but the rest of the milk was still a long way from home.

“Even today, our 42 employees are looking at me saying what are we doing Thursday?” said Dykeman in a Farmshine phone interview late Tuesday afternoon. “We are 24 hours away from having no home for our milk, and I still am not sure how to answer them.”

Hope and support…

But he had hope. Fellow dairy producers and community members were calling and emailing. People were reaching out. He had had countless meetings and secured two buyers to each take a little of the milk. On Tuesday afternoon, he was waiting for an answer from a third processor considering taking half.

By late that evening, that contract was signed for a 3-month reprieve in time to make the nightly television news.

“Trucking our milk to 3 different places will be new for us, but we are able to use the same hauler and we are accustomed to high trucking costs — having hauled milk into New York City for 13 years — so we are very happy,” said Dykeman with an audible sigh of relief.

“I hope, going forward, we don’t let this experience go by the wayside because I honestly believe if we do not come up with a plan for this area, it will happen again and be potentially devastating,” he quickly added. “Just look at the investment farmers have. All that we have put at risk.

“I would much rather have someone say to me: ‘We really need you to go out of business. You are not needed in New York anymore, and you have a year to get out,’ than to be told all of a sudden there’s no place to send my milk,” he said.

Dykeman stressed that they have “no animosity toward any of the companies.” This is business to business, they realize. But what amazed them was the amount of public support.

“Everyone worked so hard to find a home for this milk: Our representatives and senators, the Governor’s office, the New York Ag Commissioner, other co-ops and processors. Local people wanted to take the local milk. It was a very difficult situation in which to find a solution, but the people we have dealt with in this were very helpful.”

Dykeman could not say enough about Sen. Chuck Schumer. “He was kind enough without a scheduled meeting to meet with a couple farmers while in Johnstown for another reason,” he explained. “He and the Commissioner both called this morning to express their relief in how things turned out.”

No easy solutions…

The 3-month reprieve gives the co-op of now 7 farms the breathing time to secure an annual contract. And Dykeman feels certain there will be more discussion in the industry on how to handle these things better in the future.

“Farmers generally want to go back to being farmers,” Dykeman shared. “This is not what we do. This is one of the reasons we farm. We grew up on farms and this is what we want to do — not doing the kinds of things I’ve been doing for the past few weeks.”

Dykeman said the silver lining is “seeing your community respond and be very helpful. I can’t even calculate the number of emails and phone calls I’ve had. In fact, I’ve had 5 calls try to buzz through while on the phone with you today,” he said Tuesday. “People want to help. But there are no easy solutions and it will happen again if we don’t find a way to deal with this.”

One of the ideas being tossed around is to pair extra milk with efforts to supply food banks, or to ask the government how to use the “demand buying” in the Farm Bill to alleviate the supply pressure coming to roost on a region despite the fact that the “national average milk margin” is not even close yet to triggering the national government purchases for feeding programs.

Players and perspective…

In contacting the New York Department of Ag and Markets on their role and perspective, emailed questions were requested, and Dave Bullard, assistant public information officer provided this statement in response: “Ag and Markets is working with local elected officials, including Congressman Tonko and Assemblyman Santabarbara, to assist the farmers in finding alternative processors and manufacturers for the cooperative.  There is currently a surplus of milk due to strong production combined with lower sales as a result of reduced exports and a few other factors.  This supply/demand imbalance has created a very challenging situation for all producers and processors.”

Similarly, a request for an interview with DFA was met with a request for emailed questions. In asking what DFA would like to report in terms of taking on one of the farms in the Pennsylvania situation a few weeks ago and the New York situation currently while also gaining additional outlet for member milk in the process, the emailed response from DFA’s spokesperson was, that “Every milk marketing organization handles regional market dynamics differently.  One of the advantages of our cooperative system is that we work diligently to provide a secure market for our members’ milk.  Our goal is to market our members’ milk in the most efficient and cost-effective way as possible.  As we look to the future, the Northeast dairy industry is in an excellent position because of our proximity to major population hubs and our access to natural resources.”

Asked to define some of the biggest reasons for the oversupply of milk in the Northeast given that the Northeast has not grown by as wide a margin as the national average, DFA’s emailed response was: “For most of 2014 and into 2015, the Northeast marketplace has been in a challenging milk supply situation. Overall a generally weak demand and increased milk supply resulted in the need for additional milk movements around and beyond the Northeast. With plant closures (Farmland Dairies) and an overall weakening in demand from Class I and Class II customers, more milk than normal was placed in balancing facilities throughout our system and outside our geography. In the Northeast the loss of capacity in conjunction with the increase in supply resulted in the extra milk movements.”

Welcome to the squeeze chute…

When reviewing the larger decline in Northeast Class I utilizations versus the decline nationally — and seeing the effect as Eastern mailbox milk prices fall further behind their respective all-milk price while national average mailbox milk prices have atypically become higher than the all-milk price — it is obvious that the Northeast market is the new squeeze-chute when milk supplies nationally burgeon.

The yogurt-magnet that strengthened the confidence of Northeast dairy farmers over the past few years has led to small but steady increases in production, and then in 2014, New York increased by more than 2% to re-take from Idaho its former position as the #3 milk-producing state. Meanwhile the Northeast milkshed, as a whole, was up just under 2% in 2014 compared with the national increase of 2.7%, and has backed off in early 2015.

No reason to sour on yogurt…

Yogurt production is one of the primary fall-guys for the current supply/demand situation reversal of fortunes in the Northeast. But further analysis is less clear on that pointed finger. Yogurt production was 741 million pounds in New York State in 2013 and 692 million pounds in 2012. The 2014 figures for the state will not be available until late May. The 2012 and 2013 totals, however, show New York yogurt production used around 12% of New York’s growing milk supply in both years as both the yogurt and the milk production grew simultaneously.

On a national basis, however, the total U.S. yogurt production figures are available at this time, and yogurt production grew from 4.42 billion pounds nationally in 2012 to 4.65 bil. lbs in 2013 to 4.74 bil. lbs. in 2014.

Furthermore, the April 2 Dairy Products report indicated that nationwide plain and flavored fresh (not frozen) yogurt production was up in February by 7.2% over year ago and nearly 12% higher than for January.

Context and common denominators…

The yogurt industry is known to be highly secretive and competitive.

Interestingly, 2009 is the last year in which the USDA reported monthly yogurt production on a state-by-state basis. Since 2010, those monthly yogurt production figures are only available on a national basis. This reporting change coincides with the timing of when yogurt production began to rise in New York State; so now, when it counts, there are no free and public records of production by state until 6 months after a year ends. It’s not that way for other substantial dairy products, and prior to 2010, those figures were available monthly without having to pay hundreds of dollars for an insider yogurt market publication to read insider industry estimates and trends.

In April’s central New York situation, like western Pennsylvania in February, rumors fly about reasons for farms to be cut from the shipping rolls of processors and small co-ops. Some folks wonder about the milk quality of those producers, or they may believe producers were expecting to be paid more money. But that’s the thing with rumors, there is but a shred of quasi-truth.

While some producers may find themselves in this situation through nitpicking on an inspection report or somatic cell counts that are a little too far north of 200,000, others may find themselves in this situation for merely asking a higher pay price when milk is short, but then staying with their processor on a handshake without the requested pay increase during the short-milk times only to find themselves on the other side of that equation — losing their processor when milk becomes long.

The bottom line in talking to various folks who’ve been through this in Pennsylvania and New York, the common denominators are: 1) the lack of warning, 2) the inability to prepare or negotiate or help problem-solve in advance of being flatly cut off, and 3) the loss being driven, at least in part, by the independents and small co-ops’ lack of reliable access to balancing assets — either owned or simply a standby buyer that will take a little milk for cheese or butter or yogurt or powder as producers balance the diminished and diluted Class I demand.

Looking ahead…

“Everyone in the industry was helpful to us, and we want to continue to work with them on solutions for the future,” said Dykeman reflectively.

Running in the background is some loss of confidence as producers deal with permanent and temporary loss of markets. One of the producers who survived the western Pennsylvania cutoff in March said in a phone interview this week, “crazy things are happening and people are being let go. Everyone is afraid to invest. Some of us already invested in our operations and are on our toes about losing our markets, and then we go to a local meeting where the speaker from Elanco tells us we need to increase production with rbST even though we are clearly in a region where more processors are requiring affidavits not to use it and people are losing their markets because of too much milk.”

At the end of the day, from the outside looking in, it seems the good beef price and current status of processors wanting to label products rbST-free are two strong signals folks could pay attention to in stabilizing demand. It’s also important to gauge the market direction in planning phases of growth. That growth is necessary here to sustain the dairy infrastructure and make farms that are not quite as surrounded by other farms attractive as a pickup. However, the two market loss situations in Pennsylvania and New York illustrate vividly that size does not matter.

As long as the Federal Orders put all the marbles of high value, pooling and provisions into Class I while that is the milk class that is dwindling in sales, size won’t matter. When milk is long, the milk guns will continue to point East and all size farms are vulnerable in the business of dealing with the push of supply through the squeeze chute.

Look for more on the Northeast market situation in next week’s Farmshine.

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PENNSYLVANIA – Feb. 2015

Got Milk! But nowhere to go…Cover-022715

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, Feb. 27, 2015

WEST NEWTON, Pa. — What happens when no one will come for your milk? That’s a situation increasingly facing dairy producers in southwest Pennsylvania, given what has and is occurring in the proverbial tip of the iceberg: Westmoreland County.

It happened to Mike and Vicky Baker and six of their neighbors last May, and it is happening this week to 6 to 8 more producers in Westmoreland County, with the potential for additional shippers in surrounding counties to be affected as the calendar approaches the spring flush and schools letting out for summer.

For Doug and Janice Greenawalt, West Newton, Pa., the news could not be worse. On Saturday, February 28, the milk from their 40 cows will simply not be picked up.

Two other producers being terminated this week said they are selling or have already sold their cows. Two others said they have until March 31 to find new buyers for their milk. All received termination letters from Lanco-Pennland Quality Milk Producers Cooperative between January 30 and February 5.

“I’ve been on the phone all day, for days. I must have called dozens of dairies in the area since getting the notice on Jan. 30 that we were being terminated due to ‘hauling and marketing conditions.’ Our farm supports 3 families and we have 4 days to find a way to keep going,” said Janice Greenawalt in a phone interview with Farmshine Monday. As of Wednesday, they were still without a buyer for their milk come Saturday, and were looking at options for culling some cows and putting assets and energies to work raising cattle in a way that can yield some income for the farm and its families.

“All we know is that United Dairy has not renewed the contract with Lanco for our milk to be commingled, so Lanco could not sign for our milk after Feb. 28,” she explained. “Everyone we contacted to buy our milk says there’s too much milk around to take us. But some said they would have taken us … if we were larger.”

For Todd Ramaley, the story is similar. His farm is almost into Indiana County and about a 35 minutes’ drive (in a car not a milk truck) from the nearest Lanco shipper still shipping to Lanco. As of Tuesday, he said DFA was still looking at the possibility of taking the milk from his 40 cows “because it is really clean milk with SCC of 150,000.”

If his milk went to DFA, it would actually still go, physically, to the United Dairy, Inc. plant in Uniontown, several sources indicated, because United has a “swapping deal” with DFA, under which some of United’s milk goes to DFA’s plant in New Wilmington and some of DFA’s milk goes to United’s Uniontown plant.

When asked about the letters sent to six of its producers in Pennsylvania’s southwest corner, Lanco’s director of dairy operations Robert Morris explained how originally all the milk hauled by that hauler served Saputo Cheese in Hancock, Maryland.

“That plant closed in July,” he said. “But before that, those shippers ended up in our world when Saputo bought Jefferson Cheese. At that time, we were able to work an arrangement with United in Uniontown and hauler Wayne Harmon to commingle that milk on United’s independent routes. They were in charge of the Uniontown, Pa., Martins Ferry, Ohio and Charleston, West Virginia plants and would commingle some of our milk on the nearest truck.”

Morris noted the total milk of their six terminated farms is “roughly 250 to 275,000 pounds a month.”

According to Morris, United had apprised Lanco about losing a sizeable bottling contract through its system in January, and before cutting its own producers, would first stop receiving milk from outside sources. United set Feb. 28 as the last day they could commingle that milk. Lanco also received word through the St. Louis, Missouri milk broker that ran the commingling that United’s sizeable loss of sales would prohibit further commingling of Lanco milk in that region on their trucks.

Morris noted that Lanco is “still taking on new producers in areas where we have haulers close to our customer base,” and he noted the six producers they’ve let go are “small farms and out of our orbit, especially since Saputo closed the Hancock plant in July.

“Those farms were never charged the real cost of hauling their milk because United had picked up the trucking subsidy,” Morris stated. “With us losing the ability to commingle that milk, there is no way for us to haul it, or any market for us to send it to, where the hauling doesn’t eat up all the income.”

Requests from the affected producers to find a way to haul their milk for Lanco were denied.

Morris further explained that their milk from south of Williamsport, including Cambria County, Indiana County and Somerset County as well as Garrett County, Maryland — that had all flowed to Saputo in Hancock — is now going East to the Land O’Lakes plant in Carlisle. Some of it goes to Dairy Maid in Frederick, Md., and to HP Hood in Winchester, Va.

In areas where Lanco has hauling, they do commingle with the Maryland/Virginia co-op, but these fringe areas — like Westmoreland County — are an issue now without the Saputo cheese plant and considering the cut in volume needed by United at its Uniontown plant. Both Lanco and Maryland/Virginia have milk into Somerset County, plus Maryland/Virginia has milk in the Sugarcreek, Ohio region. The producers affected by the latest termination fall into a void — a pocket of milk between two higher-density dairy areas.

“We simply had too much milk at the Uniontown plant,” said Tom McCombs, milk procurement manager for United. “We had to cut back on the co-op milk, so we gave Lanco the notice.”

When probed further about the loss of Class I milk contracts, McCombs said that what United actually lost was its volume of sales that Save-A-Lot trucks would pick up at its Uniontown plant for their Pennsylvania warehouse “just down the road.”

“They did some redistricting with their stores, and that milk volume is now going to other warehouses,” he noted. This would include the warehouses served by United’s bottling plants in Ohio and West Virginia.

McCombs said the loss of volume going to the Save-A-Lot warehouse served by United’s Uniontown, Pa. plant leaves the company with the difficult task of deciding when and how to cut some of its own independent shippers that serve that plant as well.

“We have to make that decision in the next few days,” he said Monday. “It will be a tough situation to pick a load in an area that is not as flexible to get to our plants or other cheese plants.”

When asked about the milk swapping arrangement still ongoing with DFA, McCombs noted that, “We would not be accepting DFA milk, either, if we did not have the swapping agreement with DFA.”

He added that he expected the lost volume from the Save-A-Lot warehouse served by the Pennsylvania plant to come back in the fall “if things change.”

According to McCombs, United’s current 340 farms produce 36 million pounds of milk per month, and this total had increased by 850,000 pounds from December to January. “Our farms have not added cows, but they are producing a lot more milk per cow. It must be the good feed,” he said.

“Not only do we have more milk, but the Class I consumption is down. We have got to get milk back to consumers. The schools used to serve lowfat. Now they serve no-fat. They take the fat out of the milk, which takes the taste out of the milk, and people don’t want to drink it,” McCombs stressed, adding that the snow and low temperatures this winter are causing school closures. “We had five loads of school milk canceled and the balancing plants were all full. That snowballs on you.”

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture has received the quality records of the terminated farms, but not one of the producers has heard anything in terms of options from the state.

For shippers in Federal Orders 1 or 33, there are provisions for the market administrator to direct a cooperative to pick up the milk but be allowed to pass the full cost of marketing on to the producers. However, the shippers regulated under the Pa. Milk Marketing Board do not have those protections if their Class I market collapses.

That is what happened to Mike and Vicky Baker’s dairy and six others in the Westmoreland County region last May.

“We have a lot of independent processors in this western region,” she said in a phone interview Tuesday. She recounted her experience of losing their milk market last spring. In fact, her dairy and the others let go at that time were in the top seven for milk quality at the plant, and they lost their market anyway.

“We were able to get a good load of milk together at that time, so five of us are now with Land O’Lakes. It’s not cheap. We are paying $1.43/cwt in trucking costs,” she said.

The overarching problem, says Morris at Lanco, is that the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic market is “losing raw silo space” for weekends, holidays, and times of the year when Class I utilization is lowest. Add to this the 4% national decline in Class I sales to begin with, along with the reluctance of cheese plants to run at full capacity to build inventory, and the situation becomes one that producers throughout the region should be watching.

While some truckers report wait times at plants of 2 and 4 hours over the holidays, coop dispatchers note that was accomplished by dumping milk or just separating the cream and dumping the skim so that the trucks would not be waiting and so their turnaround times could be maximized on multiple routes.

Estimates of milk dumpage since last summer runs in the hundreds, but is anyone’s guess. DFA’s response to the question is to say it balances its member milk as it sees fit. Only certain types of milk dumping are reported to the Market Administrator, and that’s a story for another day.

For Todd Frescura, another of the six Lanco-terminated producers, the path forward will be different. He has talked with Horizon because there is demand for Organic milk that is reportedly in short supply. He is confident his fields will certify for three years of organic treatment due to the way his farm is operated for rotational grazing. But he will still have to wait one year for the herd to be certified.

“I guess I’ll cull the herd real hard, dry the cows I can, and maybe just milk 10 cows to feed calves for the neighbors and raise my heifers to be ready to produce organic milk in the future,” said Frescura.

But “going organic” is not an easy answer for most of the dairies affected now and in the future.

With the milk dumping last spring and summer and over the holidays, the concern is the independent bottlers will have a balancing problem once the spring flush hits and the schools let out in June.

Part of the problem is the reportedly large shipments of milk into Pennsylvania balancing plants from Michigan. DFA member-milk from Michigan takes precedence over non-coop milk, here, and DFA’s plants are full to the point where the cooperative is charging a 50-cent/cwt marketing fee. Land O’Lake’s fee also increased recently from 15 to 40 cents/cwt.

“My fear is that the producers losing a market this month are just the tip of the iceburg for what could happen in June,” Baker explains. “DFA has their own milk to fill their own plants.”

What will happen to the shippers for plants that are relying on 60 to 80% of their market in Class I? The verbal agreements bottlers have with DFA may not be good enough to carry their shippers through the loss of fluid sales at a time when balancing plants are full, production per cow is high and the schools are closed.

Baker notes that the annual Southwest Regional Dairy Days in Blairsville, Pa. next Thursday, March 5 will include a producer panel on this topic.

“We had already planned this on the agenda to talk about positioning our milk for the future,” said Baker. “But now we’re going to really talk about having good quality milk and how it may or may not matter in long run. Producers in that 40 to 50-cow and 100 to 130-cow range need to be aware of what they might have to do to make themselves more attractive.”

She said it matters beyond the farmgate because of the domino effect. “I am fearful for what this means for our infrastructure. As dairies leave, the service providers will have trouble staying for those that remain,” Baker noted. “Other pockets of milk in this state have more options than we have here because, here, we have an independent market, and DFA is the only balancer for that market, and DFA has more than enough of its own milk (from here and from beyond) to fill their plants.”

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One thought on “Dumped. Desperate. Delivered. But is it over?

  1. Pingback: Dumped. Desperate. Delivered. But Is It Over? – Andy Arthur.org

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