Industry, government follow grassroots donations lead, CFAP adds to dairy demand driving markets higher

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, June 26, 2020

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Government and industry dairy donations and record-setting CME cheese prices all got their starter fuel from grassroots dairy producers in what has become one of the good news stories of the COVID-19 era.

Today, USDA has systemized the donating through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP), and dairy processors, cooperatives and checkoff organizations have partnered with food banks and non-profits to extend the reach of efforts begun originally by generous dairy producers and their agribusiness partners supplying grateful consumers.

In April, when milk dumping was at its height, and stores had purchase-limits or sparse supplies of milk and dairy products, farmers and their agribusiness partners and communities went into immediate action. Examples of milk donation drive-through events began popping up in succession – just a fraction of them featured in the pages of Farmshine.

Also in April, farmer-funded Dairy Pricing Association (DPA) purchased 228,000 pounds of block cheddar, immediately moving the CME block cheese price from its $1/lb plummet to $1.20 (adding $1.00 to Class III milk values at the same time).

This DPA move, working with charities for distribution and a Midwest processor to turn their CME-style bulk purchase into consumer-packaged goods for donation, gave a green light to other cheese market participants. Within a week of that purchase and the initial 20-cent gain in blocks that followed, block cheese continued its climb to $1.80/lb, and the upward momentum has not stopped — fueled now by huge government purchases and food-service pipeline re-stocking.

On the heels of these grassroots efforts, dairy checkoff organizations began getting involved to work with their partners and “convene” the industry to do big donations in May.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress had passed the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) in April, with $3 billion of the $19 billion set aside for the Farmers to Families Food box purchases. But it was mid-May before USDA announced those first-round contract awards totaling $1.2 billion in fresh food — $317 million of it for fluid milk and dairy products – for distribution May 15 through June 30.

This week, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue called the food box program a “trifecta, win-win-win”, pointing out how the program is getting farmers, processors and non-profits together to directly provide fresh food to people without burdening food banks with refrigerated inventory they aren’t prepared to handle.

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In April, when block cheddar was plummeting to $1.00/lb, the farmer-funded Dairy Pricing Association based in Wisconsin with member-contributors nationwide, purchased 228,000 pounds of block cheese to be cut-down for distribution by several charities. DPA Facebook photo

This was the model of grassroots groups and individuals on their own dime and time doing dairy donation drive-throughs, milk-drops, and whole milk gallon challenges from late March to the present. It was also the model of DPA, funded by voluntary dairy farmer milk check deductions, when DPA purchased the block cheese in April for cut-down and donation. Also in April, we saw the partnership initiated in Pennsylvania between 97 Milk and Blessings of Hope. They raised funds to buy local milk for donation to families in need.

As these grassroots efforts began having an impact, Midwest Dairy got approval from USDA in May to use checkoff funds to donate cheese, and UDIA of Michigan was allowed to provide minimal funding to food banks for “handling costs” associated with receiving cheese donated in May by DFA.

Now, with USDA systemizing that smart approach — started by grassroots efforts — the department stated in a news release that as of June 23, its CFAP Farmers to Families Food Box Program had delivered more than 20 million boxes of fresh food, including milk and dairy products, to families impacted by COVID-19.

The initial round of USDA CFAP contracts ends on June 30. But this week, USDA announced it will extend “well-performing” first-round contracts for similar amounts in a second-round from July 1 through August 31 to total an additional $1.16 billion.

The share of this second-round to be devoted to fluid milk and dairy purchases was not specified in the USDA announcement. One thing USDA did note is that even though most of the second-round dollars will be spent with “selected” current contract awardees, a few new contracts may be awarded to previous applicants that had been passed over due to technical errors or to provide boxes in areas identified as “underserved.”

Throughout the USDA CFAP food box delivery process, regional dairy checkoff organizations have been involved as “facilitators.”

Week after week, Farmshine has received press releases from dairy checkoff organizations, and there have been numerous social media posts, about the CFAP milk and dairy box donations. Regional checkoff organizations say they are working with processors, cooperatives and non-profits — in conjunction with the USDA CFAP food box program — and that area dairy farmers are involved as volunteers to hand out the boxes.

According to National Dairy Council president Barb O’Brien, dairy checkoff organizations began “convening the industry” before CFAP.

“We have leveraged the checkoff’s unique ability to convene companies from across the value chain to identify a number of ways to redistribute excess milk and other dairy products to families facing food insecurity,” writes O’Brien in an email response to Farmshine recently.

In a specific cheese example she had mentioned in a media call described as block cheese being purchased and cut into consumer size portions, our inquiry for details was met with this response:

“In response to lost food-service markets and dairy farmers being asked to dispose of milk, we’ve worked to connect coops to partners that donated processing capacity for any excess milk available for food banks,” O’Brien wrote. “Many other dairy companies — such as the example I gave from DFA of cheese donations in Michigan — provided massive quantities of dairy products to food banks before the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box Program was even put into place. Moving forward, it will be important that we continue working together as an industry to target the greatest needs and find long-term solutions to our nation’s hunger crisis.”

O’Brien cites DMI’s “long-time partner” Feeding America and other relationships with local food banks and pantries. Former Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack, now a top dairy checkoff executive with DMI, sits on the Feeding America board of directors.

O’Brien also noted in her response that dairy checkoff “counseled industry partners and others on how to direct dairy products toward the greatest needs.”

She reports that, “This widescale approach enabled us to pinpoint some of the biggest barriers in getting excess dairy products to hungry families during the pandemic” and to “rapidly initiate an industry response.”

As communities began doing their own grassroots efforts through the generosity of dairy farmers, agribusiness and individuals purchasing milk or contributing milk for dairy donations in the early days of the COVID-19 ‘stay-at-home’ orders, checkoff organizations took note and began to look at what they could do in terms of refrigeration equipment and setting up refrigeration trucks for industry and governmental efforts.

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Grassroots whole milk donation events like this one just outside of Lancaster, Pa. in May, have been providing whole nutrition to families across the state and region since the height of COVID-19 ‘stay-at-home’ orders in April.  Photo by Michelle Kunjappu

While many of the grassroots-organized milk donations were comprised of whole milk purchases vs. low-fat milk, this week marked the first time a checkoff news release showed red-cap whole milk gallons or even referenced whole milk in their facilitation of USDA CFAP box deliveries. This is another win led by early grassroots efforts.

ADA Northeast (ADANE), for example, indicated in a press release this week that 200,000 gallons of milk will have been handed out in the Northeast / Mid-Atlantic region by the time June Dairy Month ends. The release stated that 20,000 gallons would be donated this week, alone, from DFA, Upstate Niagara and Schneider’s Dairy to be given out in New York and Pennsylvania through the Nourish New York state funds and CFAP food box federal funds.

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For the first time among the many news releases sent by ADA Northeast (ADANE) touting checkoff ‘facilitation’ of fluid milk and dairy donations, whole milk is in the box! Here, dairy farmer Joel Riehlman of Fabius, N.Y., and a 4-H member, hand out whole milk in mid-June at a Nourish New York and USDA CFAP Farmers to Families Food Box donation drop in Syracuse. Photo provided by ADANE

In a recent Watertown, New York drop point for these donations, ADANE board member Peggy Murray of Murcrest Farm, Copenhagen, N.Y. volunteered, and she noted in the ADANE press release that, “It was heartwarming to see their gratitude – especially for the whole milk — and to know that people really want the products that we produce on the farm.”

This has been the experience of so many farmers and ag community members involved in the grassroots distributions, as well as the industry and governmental distributions, because each event affirms that consumers love milk and dairy products, especially whole milk, and that they want to support local farms — as evidenced by their comments and long car-lines of families eager to receive these products. In some cases, recipients gave money asking it be put toward more drive-through dairy events.

In the Southeast and Midwest, CFAP contract recipients Borden and Prairie Farms have also been visible this month with Dairy Alliance and Midwest Dairy checkoff organizations often as partners, along with several state dairy producer group members joining in as volunteers and location coordinators.

Overall, the CFAP food boxes have been well-received. The program was designed by USDA to give farmers and food providers a presence within their communities, working with local food banks and non-profits without creating inventory hardships. In this way, USDA has taken what local communities were doing at the grassroots level — on their own dime and time — and systemized it with federal funds and contracts.

While dairy’s share has not been specified in USDA’s announcement of the second round of $1.16 billion in fresh food purchases in the contract extensions through August 31, it is believed fluid milk and dairy purchases will be similar to the first-round total of $317 million because several non-profits indicate they will be supplied with all their milk and dairy needs through the USDA until at least August 31.

This includes Blessings of Hope, which had partnered with 97 Milk in April, and raised over $50,000 for purchasing and/or processing local milk for families they serve in Pennsylvania.

Farms in southeast and southcentral Pennsylvania that were wanting to donate “over-base” milk for this 97 Milk / Blessings of Hope program will have to wait until after August 31, when the USDA CFAP food box program is set to end. It is possible that the CFAP program may again be extended until all $3 billion in food box funds are exhausted.

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When Dairy Pricing Association (DPA) first ran an ad in the Cheese Reporter in early April looking for 200,000 pounds of USDA-graded cheddar cheese less than 30 days of age, the calls they received could not fill the order. By requesting USDA-graded cheese, the delay in their eventual purchase of 228,000 pounds showed a void in supplies that led to the initial turnaround in the plummeting block cheese price on the CME, which fueled the advances in manufacturing milk value. CME cheese prices drive Class III milk futures, which have risen rapidly since the DPA purchase bridged the gap in April. Current market strength has been extended through the large USDA food box program demand occurring at the same time as the re-opening of the food-service sector. DPA Facebook image

A positive outcome for farmers from all of these efforts — now extended by these large government purchases — is the real impact they are having in helping drive dairy markets higher since that first farmer-funded DPA purchase of block cheddar in April turned the CME away from its $1.00/lb record-low plummet.

Block cheese is traded every day around noon on the CME spot auction, and the price has set several new record-highs in June, including the most recent record-highs of $2.70/lb on Monday, June 22 and $2.81/lb on Tuesday, June 23.

This rally has pushed Class III milk futures into new contract highs for June, July, and August, while adding strength across the board.

In CME futures trading Monday (June 22) the June Class III milk contract hit $21, up $9 from the USDA-announced May Class III price of $12.14. July’s contract topped at $22.19, and August edged into the $20s. Monday’s Class III milk futures averaged $17.98 for the next 12 months, and Tuesday’s futures trading held most of that level, even adding to the July contract.

There is a supply side to this scenario also. See the related article on USDA milk statistics, pooling, production and dumping.

Trade sentiment is mixed on how long the upward momentum in dairy markets can last.

On the one hand, cheese prices are being driven by the combination of USDA CFAP purchases now continuing through August, re-stocking of food-service pipelines as the country re-opens, and the USDA Dairy Market News reports of consumer buying strength shown in strong pizza sales throughout the Covid period, and stable to strong retail sales meeting tighter supplies of milk and cream.

On the other hand, some experts warn of weakness ahead as these record-setting prices may prompt milk production expansion by fall when demand may wane after the USDA CFAP food box purchases end and food-service pipelines are re-stocked.

Much of the future will depend on how the re-opening of America goes for families, the food-service sector, schools, sports, and the economy at-large.

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