By Sherry Bunting, previously published in Farmshine April 2021
EPHRATA, Pa. – “This organization is getting it done,” said U.S. Congressman Glenn “G.T.” Thompson (R-Pa.-15th). Thompson is the Republican leader of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, and he gave the efforts of 97 Milk LLC and the Grassroots Pa. Dairy Advisory Committee two thumbs-up. Rep.
Thompson was a special guest addressing the group of mostly dairy farmers attending the 97 Milk reorganizational meeting at Mt. Airy Fire Hall near Ephrata, Pennsylvania, Tuesday, Apr. 6, 2021.
The groups’ efforts were formed in early 2019, after Berks County dairy farmer Nelson Troutman painted his first round bale with the words: “Drink Whole Milk 97% Fat Free”.
At the 97milk.com and facebook page @97milk, are the words: “We believe… in supporting local dairy farmers. We believe we can make a difference by sharing facts, benefits, and the good taste of whole milk so consumers can make informed decisions.”
According to Congressman Thompson, the battle to improve milk demand and to legalize whole milk choice in schools has two fronts – legislative policy and milk messaging.
“97 Milk is leading the way in the nation on messaging. Going from bales and beyond, what you have done is just incredible,” the Congressman said. “Keep doing what you are doing with the well-designed combination of influencing, marketing and providing factual information.”
In fact, Rep. Thompson took home and now proudly displays a “Drink Whole Milk – School Lunch Choice – Citizens for Immune Boosting Nutrition” yard sign in his front yard.
Grassroots PA Dairy Advisory Committee chairman Bernie Morrissey has been printing and distributing hundreds of these yard signs with the donations of area agribusinesses, other organizations and individuals.
Rep. Thompson represents 24% of Pennsylvania’s land mass across 14 counties. Even before becoming the lead Republican in the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, dairy has always been a key farm focus for him, and bringing the choice of whole milk back to schools a key issue. As Ag Committee Ranking Member, he now also represents all of agriculture with responsiveness across the nation.
He reported that “progress is being made. But we are starting in the hole, not from a neutral position. We have lost a generation of milk drinkers since whole milk was demonized and removed from schools in 2010.”
His bill, the Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act, could change that. H.R. 1861 is a bipartisan bill that has been reintroduced in this 2021-22 session of Congress with cosponsor Rep. Antonio Delgado, a Democrat from New York. The bill currently has 24 cosponsors.
In fact, among those attending the meeting in Pennsylvania was a contingent of folks from upstate New York looking to start a 97 Milk chapter there.
Also in attendance was David Lapp of Blessings of Hope. He confirmed that their partnership with 97 Milk was “a big success,” raising over $70,524 of which $16,000 remains for processing and buying milk. So far, those funds processed or purchased 45,000 gallons of whole milk for those in need, and over 20,000 packaged gallons were additionally donated during the pandemic.
Blessings of Hope was also involved in the Farmers to Families Food Box program through USDA, distributing a million gallons since May, of which Lapp said, 90% was whole milk!
GN Hursh, a Lancaster County dairy farmer and 97 Milk chairman, thanked everyone for doing their part to educate and promote whole milk. Referring to Berks County dairy farmer Nelson Troutman as “the seed” of the 97 Milk movement painting the first round bales with Drink Whole Milk 97% Fat Free, he asked Troutman to introduce the Congressman during the meeting — an honor Troutman put in the way only he can: “I never thought I would be introducing the Ranking Member of the House Ag Committee in ‘downtown’ Mt. Airy.”
That got a laugh from the group sitting in the rural town fire hall of northern Lancaster County.
The humble and persistent work of 97 Milk and the Grassroots PA Dairy Advisory Committee took root in southeast Pennsylvania, but is also being joined-in by dairy producers and supporters across the state and nation, noticed by dignitaries and officials in policy and legislative arenas and reaching every-day families and consumers across the nation and around the world.
The needle is being moved.
Marketing manager Jackie Behr said the key is to keep bringing ideas forward for the website, social media and events. She took the attendees through 97 Milk’s digital presence step by step and showed how the goal is to keep things fresh and keep bringing information and facts to the eyes of the growing traffic coming to the website.
Behr showed how the website and social media together give facts about whole milk, fun activities, recipes, and a personal connection of consumers to farmers.
“We always want to have new facts and something fun,” said Behr. “We rely on you to send us news articles and ideas that we can put on the website and post. We also rely on farmers to send in photos and thoughts and stories to keep it fresh.”
She reminded everyone that the website has a download section to download and print things, as well as a store to buy banners, t-shirts, hats and more. The store also has new items coming in to keep it fresh.
The Dairy Question Desk has been popular. “We want to be transparent and we want people asking questions,” said Behr.
While website visits are up, store purchases of promotional items and donations to 97 Milk are down. The 97 Milk board, including Behr, and others who assist at times with the social media work, as well as everyone doing events and other campaigns, are volunteers.
In the past 28 days, alone, the website had 1044 users and 2054 page views – 77% of them are new users. Businesses that have mentioned 97 Milk on their websites have driven traffic to 97milk.com as well.
This is something Behr wants more agribusinesses to consider. It’s an easy way to support the movement, just by putting a link to 97milk.com on a business website to support dairy farmers and milk education. This improves searchability for 97milk.com when people look for information about milk.
The top referral sites over the past year were Farmshine, FM Browns, Lotus Web Designs, R&J Dairy Consulting, Sauder Brothers, and Sensenig’s Feed Mill.
Social media data show that every age group is represented in the traffic, and followers are 60% women, 40% men, with over 400,000 people reached in the past 28 days. Some months the million-mark has been reached!
“This is all free advertising,” said Behr about the posts done six days a week. She said 97 Milk has not paid to “boost” any social media posts.
A good post about something people are interested in and don’t know about, attracts that wider reach, according to Behr.
“We are making connections and keeping the message positive,” she said. “People are responding. Since the pandemic, we see opportunity in expanding our reach because people want to support local farms and small businesses. We are giving them the simple facts that they don’t know and aren’t getting anywhere els.”
It was reported during the meeting that whole milk sales nationwide were up 2.6% in 2020 and up 1% in 2019. Flavored whole milk was up over 8% in 2019 and off by 1% in 2020, perhaps as a function of offerings more than demand. It’s important to note that whole milk sales are the largest volume category and these are USDA volume statistics, and 2% reduced-fat milk is the second largest volume category.
On a value basis, other reports put the whole milk increase at more than 5% over two years. In addition 2% milk sales have gained, but whole milk is still number one for 2019 and 2020. In the Northeast Milk Marketing Area, 2% milk sales grew by 7%, while whole milk grew 2.6%.
In the heart of the area in Pennsylvania where the 97 Milk movement started, at least two large supermarket chains have confirmed a 10 to 14% increase in whole milk sales in 2020. This shows the potential a wider reach can have as the 97 Milk movement grows.
These gains in whole and 2% milk sales volume have helped stabilize the overall fluid milk volume decline that was steepest from 2010 through 2019, after the choice of whole milk was prohibited in schools.
While talking about his Whole Milk for Health Kids Act legislation, Thompson referenced this concern also, saying that the removal of whole milk from schools resulted in losing a whole generation of milk drinkers, and some of that generation are or will soon be raising the next generation.
Both he and Behr mentioned “ripple effects.” This is an opportunity where whole milk education can impact whether the ripple effect is positive or negative for farmers and families.
When asked about current Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack’s position on getting whole milk back in schools after Vilsack was Secretary when it was removed, Thompson explained that Congress should take most of that blame. The Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act was passed in 2010 when Speaker Pelosi was Speaker of the House. He said Michelle Obama had little to do with this move. He also noted that he has had discussions with Secretary Vilsack before he was confirmed by the Senate.
“The Secretary knows my priorities,” said Thompson. During his time bringing news from Washington, he touched on milk identity labeling, Federal Milk Marketing Order pricing, and other dairy-related policy, but focused on the issues around legalizing whole milk choice in schools.
He also explained that any legislation on school nutrition must come through the Education and Labor Committee.
“I wish school nutrition legislation was in our Ag Committee jurisdiction. We would have fixed it by now. That’s something we can look into,” said Thompson, blaming bad science and those on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) Committee with an agenda. He talked about working toward Congress having a way to approve DGAs, and his desire for hearings on the DGA process.
“To get things done and make them last, we have to work on both sides of the aisle,” the Congressman said, noting how tight the votes are between Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate. Already, the list of cosponsors this session show interest among members of the Education and Labor committee.
Thompson also mentioned looking at other ways to legislatively approach the school beverage issue.
When asked what producers can do to help move the Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act forward, Thompson said: “Keep doing what you are doing.”
In the business portion of the 97 Milk meeting April 6, chairman GN Hursh talked about how the group has navigated the pandemic to reach the public with the good news about whole milk.
Operated by volunteers and funded by donations and the 97milk.com store, 97 Milk accomplishes a lot with a little.
Treasurer Mahlon Stoltzfus reported income of $11,000 matching expenses of $11,000 and noted that donations have slowed even as progress in the group’s mission has increased.
Hursh asked producers to get involved. He noted that with all of the positive things happening, the key to keeping the momentum going is producer involvement.
Behr explained how important it is for dairy farmers to send in pictures and stories from their farms and ideas for social media posts.
For example, one idea that came from a farmer was to simply picture a red-cap gallon jug of whole milk and ask: “Reach for the red cap. Drink whole milk.” The post has been extremely popular and widely shared both times it was used.
During the meeting, board elections were conducted. Remaining as chairman is Hursh of Ephrata, with Stoltzfus of Bird In Hand remaining as treasurer. Outgoing secretary is Lois Beiler of Lititz, and incoming secretary is Chris Landis, Stevens. Outgoing campaign coordinator is Jordan Zimmerman of East Earl, and incoming campaign manager is Mark Leid, New Holland. Jackie Behr of R&J Dairy Consulting will remain on the board as marketing manager.
“This effort is not about just one person. It’s everyone doing their part,” said Hursh.
“There are three parts to this organization: website and social media; promotional materials and events; and the third is the key that could be missing,” he said, passing around a mirror: You.
To send photos, farm stories and to share ideas, email firstname.lastname@example.org
To donate to the 97 Milk efforts, visit 97milk.com/donate/ where there is a paypal option to donate online. Or mail donations to 97 Milk LLC, PO Box 87 Bird In Hand, PA 17505