Feeling good about milk

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, June 11, 2021

“The beverage industry is savage.”

So says Rohan Oza, an American businessman, investor, and marketing expert behind several large brands. He was with Coca Cola until 2002 and in the past 19 years has the distinction of being a brand mastermind behind Vitaminwater, Smartwater and Bai beverages, among others, and he has been a recurring guest on Shark Tank, a television show where entrepreneurs pitch their fledgling businesses to several investor “sharks” in hopes of getting an investment deal for a percentage of equity in their businesses.

In an archived episode of Shark Tank from 2018 when a husband and wife pitched their apple cider drink, known today as Poppi, Oza had other pearls of wisdom to share about the beverage industry.

He said the largest companies aren’t creating the drinks, they’ve perfected the manufacturing and distribution. Instead, they rely on entrepreneurs to have the vision to bring a new beverage to market.

Packaging and marketing matter. Information is power. Flavor is king.

Oza said consumers want beverages they can feel good about.

That’s what has been missing over four decades in the milk industry, especially the past decade since 2010 when fluid milk sales took the sharpest nosedive. This has stabilized a bit in the past two years as whole milk sales rose 1% and 2.6% in 2019 and 2020, respectively, providing a bit of a safety net to overall fluid milk losses.

There is an innovative and entrepreneurial trend in bringing to market new dairy-based beverages that contain dairy protein, or ultrafiltered low-fat milk as an ingredient. However, MILK, itself, as a beverage, lost its power to make people feel good because people were not empowered with good information, and children were robbed of opportunities to choose the good milk — whole milk — at schools and daycares.

What milk itself lost as a beverage was the power to make people feel good about drinking it — because people lost touch with what they were getting from milk, what whole milk actually does for them. One big reason? GenZ-ers (and to some degree millennials) have grown up drinking (or tossing) the low-fat or fat-free milk as their only choices in school, and then found themselves searching for something else to drink in the a la carte line.

That’s changing. Research, studies and scientific papers keep coming forward, identifying the benefits of whole milk. When people try it, a common reaction is, “this is the good milk.”

Yes, whole milk is winning customers. Efforts by dairy producers — at large and through organizations like 97 Milk — have been focusing lately on giving the public the information they need about whole milk to make informed choices. It’s about giving people the opportunity to know what whole milk can do for them, and we hope that bills in the United States Congress as well as conversations with the Pennsylvania State Senate bear fruit in the ongoing effort to legalize the choice of whole milk in schools… so future generations can feel good about milk too.

We notice that if USDA can give the coveted Child Nutrition label to the Impossible Burger — a fake meat product with more saturated fat (8 grams) in a 4 ounce patty than whole milk (5 grams) in an 8 ounce glass and more sodium (370 mg for Impossible vs. 120 for whole milk) and more calories, then surely USDA can loosen its grip on the fat content of the milk choices for children in schools. Incidentally, the USDA approval of Impossible for school lunch is really a head scratcher next to 85/15 real beef because the real thing has less saturated fat, less sodium, and fewer calories.

Yes, USDA qualified Impossible Burger for reimbursement with taxpayer funds in the National School Lunch Program, but still outright forbids the choice of whole milk in schools.

USDA and Congress are moving toward universal free lunch and breakfast (even supper and snack) for all kids. FDA is in the procedural phase of developing a “healthy” symbol for foods that “earn” it — according to whom? Dietary Guidelines! The trend in government is toward giving consumers less information on a label, not more.

This is why milk education and freedom of choice are more important than ever. Even the Hartman Group young consumer insights cited at PepsiCo’s K-12 foodservice website state that GenZ-ers show a preference for ‘fast food’ and ‘familiar tastes.’ Millennials and GenZ-ers both show high preference for foods they grew up with.

Kids need to grow up able to choose the good milk — whole milk — not have that choice forbidden. That’s why the milk kids get to choose at school where they get 1, 2, even 3 meals a day is so important.

Give them the choice of the good milk that is good for them, and the power of information, and they’ll remember feeling good about milk.

Happy June Dairy Month! A big thanks to dairy farmers for all they do.

USDA to invest over $5 bil. in food supply chain, focus is transformation, not relief; Public comments due June 21

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, June 11, 2021

WASHINGTON — Long on transformation framework and short on meaningful details, USDA announced this week (June 8) that it will invest more than $4 billion to strengthen critical supply chains. This follows the June 4 announcement of over $1 billion for ‘healthy food’ and security infrastructure.

What these words mean is still the subject of USDA gathering input through public comments due June 21 and a series of stakeholder meetings. The first one was a 30-minute webinar attended virtually by over 3000 people representing food and agriculture organizations the day after the funding announcement (June 9).

These announcements are billed by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack as part of the “Build Back Better” initiative to be funded by the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 (passed by the 116th Congress and signed by President Trump in January) and the American Rescue Plan Act (passed by the 117th Congress and signed by President Biden in March.)

Vilsack will co-chair, along with Secretaries of Commerce and Transportation, the Biden administration’s new Supply Chain Disruptions Task Force for a “whole of government response.”

According to USDA, its investment announcements will include a mix of grants, loans and “innovative financing mechanisms” for the food production, processing, distribution and market access priorities that will “tackle the climate crisis and help communities that have been left behind.”

It has been six months since CAA funds were appropriated and three months since ARPA funding was authorized. These relief and support funds passed by two sessions of Congress and signed by two Presidents are now sitting in wait of a task force establishing supply chain transformation priorities after public comments and industry stakeholder meetings.

Meanwhile, dairy producers and other sectors of agriculture are still waiting for details about relief that was to some degree spelled out in the prior congressional language of these Acts. 

This includes waiting for USDA’s implementation of what was supposed to be an expanded base option for dairy producers in the Dairy Margin Coverage program; waiting for participation details for the Dairy Donation Program that is supposed to be retroactive; and waiting for a response from USDA to the bipartisan request by Senators seeking relief payments for dairy farmers for the first half of 2021 retroactive to January 1.

In the detailed request for public comment, USDA is making it clear that the CAA and ARPA funds will be spent on transformation, not relief. Guiding the transformation is President Biden’s February Executive Order 14017 America’s Supply Chain.

USDA says it is interested in comments spanning everything from animal, soil, plant and climate health, traceability, monitoring and technologies to agricultural inputs, energy, markets, storage, distribution, and digital security.

“We always knew this, but the pandemic really highlighted it for the rest of the country: Our food system is brittle, and any shock to it can have devastating effects down the chain. Now is the time — not to go back to normal — but to build a new normal,” said Mae Wu, Deputy Under Secretary of Marketing and Regulatory Programs during the first stakeholder webinar this week.

“Before we dealt with the pandemic, we had a food system in which nearly 90% of our farms did not generate the majority of the income for the farm families operating those farms. We had a food and farm system in which soil erosion was occurring at 10 times the rate that soil was being replenished,” said Vilsack as the first stakeholder webinar kicked off.

“We all know we have a substantial number of waterways that are currently impaired, and we also appreciate the fact that we had a food system that was prepared to address climate change but not yet fully embracing the opportunity side of that claim,” Vilsack continued. “So we had a system that needed help. We had a system that also was seeing rapid consolidation and a lack of competition. Then Covid hit and by virtue of Covid we learned that what we thought was a resilient system, really wasn’t resilient at all and had a difficult time shifting from food going into foodservice to going into food assistance.”

Citing the President’s February Executive Order, Vilsack said the focus of the new task force, he co-chairs, is to strengthen supply chains by “beginning the process of transformation.”

In the Federal Register document, USDA states: “(Our) initial thinking includes, but is not limited to, funding, through a combination of grants or loans, for needs such as: supply chain retooling to address multiple needs at once (i.e., achieving both climate benefits and addressing supply gaps or vulnerabilities concurrently), expansion of local and regional food capacity and distribution (e.g., hubs, cooperative development, cold chain improvements, infrastructure), development of local and regional meat and poultry processing and seafood processing and distribution, and food supply chain capacity, building for socially disadvantaged communities.”

In one subsection, USDA notes that it is interested in comments on “the availability of substitutes or alternative sources for critical goods and materials…” For example, USDA says it “encourages commenters to consider agricultural products that could be domestically grown but are not practically available today for various reasons, and to describe whether and how such products (or their alternatives) could be made available through supply chain resilience efforts.”

To-date, there are 297 public comments on the docket. A quick look through 55 that are viewable presently includes many food banks and feeding programs, some mentioning dairy, but few comments are logged from dairy organizations to-date.

For its part, the National Farmers Organization attached a document and stated: “The farmer dumping milk needs a market today, not in the long run. The person standing in a food line needs something to eat today, not in the long run. We need to look more carefully at what is going on if we are to understand, and effectively address, the dilemma of too much milk on one end of the supply chain and not enough dairy products on the other.”

Vilsack (who worked as a dairy checkoff executive for the four years between being Ag Secretary in the Obama and Biden administrations) also referenced milk dumping, saying the dairy industry had bottlenecks as foodservice demand shut down while retail demand for consumer-packaged goods skyrocketed.

In fact, in a recent Fortune magazine interview, Vilsack said the cost of $1.50 per gallon to put milk in a jug created a disincentive to donate excess milk instead of dumping it.

However, in reality, there was more to it than that in parts of the country where Governors brought the curtain down on the economy to strict degrees of people ordered to stay home, while also scolding them in public service announcements for buying too much food. Retailers hit the brakes by putting purchase limits on milk, butter and other dairy products, just as processors loaded up the silos with milk for the retail surge, only to find their retail orders came to a screeching halt as the purchase limits contributed to backing milk up from plant storage into farm pipelines faster than donation efforts could get organized or find facilities to bottle or process.

Facility issues were also cited at the time, in terms of separated cream filling storage silos with nowhere to go as butter capacity was busy switching to pull bulk butter from storage and convert it to print butter, and butter imports skyrocketed. It took a while to unwind the institutional governance of low-fat milk into making more whole milk available as consumers could choose. And it took a while for governments to allow institutions (like schools) to temporarily give whole milk. The result, in the Northeast especially, was a huge volume of dumped milk.

Among the viewable comments to USDA at the Federal Register, so far, are groups citing industry concentration and consolidation.

In its comments, the Montana Cattlemen’s Association pointed out that Secretary Vilsack, along with then Attorney General Eric Holder, held concentration and antitrust listening sessions across the U.S. during the Obama administration, and nothing ever came of it. One of those USDA / DOJ national listening sessions was on dairy, specifically, in Madison, Wisconsin in 2009.

The National Grocers Association echoed these concerns, detailing the way a few global companies already control food retail, foodservice, food processing and distribution, and how this affects farmers and ranchers, independent retailers and restaurants, and thereby affects regional food supply chains, and ultimately consumers and America’s security.

Both the cattlemen and grocers call for specific actions that would increase competition, regional processing and market access and thereby make the U.S. food system more secure and critical supply chains more resilient.

During the stakeholder webinar, Vilsack addressed a question on market competition by saying USDA will “first make sure the markets that do exist are as open and transparent as possible” by looking at the current rules along with other federal agencies and taking any steps to rectify. But he also pointed to developing new markets.

At the other end of the public comment spectrum, groups like the Good Food Institute, a lobbying organization for plant-based and cell-cultured replacements for animal-sourced foods, paint a picture of how their streamlined lab-style production through pop-up bioreactors and fermentation vats in rural, suburban and urban areas can be built to provide supply chain resiliency and food security. GFI also claims that their models would be a climate mitigation strategy.

GFI addressed each of the USDA bullet points on supply chain resilience, climate action and new market opportunities to describe why the CAA and ARPA funds should be used for research and infrastructure that shifts away from animal agriculture to plant-based and cell-cultured through digital and genetic technologies that are already within the USDA Agricultural Research Service wheelhouse.

GFI lays out their description of how recombinant proteins and GMOs, along with the storability of frozen cells and dry plant-based powders, can be turned into food quickly, and in exact amounts needed, and can be grown and manufactured anywhere — without waiting for animals to grow — leaving land available for so-called ‘climate strategies’ and biodiversity. 

But, they say, research and infrastructure are needed to make their science-fiction novel come true. This, despite the huge investments of tech industry billionaires in these replacement technologies, and the way the largest meat and dairy processors are diversifying, to brand – and blend – such alternatives to look, taste, and feel like the real thing.

Interestingly, the food economy is, right now, dealing with supply chain disruptions and inflationary price hikes on animal-sourced products from eggs and milk to bacon, beef, and chicken wings. The price squeeze is having a big impact on independent grocers, independent restaurants, and consumers. At the same time, prices paid to dairy and livestock producers are turning lower just as farmers and ranchers were hoping to get back on their collective feet.

That paradox is not sustainable nor resilient for producers or consumers, but growing cells in bioreactors or harvesting yeast-excrement from fermentation vats — instead of animals on farms —simply gives even more control of food to even fewer entities that would control the genetic alterations that make it scientifically possible.

USDA states in its press release that it wants to address competition and small and medium sized processing capacity and that it wants fairness, competition, equity, and access for producers and consumers, while accomplishing climate mitigation at the same time. 

The question is: What do these buzz words actually mean? The June 9 stakeholder webinar gave a glimpse.

Vilsack explained that USDA is putting the series of funding announcements into a series of four supply chain ‘buckets’: production, processing, distribution / aggregation and markets / consumers.

He said USDA will begin by providing assistance for beginning farmers and socially disadvantaged farmers, including the debt relief for farmers of color.

“We’ll look for ways to provide assistance for those who work on the farms and those who work in the processing facilities. We’ll look for how we can encourage those transitioning from conventional to organic agriculture if they choose to do so,” said Vilsack. “All of this will be designed to create greater resilience in terms of the number of people available to farm and the types of farming systems that we have. You’ll also see investments in urban agriculture.”

Vilsack said on the food processing side, USDA is “very focused” on ways to create more options for farmers by “shoring up and expanding” existing small and medium size processing to create more markets for farmers.

He highlighted “food hubs” in the distribution bucket and “access to healthy foods” in the consumer bucket.

Answering a question later about how government grant-writing is beyond the scope of most farms, especially small farms, Vilsack said: “One way for folks to get expertise and capacity is to join with others who are similarly situated to form a food hub to aggregate products. There is money for food hubs in this.”

Calling the Dairy Donation Program an investment in the production / producer bucket, and referencing it four times in the webinar, Vilsack said the DDP “will enable producers to more quickly shift in the event of a disruption from foodservice or retail that might not be available for whatever reason into food assistance mode.”

He identified the need to “significantly invest in storage and refrigeration infrastructure to accept significant quantities of food to be stored for a period of time and distributed over a period of time. Right now, we are not equipped to handle a great influx of meat, and produce all at one time, and as a result, animals were destroyed and milk was dumped,” he said.

Vilsack said another way to look at USDA’s incremental roll out of the CAA and ARPA funds is that it reflects “how we are going about the transformation of our food and farm system. We need to continue to invest to make sure there are multiple ways for people to get into the farming business and to stay in business.”

To be profitable, he said, “means we need to develop more new and better markets to be invested in. We want to make sure it is sustainable, circular, regenerative in its approach. We want to make sure it is equitable in its application so that people of all races, ethnicities, gender and so forth are able to access the programs completely at USDA,” said Vilsack.

For producers, allied industry, consumers and organizations, now is the time to visit the USDA Federal Register Docket at https://www.regulations.gov/document/AMS-TM-21-0034-0001 to read the guidelines for commenting and submit a “Supply Chain Comment” referencing Docket AMS-TM-21-0034-001 by June 21, 2021.

Comments may also be sent to Dr. Melissa R. Bailey, Agricultural Marketing Service, USDA, Room 2055-S, STOP 0201, 1400 Independence Avenue SW, Washington, DC 20250-0201. For further information about how to comment and the guidelines for commenting, contact Dr. Bailey by phone at 202-205-9356 or email melissa.bailey@usda.gov

(Author’s Note: The pandemic revealed that the institutional feeding models replete with anti-fat rules based on un-scientific Dietary Guidelines are part of the supply chain disruption problem. Governmental and non-governmental organizations continue to try to systemize food distribution into dietary lanes that don’t reflect the science or consumer attitudes about healthy fat and animal protein. Now ‘climate’ is being used as a potential animal-dilution driver. When someone wants to give families a gallon of whole milk (instead of fat-free or low-fat) when they pick up the school lunches for their children during a pandemic, the last thing any governmental or non-governmental organization should be telling them is “you can’t do that, it’s against the rules,” or pushing them into an adjacent parking lot so they aren’t “next to” the institutionally rule-inundated food. That is just one aspect I plan to write about in commenting to the USDALoosen those dietary restraints that give all the power to the global consolidators in foodservice, processing and distribution. Let free-enterprise and good will work for good.)

-30-

DMI’s DS4G sees dairy feed, cropping, cow care as ‘big hammers’ for net-zero

‘Grant’ will start ‘measuring’ air, soil around dairy cropping practices in nine U.S. regions

This is the third and final part of the multi-part series about DMI’s Net Zero Initiative and Dairy Scale for Good implementation. Parts one and two in Farmshine covered some of the 12- to 13-year history, the ‘scale’ approach for getting the industry to net zero faster, and the impact of manure processing, digester models, and renewable energy policies and technologies in the NZI scheme.

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, May 7, 2021

ROSEMONT, Ill. — How dairy feed and forage are produced are the “biggest hammers” that are “ripe for innovation in dairy emissions reduction,” said Caleb Harper, executive director of DMI’s Net Zero Initiative (NZI) Dairy Scale for Good (DS4G) implementation.

He and Dr. Mike McCloskey, chairman of the DMI Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy’s Sustainability Initiative, presented information about the Net Zero Initiative (NZI) and ‘implementation on the farm’ during last month’s Balchem real science lecture series.

Much of the presentation used the ‘spreadsheet exercise’ of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) white paper laying out the “business case for getting to net zero faster”, based on a 3500 cow dairy (a Fair Oaks site with 3000 milking and 500 dry). In fact, Harper’s DS4G work will exclusively pilot and model on dairies about this size.

After explaining that the DS4G goal is to make maximum impact on the entire supply of milk in the short-term using “the consolidation going on in the industry” and the idea of “scale to drive down the risk … and spread the benefit across the industry,” Harper dug into each area and showed how the models tend to work best when multiple areas are combined.

Harper said no till farming, cover crops, innovative crop rotations, renewable fertilizer, precision agriculture all fall into this feed production area of emissions.

“It all boils down to measuring the emissions,” he said, showing a slide of boxes in potato fields in Idaho, where USDA ARS has a project that monitors the air around the crop to show the emissions from a field and mitigation that can be attributed to cropping practices. He said DMI has a grant to do the same thing with dairy cropping practices beginning this year.

The key, according to Harper, is to show that the emissions are being reduced. In addition to boxes in fields measuring emissions around crops, Harper said soil core samples will be taken to determine carbon sequestration of dairy feed cropping strategies.

“This is open science, (meaning still in the proving stage),” said Harper, known for his Open Ag science project growing food in computer controlled boxes at M.I.T. That project ended amid controversy last April a few weeks before Harper was hired by DMI to lead its NZI DS4G.

During the real science lecture in April, Harper said DMI has a grant program starting this year, along with Foundation for Food and Agriculture, to do this type of field box emissions monitoring and soil core sequestration monitoring across nine different U.S. geographies to test conservation tillage practices in terms of carbon emissions and sequestration over the next five years.

Harper said he sees this area as “huge” for innovation and for generating carbon credits that are valued by markets and for reducing one-third of dairy’s ‘field to farm’ emissions while improving soil health and the ability of soil to hold water.

He projects the bottom line potential annual farm revenue on this at $70,000, saying the industry will have to combine this with other strategies, like manure processing, renewable energy generation and such to get the combination of environmental impact toward ‘net-zero’ GHG and the economic revenue stream impact for the dairies.

“Some strategies are more impactful than others,” he said about the WWF models.

In this diagram, which was also shared by DMI leaders in a Pa. Dairy Summit breakout session about what dairy checkoff has done for producers lately, Harper illustrated how WWF models show farms will have to combine areas to merge emissions reduction potential with revenue potential. This shows feed production represents 26% of field to farm emissions reduction potential but just 3% of farm revenue potential; Cow care encompassing feed additives, efficient rations and genetics represents 33% of emissions reduction potential and just 5% of farm revenue potential; but conversely, renewable energy production on the farm represents just 5% of emissions reduction potential and 23% of farm revenue potential.

The ‘hammers’ on the emissions side do not line up with hammers on the revenue side, and the question remains, where will individual dairy farms sit in terms of decision-making as supply chains scale these combinations.

Yet again, the question arises around selling or monetizing the carbon credits generated by the farm once these cropping practices are “measured” and added to models. How does the sale of these credits, or bundling with sales of milk, then change the carbon profile of the farm selling the credits vs. the buyer in the dairy supply chain. Again, as mentioned in Part II on manure technologies and energy generation, this is an important detail that the WWF, NZI and DS4G modeling has not dealt with or worked through.

So, while discussions have already progressed to model how carbon credits and milk could be bundled to milk buyers, with pilots funded by supply chain grants to model how scale can spread impact over the industry and the entire milk supply, the holes in the value proposition are more obvious in this area where farms are already doing great things for land, air and water, by keeping something green and growing on the land as part of dairy feed production: How do farmers get credit for what they are already doing?

Harper also said “amazing things” are happening in the feed additive aspect of reducing enteric emissions, but he acknowledged “it’s early” on the carbon credit side for that.

This area of feed production and feed additives in the DS4G ‘value proposition’ has been spreadsheet-modeled to account for one-third of dairy’s field to farm CO2 equivalent emissions, and yet, at the same time, carbon credits based on this area are still in the research and measurement stage, needing documentation to be ‘monetized.’ 

Harper cited an example paper from University of California-Davis showing significant reductions in enteric emissions in beef cattle with certain feed additives.

As this work in the area of feed production and feed additives continues, said Harper: “Continuing to optimize rations (for production efficiency) remains important, while feed additives and selecting genetics for lower emissions will become important.”

Author’s Notebook:

The WWF Markets Institute released the dairy business ‘case study’ for scaling to net-zero faster on Jan. 27, 2021. A mid-February Farmshine report revealed the WWF mathematical error that had inflated the magnitude of CO2 equivalent pounds contributed by all U.S. milk production. WWF on Feb. 25, 2021, corrected its baseline to show the much smaller collective impact of 268 billion pounds CO2 equivalent (not 2.3 trillion pounds).

Both Harper and McCloskey serve on the WWF Market Institute’s Thought Leadership Group.

DMI confirms that dairy checkoff had a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with WWF from the inception of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy around 2008 through 2019. McCloskey has chaired the Innovation Center’s Sustainability Initiative since 2008.

In 2008-09, two MOU’s were signed between DMI and USDA via former U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack — the Sustainability Initiative and GENYOUth. At the end of the Obama administration, Sec. Vilsack was hired by DMI dairy checkoff to serve as president and CEO of USDEC 2016-2021, and earlier this year he became Secretary of Agriculture again after President Joe Biden said Vilsack ‘practically wrote his rural platform and now he can implement it.”

Aside from both serving on the WWF Market Institute’s Thought Leadership Group, McCloskey and Harper have another connection. According to the Sept. 2019 Chronicles of Higher Education, Caleb Harper’s father, Steve Harper, was a grocery executive. He was senior vice-president of marketing and fresh product development, procurement and merchandising from 1993 to 2010 for the H-E-B supermarket chain based in Texas. According to a 2020 presentation by Sue McCloskey, H-E-B was their first partner in the fluid milk business in the 1990s, followed by Kroger. According to the Houston Chronicle, the McCloskeys also partnered with H-E-B in 1996 during Steve Harper’s tenure to produce Mootopia ultrafiltered milk, an H-E-B brand. This was the pre-cursor to fairlife, the ultrafiltered milk beverage line in which DMI invested tens of millions of dollars in checkoff funds through the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy partnering with the McCloskeys, Select, and Coca Cola.

Harper also previously served as a member of the Board of Directors for New Harvest for at least three years (2017-19). New Harvest is a global nonprofit building the field of cellular agriculture, funding startups to make milk, meat and eggs without animals.

-30-

DMI’s NZI DS4G eyes climate policies, supply chain partners in net zero fastlane: but who gets the carbon credits?

Author’s Note: This is part two in a multi-part series about DMI’s Net Zero Initiative and Dairy Scale for Good implementation. Part one previously covered some of the 12- to 13-year history as well as the ‘scale’ approach for getting the industry to net zero faster. 

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, April 30, 2021

ROSEMONT, Ill. — The official launch of DMI’s Net Zero Initiative (NZI) in October 2020, and World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) dairy net zero case study published in January 2021 (and corrected in February for a math error that overestimated the industry’s total CO2 equivalent emissions) are two of the mile-markers in farm visits and partnership development since Caleb Harper was hired by checkoff in May 2020 as executive director of Dairy Scale for Good (DS4G).

In those 11 months, Harper reports visiting 100 dairy farms representing over 500,000 cows in 17 states, processing 350 manure samples, and gathering over 8000 ‘data points.’

Earlier this month, Harper, along with Dr. Mike McCloskey, presented a “value proposition” for the dairy industry during a Balchem real science lecture about ‘net zero carbon emissions implementation on the farm.’

McCloskey of Fair Oaks Farm, Fairlife and Select Milk Producers has chaired the DMI Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy’s Sustainability Initiative since inception 12 to 13 years ago.

In short, DS4G pilots are setting up through “sponsorships” from large dairy-buying partners on large farms within their own supply chains. DMI’s former MOU sustainability partner, the WWF, makes the case in its report that “achieving net zero for large farms is possible with the right practices, incentives and policies within five years (by reducing) emissions in enteric fermentation, manure management, feed production and efficiency, and energy generation and use.”

“This value proposition for dairy cuts two ways,” said Harper. Farms of 2500 cows or more can go toward digesters tied to renewable fuel production, while farms 2500 cows and fewer can move toward a digester model that handles food waste, receives tipping fees and generates electricity.

Both models will depend on a combination of government subsidies, low carbon renewable fuel standards, electrification of the U.S., supply chain sponsorship and sale of resulting carbon-credits, according to information presented by Harper and McCloskey.

NZI aligns with climate policies announced and anticipated from the Biden administration, which mirrors what is coming out of the United Nations’ Food Summit, and World Economic Forum (WEF) Great Reset.

WWF has long been tied closely with WEF setting a global agenda and with the World Resources Institute (WRI) that evaluates science-based targets for companies making net zero commitments to “transform” food and agriculture.

“Innovative models are just now starting to bear fruit,” said Harper, citing McCloskey as a forerunner of “building out” the anaerobic digester concept.

For his part, McCloskey said they “counted on incentives” back in 2008 to be able to grow and “be the catalyst.” He talked about a future sustained by marketing the new products created as substitutes for fossil fuels, mined fertilizers and other products, as well as continuing to take in other carbon sources instead of landfills.

“We have the vision to set this all up, to perfect the technology and get it cheaper… so when we’re all doing the same things, incentives won’t be needed,” said McCloskey looking 10 to 20 years down the road when he sees this “surviving on its own.”

Harper described distributive models from the WWF report. One “being born” in California incorporates separate large scale dairies in a cluster – up to 20 or 30 farms within a 20-mile radius — each with its own digester that can “drop compressed methane into a transmission line to a centralized gas cleaning facility.” In this model, dairies either have a manure or land lease contract or an equity position in the operation.

This model, he said, relies on “societal values of green energy.”

Another distributive model being born in Wisconsin is described as a central digester with adjacent gas cleaning and upgrading. In this model, the manure from multiple farms is sent to the centralized digester by pipe or truck.

“These dairy clusters become ‘green’ clusters,” Harper elaborated. “So, it’s not just about the milk. They become a primary source of green energy inside of a state or nation.”

Food waste co-digestion is part of a different DS4G model driven by states adopting regulatory policy to keep organic material out of landfills. Harper said dairy farms can take advantage of such policies by centralizing waste collection for co-digestion.

“As we think about reducing emissions… a big part of that is bringing things grown off farm on farm, destroying their greenhouse gas potential, and taking credit for that ‘sink,’” Harper explained. 

However, in this example, the co-digestion is what gives the dairy its carbon credits, so technology that can handle higher waste-to-manure ratios and state / local regulations allowing farms to handle the off-farm waste are necessary. Such details were not discussed by Harper, and are presumed to be what large scale dairy pilots address.

The WWF case study showed bottom line profit and loss of $500,000 annually for a 3500-cow dairy. Harper believes this is a “conservative” estimate based on electricity production. With the right policies in place, the renewable natural gas value proposition would produce higher returns, according to Harper.

The renewable natural gas market will still be building over the next five to 10 years, he said, so these models also rely on renewable fuel credits and other fixtures they expect to be part of the Biden administration’s climate policies.

Manure handling technologies apart from the digesters were also discussed, which according to the WWF case study, represent one-third of both emissions-reduction and income potential.

Harper is actively engaged in studying the differing chemical profiles of manure between farms, regions, and states — saying he wants to “understand manure” — with and without digester.

Looking at scale, Harper talked about adapting municipal human waste treatment systems for processing manure on large dairies. He highlighted what is called the “omni processor” — a Bill Gates investment to separate small scale municipal waste and create drinking water using a spindle with multiple discs heated to where nonvolatile solids are in the dry matter and the rest are captured as they volatize.

One “off the shelf technology” Harper is focusing on is already in use to produce discharge quality water. It is the membrane system of ultrafiltration (UF) and reverse osmosis (RO) — the same UF RO technology McCloskey pioneered in milk processing to remove water from milk for transport and refine elements for value-added products.

Stressing the large amount of water in dairy manure, Harper said UF RO “is a process designed exactly for de-watering.” Whether this process occurs before or after the digester, he said it is part of “the technology train, so whatever you are tagging onto is working more efficiently, processing less water and more nutrients and refining more things to find value in.”

All of these technologies, according to Harper, can build on each other and tie together with “electrifying” the United States, strengthening low carbon renewable fuel standards, adopting renewable fertilizer standards, and monetizing carbon. 

One unsettled aspect in this regard, however, appears on page 9 of the WWF case study and was not mentioned by McCloskey or Harper in their presentation. 

What happens to farmers when their carbon reductions and removals become part of the supply chain in which they sell their milk, or are sold to companies as part of a milk contract?

The WWF report makes this observation: “There could be significant interest from large dairy buyers in reducing embedded carbon in their products by purchasing value-added carbon ‘insets’ directly from farmers or cooperatives within their supply chains. Were companies to work closely with the dairy industry to advance these initiatives and enable greater GHG reductions, they could potentially use these measures toward meeting their own reduction targets … and incentivize dairies to embrace net zero practices through long-term contracts or other purchase or offtake agreements.”

That’s an aspect of the tens of millions of dollars in dairy pilot partnerships pledged by Nestle, Starbucks and potentially others for their own supply chains through DMI’s NZI DS4G.

WWF explains further in its report that, “Such agreements could provide stability and collateral as dairies consider investing in technology like anaerobic digesters. Some of these companies might even be interested in finding ways to bundle and purchase carbon credits produced on dairy farms where they buy milk.”

Such incentives, contracts and bundling – starting with DS4G pilots — leave dairy farms exactly where in the supply chain?

The WWF report states it this way: “Such purchases would shift the emissions reductions from the farmer to the company. This would result in the dairy essentially selling the credits that would enable its net zero status, as the emissions reductions cannot be double counted. 

“So, if the reductions are sold, the farmer can no longer be considered net-zero. This is a conundrum that is beyond the scope of this paper,” the WWF report admits.

This important detail in the NZI DS4G implementation was not mentioned by Harper or McCloskey.

Meanwhile, these initiatives also rely on climate policy, with former DMI executive Tom Vilsack now having crossed back over into government as U.S. Ag Secretary just 20 months after seeking pilot farm funding and Net Zero target policies when he testified before the Senate Ag Committee in June of 2019 while employed by checkoff as CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

President Joe Biden has said USDA is a key department in his administration’s climate action policies.

To be continued

-30-

Sen. Gillibrand calls for dairy farm payments, Senate hearings on pricing, investigation of corruption, antitrust concerns

Summertime is pastoral on this central New York dairy farm, but U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) says she is concerned about the state’s diverse dairies.

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, June 4, 2021

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), chair of the Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Dairy, Livestock and Poultry, told reporters last week that she is working on milk pricing legislation and wants to have dairy pricing hearings before the August congressional break. 

She also said she believes a thorough review and recommendations are needed regarding her concerns about corruption and antitrust activity in milk pricing.

After sending a bipartisan letter with 21 Senate co-signers to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Sen. Gillibrand called a press conference by zoom on May 26 to cite dairy farm losses and push for use of existing funds to provide direct payments to dairy farmers for the first half of 2021, retroactive to Jan. 1.

“I’m working on legislation right now to change how we do dairy pricing in America, but ultimately we need something like a 9/11 style commission to actually investigate the industry. You’ve seen it in New York. We’ve had dairy farmers that have committed suicide. We’ve seen the dairy industry steadily decline over the last 20 years,” said Gillibrand, calling food production an issue of national security.

“We cannot lose the ability to feed our own people. If you have a market that’s fundamentally flawed and constantly are leaving producers unable to survive in the industry, there’s a problem. So I think we need a very thorough investigation of my concerns of corruption and antitrust activity,” she said.

Gillibrand told reporters that her office has “already asked to hold hearings. on dairy pricing to start the ball rolling on an investigation and have not been given permission yet from the larger committee,” she said, noting the Senate subcommittee she chairs would be appropriate to hold the hearings.

“I want to hear from producers, I want to hear from the middlemen, I want to hear from retailers. I want to figure out where this corruption lies, and then perhaps, based on the information we get, set up the commission, and I want it ready for the next farm bill,” Gillibrand explained. 

Right from the outset of the press conference, the Senator raised concerns about the Class I milk pricing change in the last farm bill that has had devastating effects in dairy farm income losses when hundreds of millions of dollars in collective Class I price devaluation occurred, contributing to de-pooling of milk, negative Producer Price Differentials (PPDs) and failure of  risk management tools amid the volatility of pandemic market disruptions.

Referencing the bipartisan letter from senators to Secretary Vilsack, Gillibrand said USDA has the funds available through the existing CFAP and Pandemic Assistance for Producers initiative to move right now to make direct payments to dairy farmers she said are necessary to help them recover.

“One of the few things that has helped dairy farmers offset some of their losses was the CFAP dairy payments,” she said. “This assistance was critical to farmers, but these payments were put on pause in January, when the administration announced it was doing a 60-day regulatory review. When the review was concluded, no further payments to dairy farmers were announced.”

Gillibrand noted that USDA announcements cite funding for purchases through the Dairy Donation Program within the new Pandemic Assistance for Producers, but USDA has failed to announce direct dairy farm payments in 2021.

“That’s why we sent the letter to Secretary Vilsack,” the senator said. “My colleagues and I outline the need for USDA to continue issuing payments to dairy farmers for the first six months of 2021 retroactive to January 1st.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) also weighed in on dairy farm relief last week in a joint press release with Gillibrand. The two New York senators cited the importance the Empire State’s dairy farms and noted that U.S. dairy farmers collectively received a smaller and inequitable share of pandemic ag assistance payments to-date.

“For an industry that had razor thin margins before the pandemic, for some of our dairy farmers, receiving additional federal assistance is the difference between keeping their farms and losing their livelihoods,” Schumer said in a statement.

Asked how much money should be allocated for direct payments to dairy farmers, Gillibrand said it needs to be responsive to individual producers and their market conditions, to be flexible like the Paycheck Protection Program in being tailored to businesses that lost money during the pandemic.

“I’d like it to assess losses in any given market and what would make these dairy farmers whole. I’d like it to be nimble and specific,” she said. “The money’s there. This is in USDA’s hands, so we need to have a response from Secretary Vilsack.”

On dairy pricing, Senator Gillibrand was emphatic.

“Even before the pandemic, dairy farmers were struggling to receive a fair price for their milk,” she said, noting the change in the method of calculating the Class I mover “compounded this issue. That one change caused dairy farmers to lose out on $725 million in income since 2019.”

The 2018 Farm Bill changed the Class I price at the request of International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) and National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) to an averaging method plus 74 cents. This was implemented in May 2019. 

Previously, the Class I base price ‘mover’ was calculated using the ‘higher of’ Class III or IV prices.

This Class I mover change not only resulted in net losses of now over $750 million from May 2019 through June 2021 but also contributed to negative PPDs across Federal Milk Marketing Orders for 17 of the past 24 months.

When government cheese purchases for food boxes and stop/start domestic and global economies during the pandemic created volatile shifts in demand, there were intervals of higher cheese and Class III milk prices that could have provided some much-needed milk-pricing relief for dairy farmers. 

However, as the averaging method devalued Class I in relation to Class III, milk handlers depooled massive volumes of milk — changing the blend price equation. While a few handlers may have passed some of that value on to their own producers, most did not.

As previously reported in Farmshine, American Dairy Coalition has been facilitating grassroots phone conference calls since early March on the Class I pricing, depooling and negative PPD issues to foster industry dialog on solutions. One idea that came from those grassroots discussions was to return, temporarily at least, to the higher-of method for calculating the Class I mover until a future path can be properly vetted by what is normally a lengthy USDA FMMO hearing process.

On April 12, after collecting signatures from hundreds of producers and state and national organizations, ADC sent a letter to NMPF and IDFA seeking a seat at the table for producers to seek solutions.

On April 23, NMPF floated its proposed solution to adjust the average-of ‘adjuster’ every two years and publicly announced its intentions to ask USDA for an expedited emergency FMMO hearing.

On April 27, four midwestern dairy groups — Edge Cooperative, Minnesota Milk Producers, Wisconsin Dairy Business Association and the Nebraska State Dairy Assiciation — put forward a Class III-plus proposal for calculating Class I and were joined by the South Dakota Dairy Producers in a May 19 request that USDA broaden the scope should there be an emergency FMMO hearing.

On April 26, Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters during a meeting of the North American Agriculture Journalists that the issue is “very complex,” and that “conversations need to mature before anybody makes a decision that there’s going to be a significant change.”

On May 5, Farm-First cooperative, based in Madison, Wisconsin, announced it would submit a proposal to revert to the higher-of method of Class I mover calculation if a USDA FMMO hearing is held.

On May 15, producers in the Southeast FMMOs began circulating a letter addressed to Secretary Vilsack seeking payments to dairy farmers that reflected inequitable losses in high Class I FMMOs.

On May 18, the letter from senators to Secretary Vilsack called for assistance in the form of direct payments to U.S. dairy farmers.

In the absence of action or response from USDA on relief or solutions at the time of the May 26 press conference, Sen. Gillibrand described a potential “two-part” Senate subcommittee hearing on dairy pricing, where experts could give testimony on all aspects of the problem.

The bipartisan letter from senators to Sec. Vilsack noted more than a decade of decline in dairy, multiple consecutive years of milk prices below cost of production and even mentioned competition from plant-based dairy alternatives labeled as ‘milk’.

“Our dairy farmers have really been hit hard for the last six years,” said Gillibrand, stressing the critical role dairy farmers play in the food supply chain, the economy, their communities and national security. 

“We really need answers now,” she said.

-30-