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.

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