USDA moves forward with $350 mil. for dairy producers targeted to Jul-Dec 2020 FMMO Class I ‘mover’ losses

Eligible producers to be paid by agreements with milk handlers, co-ops

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, August 27, 2021

WASHINGTON, D.C. — According to USDA, milk handlers and cooperatives were contacted Aug. 23-27 about entering into signed agreements to distribute the approximately $350 million in Pandemic Dairy Market Volatility Assistance payments the agency announced on Aug. 19.

The agreements will be to disburse funds to their qualifying producers and provide them with education on a variety of dairy-related topics.

Handlers and cooperatives have until Sept. 10, 2021 to indicate to USDA their intention to participate. USDA will then distribute the payments to participating handlers within 60 days of entering into an agreement. Once payment is received, a handler will have 30 days to distribute monies to qualifying dairy farmers.

These funds will be disbursed to “eligible” dairy farmers through “eligible” Federal Milk Marketing Order (FMMO) independent milk handlers and cooperatives, not through FSA. There will be no signups for this program, and payment rates have not been published.

What is unique about the volatility payments is they will be producer-specific and targeted based on FMMO records and agreements with milk handlers to be the payment conduit.

USDA indicates this program is a “first step” and is aimed at compensating producers for volatility and federal pricing policy changes. The payments will cover 80% of the calculated lost value on Class I fluid milk pounds for July through December 2020.

This language suggests the payments will be limited to producers whose milk was pooled on FMMOs during those six months.

One point of contention with the “volatility assistance” is that the eligible producers will be limited to payments associated with up to 5 million pounds of annual production — even though farms of all sizes incurred these losses due to a combination of pandemic volatility and federal pricing policy changes. The Adjusted Gross Income verification will also be required, like for the prior administration’s CFAP payments.

A special webpage at the USDA AMS Dairy Programs website has been created where more details were provided this week. Officials responding to Farmshine questions said this webpage will be updated on an ongoing basis with more details as they become available. The webpage link is https://www.ams.usda.gov/services/pandemic-market-volatility-assistance-program

A brochure is also available at https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/PandemicAssistanceMarketVolatilityBrochure.pdf

The actual cumulative net Class I value losses to dairy producers over a longer 27-month period (May 2019 through July 2021) were more than twice the amount of the program, pegged at over $750 million.

During the six months covered by the volatility assistance program – July through December 2020 – the difference between Class III and IV milk prices was $5 to $10 per hundredweight. Further amplifying the impact of this volatility on producer blend prices was the 2018 Farm Bill change (implemented May 2019) to use an averaging method instead of the previous ‘higher of’ Class III or IV skim prices to set the Class I ‘mover.’

This change also led to massive de-pooling and severely negative producer price differentials (PPDs) for most of the past 27 months. Even in some of the positive PPD months, the PPDs were smaller than normal, representing lost value to producers in excess of $3 billion.

In disbursing these volatility assistance payments, milk handlers and cooperatives will be reimbursed for limited administrative and educational costs, according to the USDA brochure.

The education piece stipulates that each participating handler or cooperative “will provide educational materials to all producers by March 1, 2022. The USDA brochure indicates that they may provide the education in the form of mailings, recorded online trainings, live virtual webinars, and/or in-person meetings.”

This education revolves around federal dairy programs, according to USDA. Example topics are Federal Milk Marketing Orders; Dairy Margin Coverage, Dairy Revenue Protection, Dairy Mandatory Price Reporting, Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and Forward Contracting.

USDA will make these education materials available, or the participating handlers and cooperatives may use their own educational materials or training.

Each participating handler will have to verify how many producers were provided with the information and the methods that were used for the education.

The Pandemic Dairy Market Volatility Assistance Program was announced during meetings with farmers and a tour of farms with Senator Patrick Leahy in Vermont last Thursday. Back in June, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had committed to provide additional pandemic assistance for dairy farmers in an exchange with Sen. Leahy during an Appropriations hearing.

“This (program) is another component of our ongoing effort to get aid to producers who have been left behind and build on our progress towards economic recovery,” said Vilsack. “This targeted assistance is the first step in USDA’s comprehensive approach that will total over $2 billion to help the dairy industry recover from the pandemic and be more resilient to future challenges for generations to come.”

In a press statement this week, NMPF president and CEO Jim Mulhern stated that the $350 million only compensates for some of the damage resulting from the pandemic.

“NMPF asked the department to reimburse dairy farmers for unanticipated losses created during the COVID-19 pandemic by a change to the Class I fluid milk price mover formula that was exacerbated by the government’s pandemic dairy purchases last year,” said Mulhern. “When Congress changed the previous Class I mover, it was never intended to hurt producers. In fact, the new mover was envisioned to be revenue-neutral when it was adopted in the 2018 Farm Bill. However, the government’s COVID-19 response created unprecedented price volatility in milk and dairy-product markets that produced disorderly fluid milk marketing conditions that so far have cost dairy farmers nationwide more than $750 million from what they would have been paid under the previous system.”

NMPF and IDFA suggested and agreed to the Class I pricing change during 2018 Farm Bill negotiations, and no hearings were held before the FMMO method for calculating the ‘mover’ was implemented in May 2019.

Mulhern went on to say that the arbitrary low limits on covered milk production volume mean many family dairy farms will only receive a portion of the losses they incurred on their production last year.

“Disaster aid should not include limits that prevent thousands of dairy farmers from being meaningfully compensated for unintended, extraordinary losses,” Mulhern said, adding that NMPF is “continuing discussions about the current Class I mover to prevent a repeat of this problem.”

For its part, the American Dairy Coalition has been facilitating nationwide discussions with other dairy groups on the dairy pricing, de-pooling, negative PPD losses and risk management impacts since last winter, including a letter signed by hundreds of dairy producers and organizations sent last spring to NMPF and IDFA seeking a seat at the table on solutions for the concerns about the Class I ‘mover’ change and supporting a temporary return to ‘the higher of’ until other methods can be appropriately vetted with a hearing process.

ADC’s nationwide discussions brought attention to this issue and contributed to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and 20 other U.S. Senators sending a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack seeking financial assistance for dairy farmers for these milk price value losses. A dairy situation hearing is anticipated in the Senate Subcommittee on Dairy, Livestock and Poultry that is chaired by Sen. Gillibrand.

— The Aug. 19 Class I volatility program announcement also mentioned $400 million for the Dairy Donation Program. The DDP implementation process was announced Aug. 25.

— In addition, USDA announced on Aug. 19 an estimated $580 million in Supplemental Dairy Margin Coverage (DMC) to allow “modest increases” in the production history of enrolled dairy producers up to the 5 million pound annual production cap for Tier One coverage. Specific details for adjusting DMC production history have not yet been provided.

— Additionally, USDA announced the inclusion of premium alfalfa prices in the calculation of the feed cost portion of the DMC margin.

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