Senate Ag subcommittee hearing on milk pricing: Agreement that Federal Orders need reform, but how? That’s the billion-dollar question

By Sherry Bunting

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Federal Milk Marketing Orders, their purpose, performance, problems and solutions — including a recent change in the Class I fluid milk pricing formula — were the focus of a Senate Ag subcommittee hearing on ‘Milk Pricing: Areas of Improvement and Reform” Wednesday, Sept. 15 in the Capitol.

“We are in the midst of a modern dairy crisis, magnified by a Class I pricing change in the 2018 Farm Bill. The pandemic and economic downturn are not the only causes of this problem, but they did exacerbate it. This system cannot adapt to market conditions and thus is not fairly compensating our dairy farmers. The formula change is a symptom of larger problems in a system that is confusing, convoluted and difficult to understand,” said Gillibrand Wednesday.

She recounted the more than $750 million in producer losses when looking at the previous Class I fluid milk ‘mover’ formula that used the higher of Class III or IV manufacturing milk prices and comparing it to the current formula that uses an averaging method plus 74 cents.

The hearing was a first step Sen. Gillibrand had previously indicated in a press conference last June, when the full extent of dairy farmer financial losses was becoming known.

As the hearing got underway, Gillibrand observed that from 2003 to 2020 there has been a 55% decrease in the number of dairy farms in the U.S.

“We are using an almost 100-year-old system with the last reform 20 years ago, where dairy farms are not operating as they were then. We need to put the power back in the farmers’ hands.” said Gillibrand.

The power to make the issues known was in the hands of three dairy farmers making up the first panel — Jim Davenport, Tollgate Farm, Ancramdale, New York; Christina Zuiderveen, Black Soil Dairy, Granville, Iowa, and Mike Ferguson of Ferguson Dairy Farm, Senatobia, Mississippi.

This was followed by a panel with Dr. Chris Wolf, ag economics professor at Cornell University, Dr. Robert Wills, president of Cedar Grove Cheese and Clock Shadow Creamery, Plain, Wisconsin, and Catherine de Ronde, vice president of economics and legislative affairs with Agri-Mark cooperative based in Massachusetts with members in New England and New York.

One thing everyone agreed on, in differing degrees, is that reforms are needed in the Federal Milk Marketing Order System.

Testifiers agreed that a key purpose of the FMMOs is to make blended payments more equitable between producers supplying different classes and uses of milk.

All three producers agreed the FMMO system should continue, although they shared differing ideas about how reforms could improve it.

There was also agreement that the new Class I ‘mover’ formula is not adequate for changing and uncertain markets. They agreed that using the USDA rulemaking process is the way to make such changes to be sure all parties are heard.

However, the current change in the Class I ‘mover’, implemented in May 2019, was made legislatively during the 2018 Farm Bill, not through the USDA hearing process.

Ferguson, a 150-cow dairy producer in Mississippi said he supported bringing back the previous ‘higher of’ method while a longer-term solution can be considered through the USDA hearing process. He noted periodic reviews of the adjuster could also be helpful, and that the situation should be addressed in the short term.

He explained that the Southeast producers across FMMOs 5, 6 and 7, produce about 45% of the annual fluid milk needs of their growing population, and when supplemental milk has to be brought in, those Southeast producers pay the price to get it there. That was very difficult and costly when class pricing inversions happened last year for a prolonged period of time.

Davenport, milking 64 cows in New York observed that the Class I price was aligning better in the past few months, but “we’re not out of the woods yet,” on Covid-19, he said.

“The FMMO system has served farmers well but needs adjusted to reflect current product mixes and market swings,” said Davenport, adding that the fluid market is very important for smaller sized dairies and regional supply systems. He proffered the hope that Class I, long-term, could be stabilized by basing it on something other than the volatility of cheese, butter and powder prices.

“The rulemaking process USDA uses will work, it just takes time,” he said, adding that the Class I price should reflect how hard it is to supply the fluid market.

Zuiderveen, whose family has dairies totaling 15,000 cows in Iowa and South Dakota, said FMMO pricing for milk of the same quality should align and foster innovation and competition instead of consolidation. It should also be transparent and promote a nimble industry that can respond to changes, she said.

“Distortions can cause the system to become unglued,” she said, noting that if producers can’t anticipate which classes will participate in the pool and don’t know how that will drive their milk price, then they can’t manage their price risk effectively, losses become compounded, and this discourages risk management.

Zuiderveen and others noted a variance as wide as $9 per hundredweight was experienced in mailbox milk prices from region to region and neighbor to neighbor at intervals last year.

“That creates a sense of helplessness among producers,” said Zuiderveen.

Dr. Wolf noted multiple reasons for the negative PPDs and milk check losses under the new formula, including declining Class I fluid milk sales and increased milk components, but said the two biggest reasons for milk check losses under the new formula compared with the old formula were the large volumes of de-pooled milk that reduced FMMO pool funds as well as the Class I change itself.

Wolf explained multiple factors in the wide divergence between Class III and IV. A primary one was government purchases being tilted to cheese during that time. “This large divergence in butter and cheese prices meant that the Class I milk prices were lower than they would have been under the former pricing rule,” he said.

Ferguson noted that the government cheese purchases were intended to support dairy producers as well as the public during the pandemic, but it ended up having a “devastating effect on our fluid market,” he said, noting that a more balanced approach may have helped.

Through difficult times in the past, price alignments were more stable in large part because of the ‘higher of’ method keeping the Class I price above the blended price so no matter what was purchased, all farmers, supplying all classes of products, benefited more equitably.

Under the current formula, the pandemic cheese purchases helped support dairy producers, but also led to distortions that contributed to large differences in milk prices at the farm level.

Dr. Wills was the only processor testifying. He said the survival of dairy depends on being able to evolve on these pricing issues. “Farmers are only better off if the premium (shared in the FMMO pools) exceeds the value of other classes, and that’s inefficient,” he said, adding his opinion that FMMOs have outlived their purpose.

“The redistribution makes it appear that all farmers are winners, when the evidence shows pricing equity is being lowered,” said Wills. “I fear for the future of the dairy industry. The federally administrated milk pricing now functions opposite of its intent, resulting in higher prices for consumers and lower prices for farmers. It responds slowly, encourages inefficient trucking and promotes consolidation.”

Wills also mentioned the wave of competition from an array of plant-based and blended products as well as cellular agriculture and bio-engineered analog proteins, none of which are included in the FMMO pricing structure.

Wills brought home the reality for rural communities when small and mid-sized farms are lost. Near the end of the hearing, he responded to a question from Senator Roger Marshall (R-Kansas) asking what are his farmers’ biggest concerns, what do they talk about when he sits down with them for coffee at a restaurant?

“My farmers tend to be smaller producers,” said Wills, president of two Wisconsin cheese companies supplied by 28 dairy farms. “They are concerned about having continued access to markets as the industry continues to consolidate. Even in Wisconsin, where we have more competition than most places, it is hard to find homes for those dairies that are cut loose from big plants.”

As consolidation accelerates, he said, there is a trend toward plants not wanting to make multiple stops. “The impact of losing all of those producers … that 10% per year loss (over time) just hollows out our communities. There’s not a restaurant in town anymore to have coffee at,” said Wills. “We lost our hardware store, our grocery store. A lot of it has to do with our rural communities being hollowed out. The ability to maintain those small farms is also important for our communities.”

On program safety nets and risk management tools, Dr. Wolf noted that the Dairy Margin Coverage program has a very positive impact on small producers vs. large producers, and that the Dairy Revenue Protection and Livestock Gross Margin are aimed at bigger farms. He said farms with those programs in place were “in a better place” last year.

However, elsewhere in his testimony and in that of others, the risk management difficulties during the unusual price inversions were also mentioned, when the Class I pricing change was exacerbated by pandemic disruptions creating those misaligned conditions.

As for simply nationalizing the FMMO pooling rules or making them more rigid, Zuiderveen said this would lead to more processors staying out of the pool, and Wills said de-pooling is the pressure relief valve processors need.

With a nod to pricing delays that affect the transparency in sending market signals through the FMMO system, Wills said he found out that week (Sept. 13) what he will be paying for the milk he bought on August 1, and his producers who sold that milk to him were also just finding out what they would be paid. That’s six weeks after shipping the milk.

Wills said this kind of inefficiency makes it difficult to plan and compete in business.

Another positive to come out of the hearing was when Davenport brought up legalizing whole milk in schools, to which Chairwoman Gillibrand, Senator Marshall, a doctor, and a few other members of the Senate Subcommittee gave hearty verbal support.  

Here is the link to the recorded Senate Ag subcommittee hearing https://www.agriculture.senate.gov/hearings/milk-pricing-areas-for-improvement-and-reform

Look for more in a future Farmshine.

-30-

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s