Data and reform needed, but is Secretary eyeing portion of estimated $30 million-plus for ‘dairy reinvestment’?
By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, April 27, 2023
HARRISBURG, Pa. – Little bit new, little bit Dé·jà vu. (That’s French for ‘the feeling of having experienced this situation before.’)
Those first thoughts came to mind listening to the Pennsylvania Senate Ag Committee’s hearing Tuesday (April 25) on reforming the state’s mandated over-order premium (OOP) that is part of the state’s minimum wholesale and retail milk prices, set by the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board (PMMB).
Ag Secretary Russell Redding laid out for state lawmakers the Department of Agriculture’s plan to seek reforms that: 1) uniformly and fairly distribute the OOP, 2) ensure the amounts charged to Pennsylvania consumers substantially equal amounts distributed back to farmers, and 3) uses a distribution system that does not have incentives to avoid paying Pennsylvania producers by selling milk from across state lines.
He said the Department is a “reluctant participant” but sees the need to make the “collective case” for the “composite of Pennsylvania Dairy.”
“We believe there are inequities, and we see division and growing farmer mistrust,” said Redding. “We knew there were data gaps in our petition last year… Think about the OOP as an equation: A + B = C.
“What we know today is that of the $23.6 million in OOP collected by processors in 2022, $14 million was required to go back to farmers. That’s A.
“B is generated in the marketplace but not collected,” he explained. “Our belief is that this is another $5 to $10 million (annually).
“C is the total that we believe is in the neighborhood of $28.6 to $33 million. The question is, what do we do about it?” he asked.
He answered to say the only way to fix this is to change the system and begin removing the OOP from the minimum price buildup and instead have the PMMB establish a retail-based premium, collected at that point of sale and remitted to the Department of Revenue into a designated fund.
This would require the legislation.
“The General Assembly could then appropriate direct payments to producers and to reinvestment in dairy processing,” said Redding.
The Secretary called it an “embarrassment that we don’t have this number (B)” to complete the A + B = C equation, but as he talked about the PDA’s plan, we heard articulated for the first time this idea that once numbers can be put to the equation and legislative authority for the Board to devise a formula, the OOP could become a “milk tax.”
The difference being that many consumers don’t know they are already paying the OOP, but when pulled out of the minimum price buildup, it becomes a known quantity.
“We trust the state to do this with liquor, cigarettes and liquid fuel. The legislature could decide how these funds would be used, and a portion could be used to help processors invest or reinvest,” said Redding.
In fact, Zach Myers for the Center for Dairy Excellence said a study is underway to assess the obstacles that are preventing processing investment and reinvestment in Pennsylvania.
PMMB Chairman Rob Barley noted that, “It’s certainly time to evaluate how the OOP dollars get back to farmers and not pick winners and losers. The over $800 million that has gone back to dairy farmers since 1988, especially when the majority of it did, no doubt made a positive difference, but that is changing,” he said. “Fluid milk sales have dropped in half (since then), and it is difficult to account for the dollars with the current tools that we as a Board have.”
Barley noted that if the process moves forward to reform the structure, perhaps other products could be eventually added.
“Right now we don’t have the authority to do any of this. Going back to the 1988 testimony, the primary reason the over-order premium was added (to Class I) is that was the practical point, that was the mechanism already in place for fluid milk. There is no such system for other classes, and Class I is also more of a localized product, which I think is still true today,” Barley explained.
Going forward, he said, the choices for the Board are “to get rid of what we have, which is a choice many are not in favor of, or to have legislation to change the OOP without violating interstate commerce, or to develop a new system that strengthens the Pennsylvania dairy industry to benefit all sectors.”
Redding stressed the point that, “This is all about the dairy farmer, how do we incentivize what we need? Keeping our eye on the farmer and understanding we can do something extraordinary here, we have this opportunity to extract this premium from the marketplace and get (the OOP) back to farmers and for the purposes of reinvestment…”
That’s the New. Now for the Dé·jà vu…
The next thought to emerge in this reporter’s mind after hearing the new twist on OOP as ‘milk tax’ and a portion for ‘reinvestment’ was this: Everyone is at the table now, sitting up, alert, paying attention, and offering solutions after 15-plus years of meetings, hearings and discussions. But the same bottomline emerges: everyone still wants a dip of the farmer’s elusive cream.
Not 15 minutes later, after PMMB board member Jim Van Blarcom testified, his Senator Gene Yaw of the northern tier counties shared a similar thought about how this may be already happening within the minimum price buildup in a rapidly changing industry.
“We made this so complicated and there are too many fingers in this pie, frankly,” said Yaw, asking whether processors get any of this money, now.
PMMB auditor supervisor Gary Gojsovich answered that the OOP is currently collected by processors through their sales, and they pay it back to Pennsylvania producers only when the milk is produced, processed and sold in Pennsylvania, all three must apply.
“In the simplest terms, it sounds like we need to change how the premium is collected and the point of where it is collected,” Senator Yaw responded.
Senator Judy Schwank representing parts of Berks County said: “We need the data. We have to have the data.”
So, we are back to the data.
The Secretary called it an “embarrassment that we don’t have this number.”
Chairman Elder Vogel and ranking member Schwank said they plan to reintroduce their bills that did not move forward in the last legislative session that would give PMMB authority to license distributors, a move that would account for all packaged milk sales coming into Pennsylvania from out-of-state and other cross-border transactions, which ‘strand premiums.’
A quick history
For decades, there have been meetings and hearings and discussions about the future of the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Law and the PMMB that sets minimum wholesale and retail milk prices. The law dates back to the 1930s, but the mandated OOP was introduced to the existing structure during a year of drought and high feed prices in 1988.
At that time, the state’s OOP was set by the Board at $1.05 per hundredweight (9 cents per gallon). Today it is $1.00 plus a 50-cents per hundredweight fuel adjuster (combined is 13 cents per gallon).
At intervals before 2018, the OOP was as high as $3.00 plus a fuel adjuster (over 26 cents per gallon). In 2017, it was nearly $2.00 (17 cents per gallon), but was abruptly cut in half in December of 2017 due to the pressure of out-of-state milk — a harbinger of things to come just four months before Dean Foods announced it was ending contracts with 130 dairy farms in 8 states, 42 of them in Pennsylvania and five months before the startup of the Walmart bottling plant in Indiana.
Also included in the minimum resale and retail milk price buildups are the Federal Order price benchmarks, which vary geographically because Pennsylvania is split between two different Federal Orders. To this minimum federal benchmark price, the OOP is added, translating now to about 13 cents per gallon.
Also added are the average cost recovery amounts for bottlers and retailers as determined by annual hearings for each area of the state, along with adding the 2.5 to 3.5% profit margin the Milk Marketing Law guarantees milk bottlers and retailers on top of the average cost recovery.
What has come under fire, especially since 2009, is the producer OOP, how it is collected and passed back to farmers, how some of it is stranded and how the changing dairy industry has impacted the real and perceived equity of the distribution of these funds.
Lawmakers made it clear that they look at this as two distinctly separate things, the collection is one issue, and the distribution quite another.
Among those testifying, the amount of the current OOP at $1.50 including fuel adjuster that is received on their farms ranged from 6 cents to 50 cents.
The bottomline is for all of the PMMB’s efforts to expand communication and transparency with the tools available, even board member Van Blarcom conceded that it is becoming more difficult to justify the OOP to his peers.
For his part, Matt Espenshade, a Lancaster County dairy farmer representing the State Grange, told lawmakers that producers and cooperatives that are ‘in’ the Class I market take risks and have requirements other class markets do not experience.
He cautioned against reforms that would dilute the premium for the 15 to 20% of state farmers currently receiving a meaningful amount because they have costs and risks associated with that reward.
Johnny Painter, a Tioga County dairy farmer testifying for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau advocated for a uniform distribution of the OOP in reforms that would have the state collect it all. He said farmers in all classes of milk have the same quality standards to meet.
When pressed by Senator Schwank on why PFB made policy to end the OOP, Painter said it was a tactic to get the dialog started.
Troye Cooper for the Pennsylvania Association of Dairy Cooperatives and a member services director for Maryland and Virginia Cooperative said those receiving very little OOP are part of the 3500 Pennsylvania dairy farms shipping milk through cooperatives that perform essential “balancing” services for the fluid milk market. As coop members, they share in the cost of that.
However, what remained unspoken in his testimony is that the current minimum wholesale and retail milk price buildups now include a roughly 25-cent ‘co-op procurement cost’ for these balancing services along with the requirement that cooperatives list on member milk checks how much of the producer OOP was included.
Representing the Pennsylvania Association of Milk Dealers, Chuck Turner of Turner Dairy near Pittsburgh, pointed out that fluid milk sales are declining, and other class products are increasing. He asked how bottlers can continue cutting checks to the Federal Orders to bring up the payments for other class milk while reducing the payments to their own shippers when their own fluid milk market volumes are shrinking.
“The fluid milk business is in tough shape. Sales volume has trended downward for 13 years by more than 20%. That’s 1 gallon in 5 lost, 1 plant in 5 closed. It can’t bear the burden for the other classes. It seems particularly unfair with sales growing in the other categories,” said Turner, noting that plants outside of Pennsylvania have been closing “at an astonishing rate.”
He said the number of independent milk processors in the U.S. fell from 69% to 44% in 2020, whereas in Pennsylvania, independent bottlers still represent 62% of the fluid milk, and he credited the PMMB system for that difference.
Myers noted that Pennsylvania is the state with the second most dairy farms and the fourth smallest average herd size, with production costs that are higher than in some neighboring states.
He cited loss of market premiums, including quality premiums, the impacts of other price erosion such as Federal Order make allowances that a potential hearing could further degrade.
Compared to the U.S. All-Milk price published monthly by USDA, Myers noted the Pennsylvania All-Milk price used to be higher than the U.S. average, but this gap has narrowed significantly in the past 15 years.
“It was $1.73 per hundredweight from 2008 to 2012, averaged $1.29 from 2013 to 2017, and in the last five years, it has narrowed to just 49 cents, on average,” said Myers.
In fact, during the pandemic in 2020-21, the Pennsylvania All-Milk price averaged 18 cents less than the U.S. All-Milk price, according to Myers.
“There are several factors for this narrowing, but it’s safe to say it can’t be fixed by increasing the premiums,” said Myers, noting that 80% of the milk produced in Pennsylvania is marketed through cooperatives, and there are cooperative base programs limiting expansion on Pennsylvania farms.
These coop base programs and penalties affect the dairy farms and are in part tied to the limits in processing capacity.
Meanwhile, there were several references by testifiers citing milk coming from New York into Central Pennsylvania for processing and sale and displacing milk produced in that area. The OOP, of course, stays with that retailer, processor and/or cooperative as part of their business model to expand their state’s markets into Pennsylvania so their producers can grow.
“When that premium goes back to New York, that’s exactly what is playing out, and it feels like an injustice to be asking our consumers to pay it without regard to that investment,” said Redding. “We want to capture that premium and put it back into our Pennsylvania dairy farmers.”
The problem, said Barley, is the PMMB can’t just “grab that money and give it to Pennsylvania farmers if the milk is not produced, processed and sold in-state without being challenged in court as in the past on the grounds of violating the interstate commerce clause.”
Senator Yaw interjected that, “If the milk is sold here, we should give the premium back to our farmers. If the milk came from New York, those farmers should not benefit from what we are doing to support Pennsylvania farmers.”
Redding said lawmakers “do not have to wait for the data. The bill on licensing distributors could go forward along with a bill to set up a structured system, assuming the amount to be around $30 million, and we believe it to be higher, to decide how to distribute that revenue.”
Redding said his fear is that as the frustration undertow grows, Pennsylvania will lose this premium without action.
He pointed out that his committee “kept its promise” to get everyone around the table to hear ideas, but that it will be “difficult to thread this needle and it will require collaboration.”
Ranking member Schwank said everything hinges on getting the data that is needed to know how to proceed.