Fluid milk’s precarious future can’t be ignored

Class I is at a tipping point, will future FMMO strategies strengthen or exploit it?

“Probably some of you have never recently met an independently owned fluid milk bottler. We are the only prisoners in the Federal Order system. Everybody else can opt in or opt out. Even now… our cooperative competitors don’t have to pay their member producers a minimum price — but we do. I just ask that you take into consideration not just what we can get from Class I … We are on a 13-year losing streak that fluid milk consumption has declined on a total basis. We are at a tipping point,” said Farm Bureau member Chuck Turner, Turner Dairy Farms, a third generation independent milk bottler near Pittsburgh, Pa.

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, October 28, 2022

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The precarious future of Class I fluid milk was an underlying concern expressed in different ways at the AFBF Federal Milk Pricing Forum in Kansas City recently. Some have written off the future of fresh fluid milk and have turned sights elsewhere. Others recognize federal orders don’t fulfill their purpose when fresh fluid milk doesn’t get to where the people are. And then there’s the wedge product — aseptic milk — in the mix as some changes have already been made to promote investment in it.

Since the federal orders are based on regulation of Class I fluid milk, its future is most definitely at the core of the Federal Milk Marketing Order (FMMO) discussion. 

A critical point made by panelists is that more money is needed to get fresh milk to consumers in high population areas. Also mentioned was the restoration of higher over-order premiums to farmers in milk-deficit areas to keep these areas from becoming even more deficit.

But at the same time, Class I sales are declining relative to a growing dairy pie of other class products, and the flurry of fluid milk plant closures near population areas has caused further disruption. 

On day three of the forum in Kansas City, Phil Plourd of Ever.Ag attributed most of the fluid milk sales decline to the fact that “milk lost its best friend – cereal.” When asked, he did acknowledge that about one-third of the problem facing fluid milk is rooted in the low-fat school milk requirement. He also pointed out how the entire food industry is changing, and he warned about the lab-created dairy proteins made in fermentation tanks that can be ‘turned on and off.’

Bottom line is the growth markets are in other products, he said. The declining fluid milk sector can no longer shoulder all of the responsibility for the federal order system. 

He showed a bar-graph depicting the decline in the share of total U.S. production participating in federal or state revenue sharing pools. Using estimates of California’s pre-federal order mandatory state order, the percentage of U.S. milk production that was pooled exceeded 80% in 2018. In November of 2018, California became a federal order. Pooled volume vs. total production fell to just over 70% in 2019, the first year the new Class I mover formula was implemented. In 2020, during the pandemic, pooled volume fell to just over 60% and ticked a few points lower to 60% in 2021.

Several panelists, including Calvin Covington, confirmed that cooperatives, especially DFA, own the majority of the fluid milk plants in the U.S. today. This evolution has only increased with plant closures over the past 18 months, and cooperatives have payment and pooling flexibilities not enjoyed by proprietary plants.

As the Class I sector consolidates to roughly 80% owned by cooperatives and the balance owned by grocery chains and independents, there is another problem with federal orders that is easily overlooked. Who is it regulating? It does not regulate what cooperatives pay their members, therefore, it is regulating a declining number of participants in a growing global industry.

A milk bottler from Pennsylvania used the open-microphone between panels to address this 800-pound gorilla in the room full of consensus-builders doing their level-best to ignore it.

“I am sort of an ‘odd duck’ here. Probably some of you have never recently met an independently owned fluid milk bottler. We are the only prisoners in the Federal Order system,” said Chuck Turner, a long-time Farm Bureau member and third-generation milk bottler from Pittsburgh.

“Everybody else can opt in or opt out. Even now, with recent developments, our cooperative competitors don’t have to pay their member producers a minimum price — but we do,” he confirmed.

Turner asked the room of consensus-builders to “take into consideration not just what we can get from Class I — but let’s think more about what we need to do to sell it. We are on a 13-year losing streak with Class I — 13 years that fluid milk consumption has declined on a total basis. We are at a tipping point,” said Turner.

While half of the forum’s table groupings agreed Class I differentials need to be increased, others wondered how much more money can be extracted from Class I without killing it?

Joe Wright, former president of Southeast Milk Inc., laid out the problem as a “downward spiral” — making it more difficult to attract milk to populated areas in the Southeast. He said it started with the Dean and Borden bankruptcies and continues with more plant closings announced every few months.

In the Southeast, said Wright, it’s to the point where school kids won’t get fresh milk in some areas because no one will bring it.

He noted that the over-order premiums in Florida have decreased by $1.50 per hundredweight. Some 30 years ago, it was $3.00. “We don’t have that now,” said Wright, noting this makes it difficult for farms to continue producing milk for the Class I market in the face of encroaching subdivisions and other pressures to sell.

“There are 9 million people just from Miami to Orlando,” said Wright. “But if we don’t do something soon, we’ll have no dairy farms left in Florida. Do we want the answer to be a push to aseptic milk? Total milk consumption was stable until 2010. That’s when the government gave us low-fat, low-taste milk in schools. Now, we’re going to start them with low-fat, low-taste, aseptic milk? That is going to kill fluid milk.”

He also noted that fluid milk sales are not helped when dairy shelves are empty, showing slide after slide of empty Walmart dairy cases in the same town in Florida in December – three years straight (pre-Covid, during Covid, and post-Covid). When he asked attendees if they have seen this in their own areas, many hands were raised.

He pointed out that when the fresh milk is completely missing on store shelves, it is the aseptic or ESL milk – and plant-based alternatives – that are available. This has a cumulative effect on fresh fluid milk sales.

Again, the topic of aseptic, shelf stable, warehoused milk was brought up with feelings of ambivalence as milk producers are both drawn to it as a hedging mechanism to even-out the supply and demand swings in areas like the Southeast, but on the other hand offended by the prospect that this product can be considered by bottling retailers like Kroger as an innovative “value added” growth category, while the original fresh fluid milk is treated like the Cinderella sister – a low-margin commodity non-growth category.

As more aseptic packaging comes on line, and as schools go without milk and stores short customers on the availability of fresh milk, a transition is being signaled toward packaged milk that is capable of moving farther without refrigeration cost — from anywhere to anywhere – right along with Coke or Pepsi for that matter.

“How do we fix the empty case syndrome that has gotten worse over the years? It’s all about being accountable,” said Wright, giving some history on how this was handled in the past and voicing his hope that having the Dean plants under DFA and Prairie Farms ownership could help.

“Can they push back on Walmart on stocking? I don’t know. There has to be margin in that relationship, but these are correctable problems that affect milk sales,” he said.

For its part, Kroger also closed a plant last year that was running half-full, according to Mike Brown, senior VP of Kroger’s dairy supply chain. 

Milk bottling is consolidating rapidly to run the remaining plants at or above capacity to capitalize on throughput and improve margin.

“The reality,” says Wright, “is we are seeing a downward spiral, and milk is not always available where the people are. The question is, what are we going to do about it?”

Brown noted that the Class I mover formula change, which was an agreement by IDFA and NMPF in the 2018 farm bill, was intended to make fluid milk pricing “more predictable.” This was deemed necessary to attract investment to make fluid milk “more durable and transportable.”

In short, the Class I change was done to attract investment in expensive aseptic packaging to make shelf-stable milk and milk-based high protein beverages. 

Going forward, said Brown: “Risk management is important and especially for specialty products such as extended shelf-life and aseptic milk, which are growing more than the plant-based beverages for Kroger. We have to be sure we nurture these new products because they are value-added growth markets for fluid milk.”

On the other hand, farmers in Kansas City voiced their concern for what happens to fresh fluid milk, that it matters for consumers and it matters for their dairy farms, and it also matters for the continuation of the federal orders. 

Aseptic milk is experiencing growth, but why? Is necessity the mother of invention or is the investment driving the necessity. 

After all, it is the regional and perishable nature of fresh fluid milk that led to the development of the federal orders in the 1930s. Aseptically-packaged and warehoused milk is not fresh enough — and may not be local enough — to be the product that helps extend the viability of the federal orders. 

AFBF milk pricing forum draws 200 stakeholders to KC, some consensus gained, high priority given to return Class I ‘mover’ to ‘higher of’ formula

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, October 21, 2022

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It was intense, productive, enlightening, and at times a bit emotional. And, yes, there was consensus on some key points during the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) Federal Milk Marketing Order (FMMO) Forum in Kansas City last weekend (Oct. 14-16).

The event was a first of its kind meeting of the minds from across the dairy landscape, involving mostly dairy farmers, but also other industry stakeholders. It was planned by a 12-member committee representing state Farm Bureaus from coast-to-coast, working with AFBF economist Danny Munch.

Farm Bureau president Zippy Duvall kicked things off Friday afternoon, urging attendees to get something done for the future of the dairy industry, to stay cool, leave friendly, and set a pattern for continuing conversations.

“We have the people in this room who I hope can come up with guiding principles,” said Duvall, noting that a meeting like this is something he has dreamed about for years, even prayed for. He talked about his background as a former dairy farmer and assured attendees that milk pricing is a topic he is very interested in.

He challenged the group to come at it with “an open mind. The answers are sitting in this room, not on Capitol Hill. There are some geniuses in this room, people who really understand this system,” said Duvall.

“We all have ideas, and we can lend an ear to other ideas. We learn a lot if we listen to each other,” he said, noting a few of the existing Farm Bureau dairy policy principles: that FMMOs should be market oriented, with better price discovery. They should be fair and transparent, and farmers should be able to understand and compare milk checks.

Hearings not legislation

Duvall noted AFBF agrees with NMPF that future FMMO changes should go through the normal USDA hearing process, not through Congressional legislation. By Sunday, this seemed to be a point of consensus, along with the recognition that FMMOs need updating, but they are still vital for farmers and the industry. 

On the Class I ‘mover,’ specifically, Munch noted Farm Bureau already adopted the recommendation through its county, state and national grassroots process to return to the ‘higher of’ — plus 74 cents. The addition of the 74 cents is to make up for the unlimited losses incurred over the past four years.

For NMPF’s part, chief economist Peter Vitaliano and consultant Jim Sleper laid out a series of updates the economic committee’s task force is recommending to the NMPF board, which will vote at the annual meeting at the end of October.

These recommendations include going back to the simple ‘higher of’ for the Class I ‘mover,’ updating make allowances and yield factors, doing a pricing-surface study to update Class I differentials, making changes in the end-product pricing survey to allow dry whey price reporting of sales up to 45 days earlier, not 30 days, and eliminating the 500-pound barrel cheese sales from the Class III cheese price formula to base it only on the block cheese.

Intense, informative, valuable

The three days were intense, covering a lot of information, and were shepherded by expert panels and ‘cat herder in chief’ Roger Cryan, AFBF’s chief economist since October 2021.

Munch served as the emcee — akin to the ghost of milk pricing Past (Friday), Present (Saturday) and Future (Sunday). He introduced the various panels and provided economic snapshots and questions for the 25 breakout tables to discuss, decide and deliver.

Meeting organizers reshuffled the deck of 200 attendees from 36 states and representing nearly 150 state and national producer organizations, Farm Bureau chapters, regulatory agencies, farms, co-ops, processors, financial and risk management firms, and university extension educators.

Attendees were assigned tables with a number on the back of each name tag. The goal was to mix the table-groupings for varied geographic and industry perspectives. Each table was equipped with its own large flip tablet mounted on an easel. 

According to Munch, Farm Bureau will scan and collate the information from all of the large tablets and issue a preliminary report to attendees followed by a public report later this year.

On Sunday, the open microphone was lively and most tables reported from their flip tablets. Overwhelmingly, attendees said they found value in the meeting and appreciated the platform. They reported a desire to keep the conversations going, to do this again, not just every 20 years, and not just in response to a problem, but to be forward-looking with the many challenges on the dairy horizon.

Platform for next big issue

For example, Gretl Schlatter, an Ohio dairy producer on the board of American Dairy Coalition (ADC) noted that only Class I milk is mandated to participate in FMMOs, and that today, the FMMOs are weakened with only 60% of U.S. milk production participating in the revenue-sharing pools.

“Where will we be in five years? We do not want to give up on fluid milk – our nutrition powerhouse,” she said. “The issue now is federal milk pricing but the next one coming — fast — is the sustainability benchmarks, the climate scores. We need to keep meeting like this as an industry, keep talking to each other, and get ready for the next big thing affecting our farms and family businesses.”

This was touched upon by Duvall and others, but Cryan reminded everyone that, “Federal Orders are complicated enough without adding the sustainability discussion to it.”

Duvall reminded attendees that this meeting was Farm Bureau’s response to the words of Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack last year, when he said there would be no USDA hearing until the dairy industry reaches some “consensus” on solutions.

This set into motion an already dairy-active Farm Bureau that had formed its own task force, responding to grassroots dairy policy coming up from the county and state levels to national through AFBF’s grassroots process.

In fact, NMPF’s Vitaliano, noted that, “having Roger Cryan at Farm Bureau makes it easier to do this,” to partner on formulating dairy policy because of his background. Prior to coming to Farm Bureau a year ago, Cryan was an economist for NMPF and then for USDA AMS Dairy Programs.

The first hour of the first day included a recorded message from Secretary Vilsack and an in-person presentation by Gloria Montano Green, USDA deputy undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation.

They encouraged attendees to work together and told them what the Biden-Harris administration has done and is doing for dairy. Primarily, they went through a list of funding and assistance, including the improved Dairy Margin Coverage, the PMVAP payments, Dairy Revenue Protection, Livestock Gross Margin, dairy innovation hub grants and the recent funding for conservation and climate projects that includes 17 funded pilots involving dairy. 

They told attendees that the dairy industry is “far ahead” on climate and conservation because it has been involved in these discussions and is already mapping that landscape.

Dana Coale, deputy administrator of USDA AMS Dairy Programs, took attendees through the FMMO parameters. She engaged with the largely dairy farmer crowd in a frank discussion of what Federal Orders can and cannot do. The headline here is that this current time period before a hearing is a time when she and her staff can talk freely and give opinions. Once a hearing process begins, she and her staff are subject to restrictions on ex parte communications.

Consensus to go back to ‘higher of’ formula

If there was one FMMO “fix” that achieved a clear consensus and was given priority, it was support for going back to the Class I ‘mover’ formula using the ‘higher of’ Class III or IV skim price instead of the current average plus 74 cents method that was changed in the 2018 farm bill.

Since implementation in May 2019 through October 2022, the new method will have cost dairy farmers $868 million in net reduced Class I revenue, which further erodes the mandatory Class I contribution to the uniform pricing among the 11 Federal Milk Marketing Orders (FMMO), setting off a domino effect that has led to massive de-pooling of milk from FMMOs and decreased Federal Order participation.

Pa. Farm Bureau presiden Rick Ebert (left), moderated the first panel Friday afternoon (l-r) Dana Coale, deputy administrator USDA AMS Dairy Programs; Calvin Covington, CEO emeritus, Southeast Milk; Anja Raudabaugh, CEO Western United Dairies. After this panel, during the first open-microphone and roundtable breakout, attendees were urged not to leave their flip tablets blank. “Groups with blank boards will have to drink the almond juice in the back,” said AFBF economist Danny Munch, taking note of the hotel offering and to have real milk on-site — provided Saturday and Sunday by Hiland Dairy.

During his presentation Friday, retired Southeast Milk CEO, Calvin Covington, said dairy farmers lost $69 million in revenue for the first 8 months of post-Covid 2022, alone. That figure will rise to an estimated $200 million when September and October Class I milk pounds are tallied. 

Noting NMPF’s task force recommends the board approve petitioning USDA to go back to the ‘higher of,’ Vitaliano cited “asymmetric risk” as the reason.

This risk scenario was also explained by others. ADC’s Schlatter, for example, noted the current averaging formula “caps the upside at 74 cents, but the downside is unlimited.”

Vitaliano noted that whenever there is a ‘black swan’ event or new and different market factors, this downside risk becomes unacceptable for farmers, and he indicated these market events that create wide spreads in manufacturing classes are likely to continue into the future.

Dr. Marin Bozic, University of Minnesota assistant professor of applied economics, observed the way this downside ‘basis’ risk becomes unmanageable via new and traditional risk management tools. In his futuristic talk on Sunday, producers asked questions, to which he responded that, “Yes, farmers show me that they can’t use the Dairy Revenue Protection because of this basis risk.”

Bozic is also founder and CEO of Bozic LLC developing and maintaining the intellectual property for risk management programs like DRP. 

He also spoke about the concerns of the Midwest as FMMO participation declines. 

Presenting his own ideas and separately the ideas of Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperativ, Bozic said Edge is seeking a consensus to support two or three lines in the upcoming farm bill to simply “enable” FMMO hearings to introduce flexibility on an Order by Order basis, so that uniform benefits can be shared instead of a uniform price. Flexibility, they believe, would enable new ‘uniform benefits’ discussion that can help maintain or encourage FMMO participation in marketing areas with low Class I utilization.

Early in the Class I formula loss scenario of 2020-21, Edge had suggested a new Class III-plus formula to determine the ‘mover.’ Bozic said that “the idea of returning to the ‘higher of’ is not a deal breaker for Edge in the short-term.”

Even Mike Brown, senior supply chain manager for Kroger, unofficially indicated IDFA “could be open to the idea” of reverting back to that previous ‘higher of’ formula. As dairy supply chain manager on everything from Kroger’s milk plants to its new dairy beverages, cheese procurement, and so forth, Brown was asked if the averaging formula allowed him to ‘hedge’ fluid milk to manage risk as a processor.

The answer? Not really. Brown said there are ways for processors to manage risk under the ‘higher of’ formula also, but that they haven’t done any hedging under the averaging formula with fresh fluid milk – and very little risk management with their new aseptically packaged, shelf-stable milks and high protein drinks.

Incidentally, he said, the aseptic, ultrafiltered, shelf-stable dairy beverage category “is growing faster than plant-based” in their retail sales.

This exchange and other discussions suggested the averaging formula may have been geared more toward price stability that would encourage processors to invest in expensive aseptic, ultrafiltered and shelf-stable milk-based beverage technologies that result in a storable product needing risk management. 

Fresh fluid milk is already advance-priced and quite perishable with a fast turnaround. Aseptic, ultrafiltered and shelf-stable products, on the other hand, can be packaged under one set of raw milk pricing conditions and sold to retail or consumers up to nine months later under another set of raw milk pricing conditions.

Frankly, it appears that the consumer-packaged goods companies (CPGs) may be driving such shifts, just as we heard from Phil Plourde of Blimling/Ever.Ag that CPGs are “all-in” on the climate scoring — the next big thing on the dairy challenge list.

Tacking de-pooling – regional or national?

Attendees came back to the specific concern about de-pooling, which Vitaliano and Cryan both described as an issue to be handled regionally and not through a national hearing.

This did not seem to satisfy some who raised the concern. Toward the conclusion Sunday, Cryan explained it this way: 

“De-pooling is a national issue in principle but a regional issue in detail. Every region will have different ideas, needs and situations. If there is consensus (on pooling rules) in a region, then changes could move forward quickly,” he said.

Make allowances are sticky wicket

Attendees appeared to agree that make allowances should be addressed or evaluated through a hearing, but ideas on how to handle this sticky-wicket varied.

Attendees questioned panelists, pointing out that if a farmer’s profit margin on milk is only around $1.00 per hundredweight, then raising make allowances an estimated $1.00 per hundredweight is going to be a tough pill to swallow.

Vitaliano said NMPF is commissioning an economic study with their go-to third-party economist Scott Brown at University of Missouri to show the actual milk check impact of raising make allowances that are embedded into the end-product pricing formulas for the four main products: cheddar, butter, nonfat dry milk and dry whey. 

He said the discussions about make allowances as a cost to farmers are “purely arithmetic” but that the “true impact” is not a straight math calculation. Instead, he said, when make allowances are set appropriately, dairy producers ultimately benefit, so in his opinion, it’s not a penny for penny subtraction.

Several other panelists and attendees observed that processors and cooperatives have been creating their own ‘make allowances’ through assessments, loss of premiums, and other milk check adjustments.

The Saturday afternoon panel of (l-r) Kevin Krentz, Peter Vitaliano, Chris Herlache, and Roger Cryan dove into Class III and IV pricing topics including make allowance formulations and structures.

Vitaliano stressed that when make allowances are set properly, the industry is stronger and better able to compensate producers. Initially, he said, raising make allowances would have a negative impact on expansion, which in turn would have a positive impact on producer prices.

When asked if raising make allowances would mean lost premiums would return to farmer milk checks, he responded by saying “that depends, and it won’t happen right away.”

In other words, raising make allowances will be painful in the short term, but in the long-term (to paraphrase) that pain leads to gain. 

Some panelists and attendees referenced an idea of “phasing in” a future raise in make allowances.

Others wondered why it is necessary with the amount of innovation happening in the 15 years since they were last raised as processors make a wider variety of dairy products – not just those bulk items that are surveyed for end-product pricing formulas.

One idea suggested by a Wisconsin dairy producer was to tie make allowance increases to plant size — much the same way that dairy farmers are only assisted up to a production cap of 5 million annual milk pounds. Cryan said he heard a similar proposal previously to use a graduated scale for make allowance increases according to plant size and presumably age.

This is the crux of the make allowance issue because the new state of the art plants produce many types of products, both commodity and value-added; whereas some of the smaller and older plants that are still vital to the dairy industry are more apt to specialize in producing a bulk commodity with a more limited foray into value-added non-surveyed products.

Modified bloc voting?

While there appeared to be consensus that changes to the FMMOs should be done by USDA petition through the administrative hearing process, not through Congressional legislation, some of the discussion at tables and the open-microphone noted the importance of a producer vote after hearings and USDA final decisions. Many felt farmers should have an individual vote on FMMO changes. 

Currently, cooperatives bloc vote for their members to assure that FMMOs are not ended inadvertently by lack of producer interest in following-through on a vote. 

One compromise suggested by Bozic was to have a preliminary non-binding vote by individual producers, followed by the binding vote done in its usual way.

This, he said, would at least increase accountability and transparency in the FMMO voting process and bring producer engagement into the FMMO hearing process. To be continued

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Dairy checkoff is ‘negotiating’ your future: Train wreck ahead. Stop the train. Correct the track. (DMI Net Zero – Part One)

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, Sept. 16, 2022

Dairy farmers are being used without regard. Their future ability to operate is right now being negotiated, and they are paying those negotiators through their 15-cents-per-hundredweight mandatory checkoff with no idea how the negotiations will ultimately affect their businesses and way of life.

Inflated baselines and an inflated methane CO2 equivalent assigned to cows is setting the stage for a head-on collision, a train wreck on the misaligned track laid by DMI’s Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.

In fact, the Net Zero Initiative has been designed to help everyone but the dairy farmer. It sets up a methane money game for carbon traders at the expense of those dairy farms that have long been environmentally conscious with no-till, cover crops, grazing, and other practices already on their farms.

Such farms will be of no use in what is shaping up to be a focus on harvesting reductions, not attaining neutrality, in DMI’s Net Zero Initiative (NZI).

Small and mid-sized dairy farms that are already at or near carbon-neutral could show smaller reductions for the industry to harvest. 

Conversely, the largest dairies installing the newest biogas systems are realizing even this route could become a dead-end because the credits are signed over and sold for big bucks, a few bucks get kicked back to the dairy, but the methane capture becomes the property of other industries outside of the dairy supply chain.

If the industry does not act now to stop the NZI train for a period of re-examination, adjustment and correction, then the current trajectory may actually move food companies clamoring for reductions ever closer to alternatives and analogs that boast their climate claims solely on the fact that they are produced without cows.

This is a big money game that is operating off the backs of our cows, and the checkoff has been at best complicit as a driver.

RNG (renewable natural gas) operators are signing up large (3000+ cows) dairies left and right for digesters and covered lagoons to capture methane piped to clustered scrubbing facilities to be turned into renewable fuel for vehicles or electricity generation. Meanwhile dairy protein analogs are being created without cows by ‘precision fermentation’ startups partnering with the largest global dairy companies.

In turn, millions if not billions of dollars in carbon credits are generated while farmers and their milk buyers will be left figuring out how to show their reductions when they are left holding the inflated methane bag.

Six organizations, four of them non-profits under the DMI umbrella, officially launched the Net Zero Intitiative (NZI) in the fall of 2019, five months after Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack made headlines talking about it in a Senate hearing while he was pulling down a million-dollar salary as a DMI executive in 2018.

NZI is the proclaimed vehicle for negotiating the terms for U.S. Dairy to continue, terms based on showing carbon reductions that many family farms may find difficult to meet — especially if the farm is already at or close to carbon neutral.

As DMI’s sustainability negotiators data-collect all previous reductions into farm-by-farm comprehensive baseline estimates, where will those farms find new reductions? 

According to DMI staff, over 2000 dairy farms have already gone through their environmental stewardship review via the FARM program to establish their “comprehensive estimates.”

The six organizations, four of them filing IRS 990s under the national dairy checkoff, that launched NZI are: Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC) and Newtrient, along with the other two organizations being National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), and International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA).

They have collectively bought-into the global definition that inflates the CO2 equivalent used for methane, effectively committing the cow to perpetual GHG purgatory. 

Because the NZI structure is based on continually showing GHG reductions, no farm is insulated with a get-out-of-jail-free-key — not even the largest farms with the most advanced biogas systems.

Why haven’t checkoff funds been used to defend the cow – to get the numbers right, to get the current practices farmers have invested in counted toward reductions not baselines, and to get the methane CO2 equivalent correct — instead of giving in to this notion that feels an awful lot like ‘cows are bad and we are committed to making them better?’

Perhaps it was ignored or embraced because this inflated methane CO2 equivalent gives the suite of tech tools being assembled by DMI’s Newtrient a bigger runway to show reductions — a money maker for the RNG biogas companies and others that will in many cases end up owning the carbon credits after paying the farmer a nominal fee. 

Carbon trading rose 164% last year to $851 billion, according to a Reuters January 2022 report. A big chunk of this is coming from the methane capture and fossil fuel replacement of RNG biogas projects, mostly in California but popping up elsewhere at a rapid rate and mostly traded on the California exchange.

Farmers are getting some money for these projects, but they don’t own the carbon credits once they are sold or signed over. When they are sold outside of the dairy supply chain, this reduction becomes someone else’s property, so it is no longer part of the dairy farm’s footprint nor the footprint of their milk buyer. 

Likewise, this inflated methane equivalent — along with the emphasis on reductions, not neutrality — has some processors wondering if they’ll be able to come up with the Scope 3 reductions they need in ESG scoring.

They are facing upstream pressure from retailers and consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies as well as asset managers to show reductions, and they have counted on big numbers from their Scope 3 suppliers, the dairy farms.

The problem for dairy processors and dairy farmers comes down to the central definitions of methane equivalent and carbon asset ownership — the rights of farmers to own their past, present and future reductions, whether or not they’ve signed them over as offsets to a milk buyer or a project investor and whether or not they’ve sold the resulting credits on a carbon exchange, and whether or not they’ve installed new practices that are now part of a baseline but represent a new investment every year as they operate their businesses.

Back in June, the American Dairy Coalition added this concern to their list of federal milk pricing priorities because of the impact this climate and carbon tracking will have on milk buying and selling relationships and contracts — and the lack of clarity or fairness in this deal for essential food producers at the origination point that is closest to nature, the farm. 

ADC worded their “carbon asset ownership” priority this way: “No matter where a dairy farm’s milk is processed, that farm should be able to retain 100% ownership at all times of its earned and achieved carbon assets, even if this information is shared with milk buyers to describe the resulting products that are made from the milk.”

For its part, IDFA took a swing last Friday, going one step farther to recommend global accounting methods that would allow the dairy supply chain (farmers and processors) to retain carbon credits even if they are sold on a carbon exchange or signed over to an asset company that invested in an on-farm technology. 

IDFA executives penned the Sept. 9 opinion piece in Agri-Pulse laying out the concerns of their members who are starting to realize the future consequences of the rapid and inflated monetization of methane — and the race to sell carbon credits — leaving dairy processors unable to get those credits they were counting on from the farms that supply them with milk, while at the same time being stuck facing the cow’s inflated methane CO2 equivalent in their downstream Scope 3 even while they try to get reductions in their own controlled areas of Scopes 1 and 2.

When dairy farms no longer own their reduction or cannot show a large reduction because they are already virtually neutral, processors become concerned about how they will gain the Scope 3 reductions that are part of the ESG scoring the large retailers and global food companies are pushing. 

All of this has come down through the non-governmental organizations like World Wildlife Fund (WWF), investment and asset management sector via the World Economic Forum (WEF), the global corporate structures through the Sustainability Roundtable and through government entities via the United Nations Agenda 2030. DMI has been at those tables for at least 14 years.

“It is becoming clearer every day that the global accounting standards underpinning GHG measurement and reporting are biased against the very people making the (GHG) reductions,” the IDFA executives wrote in their opinion.

In other words, while some farmers are beginning to profit from GHG-reducing practices that are turned into offsets and traded on the carbon markets, the system is tilted against them because it leaves them without the offsets they traded and leaves them in a position of having to continually reduce in order to secure a position in the value chain.

IDFA points out that under the current rules, once the offset is sold outside of the value chain as a carbon credit – it is gone. The current GHG accounting system says only the buyer of that reduction can claim ownership.

Those farms can no longer claim their own reduction, and it means the company buying milk or other commodities from a producer cannot integrate the reduction into the description of their final product.

This weakens U.S. Dairy, the IDFA opinion states, and it makes dairy farmers less competitive sources of pledge-meeting carbon reductions for retailers and manufacturers – setting real dairy up for fake dairy dilution with the inclusion of whey proteins and other pieces of milk that are being produced in fermentation vats by genetically modified yeast, fungi and bacteria, as well as other analogs.

A bigger problem not mentioned in the IDFA opinion may be the inflated baselines that leave farms that have implemented best practices years ago positioned to show smaller reductions.

While the American Farm Bureau earlier this year lobbied against proposed SEC accounting intrusions for quantifying ESG scoring, it has been silent on the issue of carbon asset ownership for food producers. AFBF has also said little about the recently signed climate bill (Inflation Reduction Act).

National Milk Producers Federation, on the other hand, as reported last week, sang its praises for being right in line with where the industry’s Net Zero Initiative is going.

DMI voices its pride to have been leading the way, positioning its Innovation Center as founded by dairy farmers. They have conceded that dairy farms impact the environment and launched NZI as a collective pledge to reduce that impact.

In other words, DMI submitted to the idea that cows impact the environment, but never fear, through NZI, the Innovation Center and Newtrient, farmers will make them better, and turn them into a climate solution.

This is a fool’s errand given the inflated methane equivalent and the movement of carbon reductions to entities outside of the dairy supply chain such as paper mills, bitcoin miners, and the fossil fuel industry.

Did dairy farmers have a say in any of this? Not really. They were kept in the dark as this was developed over the past decade or more, and the boards representing them on the six organizations that launched NZI (four of them under the checkoff umbrella) have been duped.

Farmers are largely unaware of the NZI train, and their silence as it runs down the track becomes a further signal to the industry and to the government that they approve of the track they are on.

As the industry sits at this crossing, the Net Zero train full of dairy farmer passengers is barreling high speed down the track DMI has laid.

This train must be stopped because the future-bound track needs to be re-examined, adjusted and re-aligned so that the passengers are not ejected by the train wreck – the accelerated consolidator — that lies ahead.

Fundamentals must be vigorously revisited. Every passenger on that train, every dairy farm, must be recognized as an essential food producer, get credit for their prior investment in current practices, and be able to retain ownership of their carbon assets as part of their farm’s footprint — even if these assets have been provided, sold or signed over as offsets to milk buyers or project investors or traders on an exchange.

Furthermore, this train – built with farmer dollars – should protect the so-called founding farmers from being denied a market based on the size of their GHG reductions. If a carbon neutral farm can’t show reductions to its milk buyer, will that buyer look for other downstream vendors who can fulfill their Scope 3 reduction needs?

Will those vendors be other farms with larger perceived GHG reductions or will they be alternative analogs created without cows?

Nestle announced this week it is partnering with Perfect Day toward that end. In fact, the proliferation of plant-based, cell cultured, DNA-altered microbe excrement analogs for dairy protein and other elements are entering the market on big GHG reduction claims based on being made without the cow and the inflated methane CO2 equivalent she has been assigned!

The current standard for methane CO2 equivalency is inflated by orders of magnitude. Dr. Frank Mitloehner has addressed this repeatedly and other researchers back his view with efforts to change it.

As Mitloehner and others point out, climate neutrality should be the goal, not net-zero. Furthermore, the current methane CO2 equivalent is calculated based only on the much greater warming effect of methane vs. CO2. However, the current calculation does not account for the fact that methane is short-lived in Earth’s atmosphere — about 10 years compared with 100 to 100 years for CO2 and other GHG. It also does not account for the cow’s role in the biogenic carbon cycle.

Remember, DMI and company have ignored or embraced this definition. At the same time, the Innovation Center’s data collection of progressive accomplishments are included in the baselines from which new reductions (opportunities) must be found.

These two trains run in opposite directions for a future head-on collision on a mis-aligned track. 

The bigger the perceived GHG problem, the bigger the reduction through technology, and the bigger the monetization of that reduction outside of the dairy supply chain. At the same time, this creates an even bigger problem for farms that are unable to participate in biogas projects, farms that don’t fit the Innovation Center’s 3500-cow-dairy-as-solution template, farms that may be carbon neutral or close to it already.

DMI and company have played fast and loose with the truth. 

Farmshine readers will recall the glaring error reported more than a year ago in the white paper written by WWF for DMI. It showcased these biogas projects and the 3500-cow dairy template it proclaimed could be Net Zero in five years, not 30. 

That paper inflated U.S. Dairy’s total GHG footprint by an order of magnitude! A Pennsylvania dairy farmer brought the error to Farmshine’s attention. In turn, the magnitude of the error was confirmed by Dr. Mitloehner who then contacted DMI. A corrected copy of the white paper magically replaced all internet files with no discussion from DMI or WWF. That number was changed, but all of the assumptions in the paper were left as-is.

Put simply: DMI does not appear to be concerned about inflating the size of dairy’s perceived GHG problem. The bigger the perceived problem, the bigger the reduction that can be monetized, but that is now happening outside of the dairy supply chain. 

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Vilsack is de facto architect as Climate Bill dovetails with DMI Net Zero

Methane tax exempts agriculture, for now… Meanwhile the energy sector impact will affect farm cost of production

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, Sept. 9, 2022

WASHINGTON — Make no mistake about it, the dairy industry via DMI’s Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy — is and has been moving toward a future that rank-and-file dairy farmers have had no real voice in and in many cases are just waking up to.

From the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) meetings at Davos to the UN COP26, high-ranking DMI staff have been at the table

In fact, the current U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack, who President Biden credited for writing the agricultural piece of his Build Back Better campaign platform (same tagline used by the WEF), was the first to announce a Net Zero Initiative during a Senate climate hearing in June of 2019 while he was at the time the highest paid dairy checkoff executive at DMI before round-two as Ag Secretary.

When news of DMI’s Net Zero Initiative spread, farmers were told this would be voluntary, and that DMI was making sure companies understood that it has to be profitable for the farms.

But it is rapidly becoming apparent that requests for on-farm data from milk buyers and co-ops, guidelines for environmental practices under the FARM program are voluntarily mandatory through the member co-ops of National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) and the privately owned plants that join the alliance and pledge get on board the Net Zero train.

All of this dovetails neatly with the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) passed by Congress and signed by President Biden in August. Loosely referred to as ‘the climate bill’, NMPF is “thumbs up” on the deal, calling it “a milestone for dairy” as the industry “moves forward.”

(Others in-the-know who wish to remain anonymous call these billions a ‘slush fund’ for Secretary Vilsack.)

During the past 12 to 14 years, DMI has portrayed itself as representing U.S. dairy farmers (because after all, every U.S. dairy farmer pays into DMI, mandatorily by law of course). All the while plotting, planning, partnering and aligning with World Wildlife Fund using the middle of the supply chain as the leverage point to move consumers and farmers to where they want them to go.

They are proud to be working to “get you money” for what you are doing for the environment.

What we hear now is the manure technology and sustainability that checkoff dollars are used to promote brings new income streams to the dairy farm so they are less reliant on the volatile milk price. 

We are told that dairy farmers will make money from manure, from farming the carbon markets, perhaps even farming new climate-related USDA programs some of the $20 billion “for agriculture” will be spent on. 

According to NMPF, this is right in line with where the dairy industry is moving and “supports” the industry’s Net Zero Initiative and “other pledges.”

What pledges?

Did you, Mr. and Mrs. Dairy Producer pledge to do something or agree on the value and cost?

The government is making these pledges in global treaties. The industry as a collective whole through this DMI Innovation Center is making pledges to the investment bankers and global companies who are driving the monetization of climate through ESG — Environmental, Social and Governmental benchmarks.

This all has a very “contractual” feel to it – something that must be measured and recorded and monitored and reported, something that includes various scopes from the center point of one’s business to all of its downstream vendors.

There has been little if any open discussion of parameters, of value, of costs and of consequences. 

There has been little if any democratic process to determine pledge participation. This ESG-driven change is happening at a quickening pace all while most of us don’t know what the acronym stands for, what it means, what it entails, how it is measured, what is its value, who will profit from it, what it will truly accomplish, and how much consolidation it will create of the already consolidating market power in food and energy.

Control of carbon is what we are talking about here, and that means control of life itself.

University of Minnesota economist Marin Bozic mentioned this concern when questioned by members of the House Ag Committee at the farm bill dairy hearing in June.

Processors talked about the ESGs and the downstream impacts of businesses dealing with “Scope 3”. Members of Congress wanted to understand the impact on family farms, and Bozic was asked for his observations.

“In solving the climate, we should not allow the pace of consolidation to pick up in the dairy industry,” he responded.

“Congress should look to the industry for advice on how to make sure smaller family farms are not left behind in implementing the (sustainability) requirements they will need to meet to remain in business. Some of these technologies work better when you have more animals to spread fixed costs over more (cattle),” Bozic observed.

When this question came up a third time in Bozic’s direction, he took another swing, encouraging the House Ag Committee to “help the smaller farms meet these standards that the processors will require over the next 5 to 7 years as far as sustainability. It may be more difficult for some of them to meet that, and I would hate to see increased consolidation pace because of the sustainability standards.”

Does the IRA package do that? A deeper dive is required to fully answer that question. So far, there hasn’t been much open discussion about how these ‘standards’ will affect the farms and how much of these funds go to support vs. monitoring.

Industry insiders from processing to marketing have complained anonymously that they are concerned about what the retailers are expecting, what the largest processors are moving toward.

Some of it seems illogical and counter-productive, they say. All of it is being decided in boardrooms and back hallways – not in an open forum, not in a democracy.

Take for example NMPF’s proclamation that the IRA (climate bill) now signed into law is good for the industry, that the methane tax it includes is harmless and will not affect farmers.

Really? What parallel universe are industry executives living in?

Farms – especially dairy farms – are some of the biggest downstream users of fuel and fertilizer producing nutrient-dense food. If those companies are taxed for methane emissions, with graduated scales based on meeting pledges, farmers downstream from that will be incorporated into these pledged targets.

Who among us believes this won’t affect fuel and energy costs on the dairy farm? How will this impact decisions made about milk transportation, even though farmers pay for the hauling of their milk, ultimately. What are the downstream impacts of this tax? 

Congressional staffers admit the downstream impacts have yet to be calculated, but it has been passed into law.

There’s an even bigger question lurking in the smoke from that backroom where deals are made.

Reading through the Congressional Research Service explanation of the IRA package it’s clear that whether the methane tax does or does not pertain to agriculture is – well – unclear, and highly subjective.

There is zero language to ‘carve out’ an exemption for agriculture and food production. What the language does say is that the methane tax applies to fuel and energy sourced methane emissions because these industries are already required to be monitored for these emissions, and to report them.

Surprise.

Some of the $20 billion in the IRA “for agriculture” will go to EPA and USDA to ‘support’ methane reducing practices – but also to monitor them and develop reporting consistency.

Once measuring, monitoring and reporting of methane emissions occurs consistently in agriculture, it is a small step by a future President or EPA head to slip agricultural methane emissions into the scope of the now passed-into-law methane tax.

Again, no carve-out language in that bill, no specifically mentioned exemption for agriculture or for cattle.

However, interest is growing as a hearing in the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Sept. 7 dug into this a bit.

Scott VanderHal, American Farm Bureau Federation vice president was among those testifying Wednesday. The hearing pertained to a series of ‘protective’ bills for everything from livestock to motorsports in terms of the Clean Air Act through which emissions monitoring and reporting falls.

Interest is now even higher for bills like S. 1475 to protect livestock operations from permits being granted based on emissions. This now takes on a whole new meaning when contemplating a methane tax in the IRA package that is – for now – limited to industries that are monitored and required to report.

Expect to see stepped up interest from Farm Bureau as the methane tax falls into EPA’s warm embrace.

In conversations with congressional staffers, it’s also clear that new leadership in Washington, a new Congress, a new President, can make some changes to executive orders that have come to pass under the current administration, but changing the laws that have passed in this Congress will be more difficult.

However, the scope of the implementation process for the IRA funding (2023-26) will be greatly influenced by the 2023 Farm Bill reauthorization. Those funds will not have been spent yet, and can be rescinded or reallocated by Congress to other areas within the 2023 Farm Bill.

These laws are open to interpretation, so the executive branch has the power to take things in a positive or negative direction where agriculture is concerned.

What does all of this mean for dairy farmers?

First, it is possible that a portion of the $20 billion for agriculture and the environment will fund good programs that are positive for farmers and the environment. But at the same time, look at where the emphasis has been on the part of NMPF and the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy under DMI’s umbrella. 

The emphasis is on revenue streams for dairy farms from something other than milk. The emphasis is on digesters and renewable energy. The emphasis can also be on regenerative agriculture, but this is an area that doesn’t produce much profit for others, so will it gain traction?

What happens when these government billions and industry / checkoff pledges become embedded at the farm level? What happens to the farms of the small to mid-sized scale under 3000 cows that are not going to be able to capitalize on the California goldrush to RNG fuels from methane digesters?

As good as digester technology can be in the situations where it provides positives – it is not the panacea, and it leaves most of today’s dairy producers on the sidelines from a revenue standpoint, while setting a standards bar that they may or may not be able to reached by other means – and should they have to honor these pledges they did not make?

In many cases, obtaining a milk market may rely upon participation in these pledges, which means small to mid-sized processors outside of the 800-lb gorilla are beginning to sit up and take notice too.

Yes. This most definitely impacts dairy. The industry via DMI and NMPF and their partners say dairy is moving forward to embrace the Vilsack ‘slush fund’ the Congress and President Biden have made available. They call it a partnership.

Instead of government rules, you, Mr. and Mrs. Dairy Producer are getting government help, support and partnership. You are getting a government that sees the value in what you are doing and will pay you for it. 

That’s what we are being told, but we aren’t being told about the monitoring and reporting and the consequences thereafter.

NMPF says the $20 billion for agriculture in the IRA will assist and support and partner with farmers to value their sustainability. That is all well and good until the carrot transforms into a stick. It all depends on where the drivers of the pledges are going.

Can we please have an open discussion of the pledges before making them?

My advice for farmers? Do what is good and right for your farm, for your community, your animals, the environment around you, within your means, and yes, government programs that help cost-share a beneficial practice are a good thing, a win-win.

But when the talk turns into pledges and deadlines and terms that sound contractual, beware. 

When asked for proprietary information about your farm, ask the asker how it will be used and what its value is. Ask for this in writing. Don’t sign anything without taking time to understand it or have an attorney perhaps review it.

When you are asked tough questions about your farm, ask the questioner tough questions about why they want to know.

Be polite, engage in a discussion, and make them explain it. Then tell them you’ll want to think it over. 

President Ronald Reagan said it best. “The top nine most terrifying words in the English Language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”

As much as we may want to believe the collective “they” are here to help, take nothing for granted.

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Despite frustrations, G.T. is not giving up on ending federal prohibition of whole milk in schools

After his whole milk in schools amendment failed on a committee-level party-line vote in August, G.T. Thompson said he’s not giving up, but that a change in leadership is needed to get this done. “Current leadership has an anti-kid, anti-dairy bias. This has become all politics with no logic,” he said.
Bills that would end federal prohibition of whole milk in schools are before the United States Congress and in the Pennsylvania and New York state legislatures. In the U.S. House there are 95 cosponsors. In the Pennsylvania House, it was passed almost unanimously, but the PA Senate refuses to run it because of lunch money scare tactics. Proponents of the various whole milk bills say Democrat party leaders oppose this common sense measure. Some Democrat lawmakers have signed on along with the Republicans as cosponsors; however, as the fight to include it as an amendment in childhood nutrition reauthorization proved — the Democratic leadership has another agenda for America’s foods and beverages and has therefore halted any movement of this measure to end federal prohibition of whole milk in schools and in daycares and in WIC. This bill is simply about allowing a choice that would be healthy for America’s children and rural economy. The evidence is overwhelming that the Dietary Guidelines and Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act got it wrong. Our children and farmers are paying the price for this mistake. Those in charge don’t seem to care about science, freedom of choice, nor petitions signed by tens of thousands of people.

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, August 5, 2022

WASHINGTON, D.C. — An attempt by Congressman Glenn “G.T.” Thompson (R-Pa.) to get his Whole Milk for Healthy Kids bill attached as part of an amendment to the Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization package failed last week despite the bill having nearly 100 cosponsors, including both Republicans and Democrats.

Joining him in introducing the amendment during the Committee’s markup of the Democrat’s child nutrition reauthorization were Representatives Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), Fred Keller (R-Pa.) and Russ Fulcher (R-Idaho).

“Unfortunately, the Democrats folded on us, and the amendment was defeated,” said Thompson in a Farmshine phone interview Tuesday (Aug. 2). The amendment also included language that would have allowed whole milk for mothers and children over age 2 enrolled in the WIC program.

“The current leadership has an anti-kid, anti-dairy bias, that’s my interpretation,” Thompson said. “Our whole milk provisions are good for youth and their physical and cognitive well-being. It’s also good for rural America.”

Thompson said his effort as a member of the House Committee on Education and Labor was to include the substance of two bills related to whole milk in the huge reauthorization package. Child nutrition reauthorization is normally a five-year cycle, but it has not been updated in over a decade since the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act passed under a Democrat majority in 2010 to double-down on anti-fat policies in all government feeding programs, including schools.

“We wanted moms and children to get access to the best milk, but this has become all politics with no logic,” he said.

The Committee moved the child nutrition package forward last week without the whole milk provisions. That package will now go to the full House for a vote.

Thompson said its fate is uncertain, that it is likely to pass the House, although the margins are tighter there, he explained. 

However, he believes the child nutrition package will be “dead on arrival” in the Senate where it likely will not receive the 60 votes needed to pass.

If that happens, then the task of writing it would begin again in the next legislative session (2023-24).

“Our best hope (of getting the whole milk provisions for schools and WIC) is for Republicans to take back the majority in November,” said Thompson, explaining that he is already working with Ranking Member Virginia Foxx, a Republican from North Carolina. “She understands the issue and knows this is one of my top priorities.”

If Republicans gain a House majority in the midterm elections, Foxx is a likely candidate for chair of Education and Workforce, and Thompson would be a senior member of that committee as well as being a likely candidate for chair of the House Agriculture Committee, where he is currently the Ranking Member.

In fact, he said he is “very positive” about being successful getting Whole Milk for Healthy Kids out of committee under Republican leadership and is already working hard to ensure its success out of the full House, pending who is in leadership after the midterms.

Thompson said he is also working on allies in the Senate.

Up until now, it has been the outgoing Senator from Pennsylvania – Pat Toomey – who has “carried the milk” on this issue with companion legislation in the Senate.

“His bill impressed me in how he and his team thought through the issue on fat limits that are imposed on our nutrition professionals in schools,” said Thompson, taking note for future reintroductions of his bill.

On the House side, the Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization originates in the Education and Workforce Committee, but in the Senate the package originates in the Agriculture Committee.

Thompson notes that if the Republicans have a majority in the Senate, the current Ranking Member of the Ag Committee, John Boozman of Arkansas, is a likely candidate for chair. Boozman, who previously served in the U.S. House and was a mentor to Thompson. Today, they are the Ag Ranking Members in the two chambers and work closely on issues important to farmers and ranchers.

Back in 2018, when Thompson was asked at a farm meeting why his first introduction of the Whole Milk for Healthy Kids did not pass when Republicans did have a majority in the House and Senate in the 2017-18 legislative session, Thompson noted that National Milk Producers Federation, at that particular time, supported a more gradual shift to first codify the permission for 1% flavored milk then work up to the whole milk provision. 

When asked the question again after his amendment failed, he reflected, noting that in the 2017-18 legislative session, the school milk issue was not well-understood in either chamber of Congress. Then Secretary of Agriculture had made an executive decision to provide flexibility for schools to serve 1% flavored milk instead of limiting it to fat-free. But a bill to codify that change into law has also failed to pass in its three attempts as well. 

It’s not hard to believe that members of Congress do not understand this issue — given the fact that it has taken many years and much grassroots education effort to open even the eyes of parents to the school milk issue. Today, many parents are still unaware that their children over age two at 75% of daycares and 95% of schools (any that receive any federal dollars) do not have the option of drinking whole and 2% milk. Their only milk options by federal prohibition are 1% and fat-free. People just don’t believe it to be true and figure the problem kids have with milk at school is because it’s not chilled enough or comes in a hard to open carton.

In the current effort to get whole milk provisions into the child nutrition reauthorization, however, Thompson confirmed that in addition to the Grassroots PA Dairy Advisory Committee and 97 Milk effort —  “all major dairy organizations were working on this.”

Put simply, said Thompson, if the Republicans gain a majority in November, they are likely to be the ones who will write the next child nutrition package. As the one written recently by the Democrats is headed to the full House and has a tough-go in the Senate, Thompson said even if it does pass, targeted legislative fixes could be achieved in the next legislative session, pending a change in leadership.

“My goal is to work hard. The package that is going to the House now under the Democrats not only does not include whole milk provisions, it continues to micromanage school nutrition professionals who are the ones who know the kids the best and are in the best position to know how to help them eat in a healthy way,” said Thompson.

“Under the current (Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010) and this update — if it passes — kids aren’t eating the lunches. If they are not eating the meals (or drinking the milk), then it is not nutritious,” he added.-30-

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Bishop family starts new chapter at Bishcroft Farm, large herd dispersal of 1500 head Sept. 1 and 2

With mixed emotions as they transition away from dairy at Bishcroft Farm are Herman and Marianne Bishop flanked on the left by Tim and Anne and their children (from left) Thomas, Esther, Jim and Elizabeth and on the right by Rich and Nikki and their children (from left) Peter, George, and Bethany (not pictured).

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, August 19, 2022

ROARING BRANCH, Pa. — It is likely to be the largest dairy herd dispersal in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania when the Bishop family has their two-day auction of 1500 head on September 1st and 2nd at Bishcroft Farm here in Roaring Branch, Tioga County.

The sale is managed by Fraley Auction Company, Muncy.

The Bishops have been dairying 83 years across three generations. Herman and Marianne are in their 75th year of membership with Land O’Lakes and were recently recognized for that milestone. They operate the farm in partnership with sons Tim and his wife Anne and Rich and his wife Nikki and are transitioning toward a more flexible future, while leaving open the option that another generation may want to milk cows on a smaller scale someday.

The closed commercial herd of sire-identified, AI-bred Holsteins is attracting interest with 580 first and second lactation out of the 750 total milking and dry cows selling Thursday (Sept. 1) and the 750 heifers selling Friday (Sept. 2), ranging 4 months old to springing, with 100 heifers due from sale time through December.

The herd makes an RHA of 26,146M 1021F 797P with somatic cell count averaging 138,000 on the sale cattle.

The sale list will note whether cows are bred to beef or sexed semen Holstein.

They started with Angus beef-on-dairy three to four years ago, primarily on the cows that weren’t settling — resulting in those genetics leaving the herd, Rich explains.

They use Holstein sires on the cows that are daughters from higher net merit bulls, and all bred heifers are due to Holstein sires with 90% to sexed semen, the Bishops confirm. Two-year-olds are also bred first service to sexed semen with a high percentage due to sexed-semen.

The Bishops are keeping all crossbred cattle and all calves under four months of age to raise and sell at breeding age, as they have forage to use up.

“We’re also keeping the bottom end of the cows to continue milking 100 to 150 head for a while,” Rich explains. That is until their valuable production base with Land O’Lakes is sold. 

“Our base is listed on the Land O’Lakes website and must transfer through their system, but they don’t set the prices,” he explains. “The buyer and seller negotiate the price and quantity with a 1000-pound daily base minimum transaction.”

Bishcroft currently ships a trailer load of milk every 21 hours. They have worked hard to manage their production to their daily base of 64,352 pounds of milk, which can only be sold to existing Land O’Lakes members.

During a recent Farmshine visit, Rich’s son Peter, 13, was the one to say he’ll really miss the dairy cows.

“He’s never known anything different,” says Nikki. “He fed the calves with me since he was a toddler.”

At the time of the sale, the Bishops are milking 750 cows 3x, having peaked in January milking 820. They have always milked 3x, even experimenting with 4x, seeing 7 to 8 pounds of additional milk per cow, but finding it unsustainable in terms of labor.

The Bishops observe that smaller dairies and more diversified farms have more flexibility to navigate changes in weather patterns, markets, labor and policies.

“I don’t see ever going back to milking a large herd here,” says Rich. “Maybe a small herd. Maybe Peter will want to do something like that with direct-to-consumer sales. But I don’t see going back to what we have today.”

At Ag Progress Days last week, a panel of experts said Pennsylvania is the state with the second largest volume of direct-to-consumer sales of farm products. A relationship with consumers holds some appeal for the Bishops as they transition into cash cropping with some beef on the side and a limited amount of pork as well.

The Bishops have always strived to be near the top of the dairy pack. Progressive and forward-thinking, the brothers participated in industry conferences and geared decisions toward cow comfort, productivity, quality and efficiency.

In fact, that’s something they’ll miss most — the friends they would regularly see at dairy industry meetings. 

“Things aren’t what they used to be,” says Tim.

“We see this developing to where larger herds like ours have to be in the top 10 to 20% or we are going backward,” Rich observes. “Dad is almost 77, and he’s doing the majority of the feeding. Tim and I want to spend more time with our families off the farm, and it’s getting harder to attract and keep employees that are willing to work these hours or to make enough money in dairy here to pay the wages and overtime competing with what is happening in New York State.”

The milk price jump of 50% this year was welcome relief after six years of tight margins and uncertainty. That’s when the Bishops really took stock of their position and decided to invest differently.

When asked how it feels to see the herd being sold, Herman, the patriarch, replied: “This is no different than what I did in 1970 when I increased my dad’s herd.

“It’s the way it goes. We made a change in 2004 and 2005 for another generation, not for me. I had a registered herd of 150 cows. We did a lot of research. The boys went and looked at 60 farms. They built this and expanded the herd (from 150 to 350 and from 350 to 650 and from 650 to 800). We changed things for the times, and that’s what’s happening now, a change for another generation,” Herman explains.

Rumors have run rampant, but the simple truth is this: The families are transitioning to options they see as more flexible and less stressful. 

They began transitioning their cropping this spring, knowing they wouldn’t need the same mix of crops and forages. They had already been doing trial work for Syngenta. They started looking into utilizing the freestall facilities for beef to some extent, maybe converting to a bedded pack. They’ll still make some hay, but their investments now are in equipment for cash cropping the 1450 acres of land they own and rent.

They planted soybeans for the first time and handled the cover crops differently, harvesting some as small grains, and burning a lot of it down as ‘green manure’ fertilizer to minimize their need for purchased fertilizer.

This will also be their first year combining corn, Tim explains, noting that on-farm grain storage is something they are looking at as they planned to go to Empire Farm Days the day after our visit.

In fact, the brothers note the higher milk price this year allowed them to make some crop equipment investments from cash flow.

As the Bishops raise and feed-out their beef-on-dairy crossbreds, they realize they have a learning curve ahead of them if they move further into beef production.

“We hope to do some direct-to-consumer sales,” says Tim, “feed some of these cattle and bring in a few pigs, even look at doing a truck patch (garden).”

Nikki says the family has always taken time to educate and advocate with the community of consumers around them. Tim’s youngest daughter is a Little Miss U.S. Agriculture, and Nikki fields questions constantly from her colleagues where she works at a local hospital. They want to know where their food comes from.

“People are curious. I have explained cattle rations, comparing it to the ‘ages and stages’ diets we have for kids (at the hospital). The response I would get is ‘that sounds like complicated hard work, why don’t you just buy milk at the store like everyone else?’” Nikki relates.

“These are educated people, and they didn’t quite get it until I explained that if they went to Weis Markets, the milk they were buying might be ours!”

She also tells the story from a few years back when fellow nurses saw the rBST-free pledge on the little milk chugs in the hospital cafeteria and started asking what it was because they thought they were going to win a ‘free rBST.’

While young Peter said several times that he’ll miss the cows, others in the family said they’ll miss the fresh milk.

“We might have to keep a few to milk for ourselves and to have milk to feed to the pigs,” says Tim.

“Excited and nervous” were the two words he used to describe the transition ahead.

“It is nerve-wracking but also feels a little like seeing a bit of light at the end of the tunnel,” Rich adds, noting the stress that comes with price volatility and labor issues will now flip to adjusting to managing cash flow without the regularity of a milk check.

The children are still adjusting to the news, having learned of the decision just a few weeks before our visit.

Some have favorite cows they’ve grown and shown that will have to stay, but Rich also notes none of the kids were “dying to milk cows,” and if they decide they want to do that, some assets are here they can put to use on a smaller scale.

“We have ideas and thoughts about how to utilize what we have differently, but we want to walk before we run,” he says.

Toward that end, the brothers are participating in seminars and looking at beef programs that are coming along. Their main focus will be low input, feeding the current beef-on-dairy crossbreds, raising the 120 heifer calves under 4 months of age they are retaining to breeding age, seeing how the sale goes, maybe looking at buying some feeder cattle… Time will tell as they look and learn and adjust.

“When you realize what a huge world God has created and we’re out here trying to feed the world, you realize how fortunate you are to live here and to be farming,” says Tim.As Herman affirms, this is another chapter in the story:

“The farm and the family are here. As for the future, we never know what it brings.”

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Why did PMMB go after raw milk farms for Milk Dealer licenses? Small farm bottlers push back, PMMB puts further licensing ‘on hold’

When Lone Oak shared their public post to customers on facebook that their raw milk and chocolate milk would no longer be available at Back to Nature, they encouraged their customers in Indiana, Pennsylvania to come the extra 20 miles to the farm in Marion Center. The response was overwhelming. They chose to only sell their milk at the farm after being notified by PMMB about needing an intrusive Milk Dealer’s license on top of the PDA permit, inspections and testing they already do. Small processors are pushing back, and PMMB has put licensing of small processors on hold as it evaluates what to do. Facebook photo

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, August 19, 2022

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Calls and mailings from the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board to small dairy farms processing and selling their very own milk — including those that are permitted by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to sell raw milk — are stirring up a hornet’s nest .

The context of the communications was to get these very small processors to fill out the intrusive applications for Milk Dealer’s licenses, to pay the flat fee, and to do the ongoing monthly milk accountant reporting and calculate and further pay their 6 cents per hundredweight on sales.

To most, this made no sense, given these farms do not purchase milk from other farmers. They do their own pricing based on their expenses — always well above the state-mandated retail minimum — and many are selling raw milk, which is not a general or interstate commerce item.

In the case of raw milk, these producers operate outside of the Federal Milk Marketing Orders, so why is the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board (PMMB) coming after them for a Milk Dealer’s license? And why now? Could it have something to do with the bill seeking to collect over-order premium and pool it and pay it to producers directly so that the big players can’t continue to strand some of that premium?

Think about it. The PMMB doesn’t license entities doing cross-border sales of packaged milk whether it was produced in-state or out-of-state to follow the money, but they want small raw milk farms to be licensed Milk Dealers? Something isn’t right.

To their credit, however, the pushback from raw milk producers and citizens has resulted in PMMB putting this licensing effort “on hold”… for now.

Lone Oak Farm, Marion Center, Pennsylvania was one of the small producers to get a voice mail from an attorney identifying himself as a “special investigator for the Milk Marketing Board” wanting to know the name and address to send a packet to fill out.

The packet came. It was the same packet they had received two years earlier — a month before the Covid pandemic — but at that time they were only selling their raw milk and chocolate milk at the farm. They had stated in 2020 that the Milk Dealer’s license did not apply to them and never heard back from the PMMB.

That was the end of it, until August 2022.

This time, the packet included the same letter, along with an intrusive form requiring them to list all of their assets, liabilities — a complete financial statement of personal information — as part of a Milk Dealer’s License application along with monthly forms for calculating their 6 cents/cwt monthly licensing fee and the lesser fee for milk sold through products on which PMMB does not fix a price.

“There was no flow chart to determine if we needed to do this (like is shown below at PMMB website: https://www.mmb.pa.gov/Licensing/Dealer/Documents/License%20Flowchart%202020.pdf). My wife emailed back wanting to know why this pertained to us,” said Aaron Simpson of Lone Oak Farm in an Aug. 17 phone interview with Farmshine. “We were told it pertains to us because we were selling a small amount of milk off site at Back to Nature,” a health store in Indiana, Pennsylvania.

“Someone tipped them off,” he guesses. “We didn’t fill anything out (in the packet), and my wife responded that we would pull our small wholesale account out of Back to Nature rather than jump through these hoops.”

For Lone Oak and other small producers voicing concern, it isn’t even the 6 cents/cwt licensing fee that is the biggest problem, though they believe it is unnecessary. The real problem is the onerous and intrusive forms and the logistics and time it takes to fill out monthly milk accounting to the PMMB. Farms like Lone Oak already applied for and were granted raw milk permits by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA), which inspects them.

Furthermore, as a small producer, with several entities from produce to bakery to milk and more under one umbrella on the farm, the financial statement that the PMMB was requiring was information Lone Oak was not comfortable providing. Why should they? Why is it the PMMB’s business to know their personal business?

“They asked for our entire financial rundown of the farm — as a whole — right down to every asset we own, some of it not even related to the dairy. We are not willing to give that up for a (Milk Dealer’s license),” said Simpson. “This is not how it should be. The only reason we exist is because selling all of our milk conventionally has not been feasible. We are one of three dairy farms left in our township. We are down to the bits and pieces of who makes it and who doesn’t, and that’s been a failure of the dairy industry.”

Most farmers wouldn’t really choose to do customer service as they would rather focus just on farming and taking care of the cows, not running a store. Many have turned to this to preserve their livelihoods, their dairy farms.

“The whole reason we are doing this is because the Milk Marketing Board has failed the farmers, the dairy industry has failed the farmers. How many farms has Pennsylvania lost since 2015?” Simpson pondered aloud. “Within five miles of us, we have lost five or six farms since 2015, so we started selling our own milk with a permit from PDA in 2016.”

Simpson is part of the fourth generation at Lone Oak Farms, milking 40 cows in the same 1960s barn, and diversifying over the years instead of expanding the dairy herd. Now he gets calls from other farmers with all herd sizes wondering how they got started, including large farms wanting to scale back their herd size and get closer to consumers.

When Lone Oak shared their public post to customers on facebook that their raw milk and chocolate milk would no longer be available at Back to Nature, and encouraged their customers in Indiana, Pennsylvania to come the extra 20 miles to the farm in Marion Center, the response was overwhelming.

As the post was shared multiple times, PMMB executive secretary Carol Hardbarger commented that the PMMB staff was looking into what could be done, but that they had to “follow the law.”

The law, according to the flow chart found at the PMMB website (above), stipulates that any dairy farmer selling more than 1500 pounds of milk per month (less than 6 gallons per day) direct to consumers, would have to be a licensed Milk Dealer if they sold any of that milk at a site off the farm or if they sold more than two gallons per day to one customer.

This week, an official response from PMMB executive secretary Hardbarger notes that, “we have officially put licensing of small processors on hold until we decide what to do, sending a letter from me to each not licensed yet, to the ag committees with an explanation, and to PDA.”

But how did this come about and what will happen going forward?

If this requirement is truly part of the law, and if it requires small producers selling their very own milk privately in small amounts must be licensed as Milk Dealers, why have we not heard about it before?

In fact, a Penn State extension educator preparing for a value-added dairy seminar reached out to Farmshine for clarification after reading about the issue in Market Moos last week. She wanted to know why this was never brought to her attention when she asked state agencies for all of the things a small value-added dairy producer needed to know and do to sell milk and dairy products made on the farm. She wanted clarification.

According to Hardbarger, small producers, and those with raw milk permits have received packets and calls in the past, but that a list of raw milk permits was made available to PMMB recently through the online data-sharing that was set up this year between PDA and PMMB now that the weigh-sampler certification work PMMB used to help with has transferred exclusively to PDA. This put the list of raw milk permits directly into the PMMB’s hands.

This PDA list of raw milk permits has always been publicly available and updated online. So why was the action to get small producers to become licensed Milk Dealers started in earnest at this particular time? No clear answer has been given, except that the PMMB is now looking at the situation and putting it ‘on hold.’

Perhaps the biggest players in the industry — that have a stake in preserving the price-regulating and milk-accounting functions of the PMMB — are concerned about the increasing number of Pennsylvania producers going this route outside the system with some or all of their milk. Some dairy farmers are making and selling pasteurized milk and dairy products, others are selling raw milk.

In fact, at Ag Progress Days recently, a panel talked about farm transitions and how important value-added direct-to-consumer sales are for Pennsylvania’s agricultural industry. The Commonwealth has the second largest volume of direct-to-consumer sales of farm products in the U.S., and this is growing as farms are also becoming more diversified, the experts shared.

“As farmers, we don’t need another irritant to yield a pearl for PMMB. This (Milk Dealer’s license) is more administrative paperwork and a check we would need to send every month. It’s one more thing,” Simpson explained, listing all of the things they already do to sell milk through their permit with PDA and in general as dairy farmers.

“Fluid milk is breakeven across the spectrum,” he said. “We have enough irritants in a year’s time, and just that statement about irritants and pearls shows the disconnect between farmers and the PMMB.”

Farmers and dairy professionals around the state are questioning the very low 1500-pounds per month threshold on private sales of milk from farms that pushes these small producers into the category of a Milk Dealer — if any of that milk is sold at a store off the farm.

For example, Lone Oak milks just 40 cows and markets about one-third of that as direct-to-consumer sales of milk, chocolate milk, ice cream and yogurt. The rest goes to United Dairy. They are inspected four times a year for the raw milk permit and twice a year for the conventional bulk sales and federal inspection every 18 months as well. The milk tests are done twice every time they pull milk from the tank – once for the private sales and once for the conventional sales. There will also be new types of inspections coming as well, farmers are told.

Yes, small on-farm processors do not need ‘one more thing.’

“The limit for the number of gallons sold privately off the farm needs to be set drastically higher for this (Milk Dealer license),” said Simpson. “We are not even a blip on the radar, so there needs to be very large exemptions if we are to keep small farms in Pennsylvania.”

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Net loss to farmers now $824 mil. over 41 months as change to Class I formula costs farmers $132 mil. so far in 2022

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, August 26, 2022

WASHINGTON —  Against the backdrop of declining fluid milk sales, declining Federal Milk Marketing Order (FMMO) participation, coinciding with the accelerated pace of plant mergers, acquisitions and closures in the fluid milk sector, farm bill milk pricing reform discussions are bubbling up.

The two main issues are the negative impact from the Class I price formula change in the last farm bill, and how to ‘fix it,’ as well as how to handle or update processor ‘make allowances’ that are embedded within the Class III and IV price formulas. 

Other issues are also surfacing regarding the pricing, marketing, and contracting of milk within and outside of FMMOs as historical pricing relationships become more dysfunctional — in part because of the Class I change. 

The change in the Class I price mover formula was made in the 2018 farm bill and implemented in May 2019. It has cost dairy farmers an estimated $132 million in lost revenue so far in 2022 — increasing the accumulated net loss to $824 million over these 41 months that the new average-plus-74-cents method has replaced 19 years of using the vetted ‘higher of’ formula. 

The change was made by Congress in the last farm bill in the belief that this averaging method would allow processors, retailers and non-traditional milk beverage companies to manage their price risk through hedging while expecting the change to be revenue-neutral to farmers. No hearings or referendums were conducted for this change.

Instead of being revenue-neutral for farmers, the new method has significantly shaved off the tops of the price peaks (graph) and only minimally softened the depth of the price valleys, while returning net lower proceeds to farmers and disrupting pricing relationships to cause further farm mailbox milk check losses in reduced or negative producer price differentials (PPD), reduced FMMO participation (de-pooling) as well as disruption in the way purchased price risk management tools perform against these losses.

In 2022, we are seeing this Class I ‘averaging’ method produce even more concerning results. It is now undervaluing Class I in a way that increases the depth of the valley the milk markets have entered in the past few months (graph), and as the Class IV milk price turned substantially higher this week against a flat-to-lower Class III price, the extent of the market improvement will be shaved in the blend price by the impact on Class I from what is now a $2 to $5 gap between Class III and Class IV milk futures through at least November.

During the height of the Covid pandemic in 2020, the most glaring flaw in the Class I formula change was revealed. Tracking the gains and losses over these 41 months, it’s easy to see the problem. This new formula puts a 74-cents-per-cwt ceiling on how much farmers can benefit from the change, but it fails to put a floor on how much farmers can lose from the change.

The bottomless pit was sorely tested in the second half of 2020, when the Class III and IV prices diverged by as much as $10, creating Class I value losses under the new formula as high as $5.00/cwt.

The bottomless pit is being tested again in 2022. The most recent Class I mover announcements for August and September are undervalued by $1.04 and $1.69, respectively, as Class IV and III have diverged by as much as $4 this year.

In fact, 6 of the first 9 months of 2022 have had a lower Class I milk price as compared to the previous formula. The September 2022 advance Class I mover announced at $23.82 last week would have been $25.31 under the previous ‘higher of’ formula. 

This is the largest loss in value between the two methods since December 2020, when pandemic disruptions and government cheese purchases were blamed for the poor functionality of the new Class I formula.

No such blame can be attributed for the 2022 mover price failure that will have cost farmers $132 million in the first 9 months of 2022 on Class I value, alone, as well as leading to further impacts from reduced or negative PPDs and de-pooling.

The graph tells the story. The pandemic was blamed for 2020’s largest annual formula-based loss of $733 million. This came out to an average loss of $1.68/cwt on all Class I milk shipped in 2020.

These losses continued into the first half of 2021, followed by six months of gains. In 2021, the net gain for the year was $35 million, or 8 cents/cwt., making only a small dent in recovering those prior losses.

Gains from the averaging formula were expected to continue into 2022, but instead, Class IV diverged higher than Class III in most months by more than the $1.48 threshold. Only 2 months in 2022 have shown modest Class I mover gains under the new formula, with the other 7 months racking up increasingly significant value losses – a situation that is expected to continue at least until November, based on current futures markets.

Bottomline, the months of limited gains are not capable of making up for the months of limitless loss, and now the hole is being dug deeper. 

True, USDA made pandemic volatility payments to account for some of the 2020 FMMO class price relationship losses. Those payments were calculated by AMS staff working with milk co-ops and handlers using FMMO payment data.

However, USDA only intended to cover up to $350 million of what are now $824 million in cumulative losses attributed directly to the formula change.

Furthermore, USDA capped the amount of compensation an individual farm could receive, even though there was no cap on the amount the new formula may have cost that farm, especially if it led to reduced or negative PPDs, de-pooling, and as a result, negatively impacted the performance price risk management tools the farm may have purchased.

The estimated $824 million net loss over 41 months equates to an estimated average of 58 cents/cwt loss on every hundredweight of Class I milk shipped in those 41 months.

Using the national average FMMO Class I utilization of 28%, this value loss translates to an average loss to the blend price of 16 cents/cwt for all milk shipped over the 41 months, but some FMMOs have seen steeper impacts where Class I utilization is greater.

This 16-cent average impact on blend price may not sound like much, but over a 41-month period it has hit mailbox milk prices in large chunks of losses and smaller pieces of gains, which impact cash flow and performance of risk management in a domino effect.

The 2022 divergence has been different from 2020 because this year it is Class IV that has been higher than Class III. During the pandemic, it was the other way around.

Because cheese milk is such a driver of dairy sales nationwide, the FMMO class and component pricing is set up so that protein is paid to farmers in the first advance check based on the higher method for valuation of protein in Class III. Meanwhile, other class processors pay into the pool using a lower protein valuation method, so the differences are adjusted based on utilization in the second monthly milk check.

This means when Class III is substantially higher than Class IV, as was the case in 2020-21, there is even more incentive for manufacturers to de-pool milk out of FMMOs compared to when Class IV is higher than Class III.

The PPD, in fact, is defined mathematically as Class III price minus the FMMO statistical uniform blend. Usually that number is positive. In the last half of 2020 and first half of 2021, it was negative for all 7 multiple component pricing FMMOs, while the 4 fat/skim Orders saw skim price eroded by the variance.

Now, the situation is different because Class III has been the lowest priced class in all but one month so far in 2022. The milk being de-pooled — significantly in some orders and less so in others — is the higher-priced Class II and IV milk. The Class II price has surpassed the Class I mover in every settled month of 2022 so far — January through July — and the Class IV price also surpassed the Class I mover in 2 of those 7 months. 

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Are we moving toward cow islands and milk deserts?

Opinion/Analysis

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine (combined 2 part series Aug. 12 and 19, 2022)

In Class I utilization markets, the landscape is rapidly shifting, and we should pay attention, lest we end up with ‘cow islands’ and ‘milk deserts.’

Farmshine readers may recall in November 2019, I wrote in the Market Moos column about comments made Nov. 5 by Randy Mooney, chairman of both the DFA and NMPF boards during the annual convention in New Orleans of National Milk Producers Federation together with the two checkoff boards — National Dairy Board and United Dairy Industry Association. 

Mooney gave a glimpse of the future in his speech that was podcast. (Listen here at 13:37 minutes). He said he had been “looking at a map,” seeing “plants on top of plants,” and he urged the dairy industry to “collectively consolidate,” to target limited resources “toward those plants that are capable of making the new and innovative products.”

One week later, Dean Foods (Southern Foods Group LLC) filed for bankruptcy as talks between Dean and DFA about a DFA purchase were already underway. It was the first domino right on the heels of Mooney’s comments, followed by Borden filing Chapter 11 two months later in January, and followed by three-years of fresh fluid milk plant closings and changes in ownership against the backdrop of declining fluid milk sales and an influx of new dairy-based beverage innovations, ultrafiltered and shelf-stable milk, as well as lookalike alternatives and blends.

The map today looks a lot different from the one described by Mooney in November 2019 when he urged the industry to “collectively consolidate.” The simultaneous investments in extended shelf-life (ESL) and aseptic packaging are also a sign of the direction of ‘innovation’ Mooney may have been referring to.

Two months prior to Mooney issuing that challenge, I was covering a September 2019 industry meeting in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where dairy checkoff presenters made it clear that the emphasis of the future is on launching innovative new beverages and dairy-‘based’ products.

Here is an excerpt from my opinion/analysis of the discussion at that time:

“While we are told that consumers are ditching the gallon jug (although it is still by far the largest sector of sales), and we are told consumers are looking for these new products; at the same time, we are also told that it is the dairy checkoff’s innovation and revitalization strategy to ‘work with industry partners to move consumers away from the habit of reaching for the jug and toward looking for these new and innovative products’ that checkoff dollars are launching.”

These strategy revelations foreshadowed where the fluid milk markets appear to be heading today, and this is also obvious from recent Farmshine articles showing the shifting landscape in cow, farm, and milk production numbers.

When viewing the picture of the map that is emerging, big questions come to mind:

Are today’s Class I milk markets under threat of becoming ‘milk deserts’ as the dairy industry consolidates into ‘cow islands’?

Would dairy farmers benefit from less regulation of Class I pricing in the future so producers outside of the “collectively consolidating” major-player-complex are freer to seek strategies and alliances of their own, to carve out market spaces with consumers desiring and rediscovering fresh and local, to put their checkoff dollars toward promotion that helps their farms remain viable and keeps their regions from becoming milk deserts? 

What role is the industry’s Net Zero Initiative playing behind the scenes, the monitoring, scoring, tracking of carbon, the way energy intensity may be viewed for transportation and refrigeration and other factors in Scope 1, 2 and 3 ESG (Environment, Social, Governance) scores? 

Shelf-stable milk may provide solutions for some emerging (or are they self-inflicted?) milk access and distribution dilemmas, and maybe one view of ESG scoring favors it? But ultimately it also means milk can come from cow islands to milk deserts — from anywhere, to anywhere.

It also becomes clearer why the whole milk bill is having so much trouble moving forward. The industry machine gives lip-service support to the notion of whole milk in schools, but the reality is, the industry is chasing other lanes on this highway to ‘improve’ the school milk ‘experience’ and ensure milk ‘access’ through innovations that at the same time pave the road from the ‘cow islands’ to the ‘milk deserts.’ 

It is now clearer — to me — why the Class I mover formula is such a hotly debated topic. 

If major industry-driving consolidators are looking to transition away from turning over cow to consumer fresh, local/regional milk supplies by turning toward beverage stockpiles that can sit in a warehouse ‘Coca-Cola-style’ at ambient temperatures for six to 12 months, it’s no wonder the consolidators want the ‘higher of’ formula to stay buried. What a subversion that was in the 2018 Farm Bill.

In fact, if the industry is pursuing a transition from fresh, fluid milk to a more emphasis on shelf-stable aseptic milk, such a transition would, in effect, turn the federal milk marketing orders’ purpose and structure — that is tied to Class I fresh fluid milk — completely upside down.

Landscape change has been in motion for years, but let’s look at the past 6 years — Dean had already closed multiple plants and cut producers in the face of Walmart opening it’s own milk bottling plant in Spring 2018. The Class I ‘mover’ formula for pricing fluid milk — the only milk class required to participate in Federal Milk Marketing Orders — was changed in the 2018 Farm Bill that went into effect Sept. 2018. The new Class I mover formula was implemented by USDA in May 2019, resulting in net losses to dairy farmers on their payments for Class I of well over $750 million across 43 months since then.

(Side note: Under the formula change, $436 million of Class I value stayed in processor pockets from May 2019 through October 2019, alone. DFA purchased 44 Dean Foods plants in May 2019 and became by far the largest Class I processor at that time.)

These and other landscape changes were already in motion when Mooney spoke on Nov. 5, 2019 at the convention of NMPF, NDB and UDIA describing the milk map and seeing plants on top of plants and issuing the challenge to “collectively consolidate” to target resources to those plants that can make the innovative new products. 

One week later, Nov. 12, 2019, Dean Foods filed for bankruptcy protection to reorganize and sell assets (mainly to DFA).

Since 2019, this and other major changes have occurred as consolidation of Class I milk markets tightens substantially around high population swaths, leaving in wake the new concerns about milk access that spur the movement toward ESL and aseptic milk. A chain reaction.

What does Mooney’s map look like today after his 2019 call for “collective consolidation” and the targeting of investments to plants that can make the innovative products, the plants that DMI fluid milk revitalization head Paul Ziemnisky told farmers in a 2021 conference call were going to need to be “dual-purpose” — taking in all sorts of ingredients, making all sorts of beverages and products, blending, ultrafiltering, and, we see it now, aseptically packaging?

In addition to the base of Class I processing it already owned a decade ago, the string of DFA mergers has been massive. The most recent acquisitions, along with exits by competitors, essentially funnel even more of the market around key population centers to DFA with its collective consolidation strategy and investments in ESL and aseptic packaging.

The South —

The 14 Southeast states (Maryland to Florida and west to Arkansas) have 29% of the U.S. population. If you include Texas and Missouri crossover milk flows, we are talking about 37% of the U.S. population. 

The major players in the greater Southeast fluid milk market include DFA enlarged by its Dean purchases, Kroger supplied by Select and DFA, Prairie Farms with its own plants, DFA and Prairie Farms with joint ownership of Hiland Dairy plants, Publix supermarkets with its own plants, an uncertain future for four remaining Borden plants in the region as Borden has exited even the retail market in some of these states, and a handful of other fluid milk processors. 

In Texas, alone, DFA now owns or jointly owns a huge swath of the fluid milk processing plants, having purchased all Dean assets in the Lone Star State in the May 2020 bankruptcy sale and now positioned to gain joint ownership of all Borden Texas holdings through the announced sale to Hiland Dairy

The Midwest — 

Just looking at the greater Chicago, Milwaukee, Green Bay metropolis, the population totals are a lake-clustered 6% of U.S. population. Given the recent closure by Borden of the former Dean plants in Chemung, Illinois and De Pere, Wisconsin, this market is in flux with DFA owning various supply plants including a former Dean plant in Illinois and one in Iowa with Prairie Farms having purchased several of the Dean plants serving the region.

In the Mideast, there is Coca Cola with fairlife, Walmart and Kroger among the supermarkets with their own processing, and DFA owning two former Dean plants in Ohio, two in Indiana, two in Michigan, and a handful of other bottlers. 

In the West: DFA owns a former Dean plant in New Mexico, two in Colorado, two in Montana, one in Idaho, two in Utah, one in Nevada and one in California, as well as other plants, of course. 

The Northeast —

This brings us to the Northeast from Pennsylvania to Maine, where 18% of the U.S. population lives, and where consolidation of Class I markets, especially around the major Boston-NYC-Philadelphia metropolis have consolidated rapidly against the backdrop of declining fluid milk sales and a big push by non-dairy alternative beverage launches from former and current dairy processors.

DFA owns two former Dean plants in Massachusetts, one in New York, all four in Pennsylvania, one in New Jersey. The 2019 merger with St. Alban’s solidified additional New England fluid milk market under DFA. In 2013, DFA had purchased the Dairy Maid plant from the Rona family in Maryland; in 2014, the prominent Oakhurst plant in Maine; and in 2017, the Cumberland Dairy plant in South Jersey.

More recently, DFA struck a 2021 deal with Wakefern Foods to supply their Bowl and Basket and other milk, dairy, and non-dairy brands for the various supermarket chains and convenience stores under the Wakefern umbrella covering the greater New York City metropolis into New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. This milk had previously been supplied by independent farms, processed at Wakefern’s own iconic Readington Farms plant in North Jersey, which Wakefern subsequently closed in January 2022.

The long and twisted tale begs additional questions:

As Borden has dwindled in short order from 14 plants to five serving the most populous region of the U.S. – the Southland — what will happen with the remaining five plants in Ohio, Kentucky, Georgia, Louisiana, and Florida? What will become of Elsie the Cow and Borden’s iconic brands and new products?

What percentage of the “collectively consolidated” U.S. fluid milk market does DFA now completely or partially own and/or control?

Will the “collective consolidation” in the form of closures, sales and mergers continue to push shelf-stable ESL and aseptic milk into Class I retail markets and especially schools… and will consumers, especially kids, like this milk and drink it?

What role are rising energy prices, climate ESG-scoring and net-zero pledges and proclamations playing in the plant closures and shifts toward fewer school and retail milk deliveries, less refrigeration, more forward thrust for shelf-stable and lactose-free milk, as well as innovations into evermore non-dairy launches and so-called flexitarian blending and pairing?

Looking ahead at how not only governments around the world, but also corporations, creditors and investors are positioning for climate/carbon tracking, ESG scoring and the so-called Great Reset, the Net Zero economy, there’s little doubt that these factors are driving the direction of fluid milk “innovation” over the 12 years that DMI’s Innovation Center has coordinated the so-called ‘fluid milk revitalization’ initiative — at the same time developing the FARM program and the Net Zero Initiative.

The unloading of nine Borden plants in five months under Gregg Engles, the CEO of “New Borden” and former CEO of “Old Dean” is also not surprising. Engles is referred to in chronicles of dairy history not only as “the great consolidator” but also as “industry transformer.”

In addition to being CEO of Borden, Engles is chairman and managing partner of one of the two private equity investment firms that purchased the Borden assets in bankruptcy in June 2020. Investment firms fancy themselves at the forefront of ESG scoring.

Engles is also one of only two U.S. members of the Danone board of directors. Danone, owner of former Dean’s WhiteWave, including Silk plant-based and Horizon Organic milk, has positioned itself in the forefront on 2030 ESG goals, according to its 2019 ‘one planet, one health’ template that has also driven consolidation and market loss in the Northeast. 

Not only is Danone dumping clusters of its Horizon milk-supplying organic family dairy farms, it continues to heavily invest in non-dairy processing, branding, launching and marketing of alternative lookalike dairy products and beverages, including Next Milk, Not Milk and Wondermilk. 

There is plenty of food-for-thought to chew on here from the positives to the negatives of innovation, consolidation, and climate ESGs hitting full-throttle in tandem. These issues require forward-looking discussion so dairy farmers in areas with substantial reliance on Class I fluid milk sales can navigate the road ahead and examine all lanes on this highway that appears to be leading to cow islands and milk deserts.

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More Borden plants close under ‘great consolidator’ Gregg Engles

Checkoff cites ‘uncontrollable circumstances’  bringing shelf-stable milk to schools

With an uncertain future for five remaining Borden plants after five plant closures, one partial closure (Class I) and three sell-offs since April, what does the future hold for fluid milk markets in the South and the iconic Elsie? Screen capture, bordendairy.com

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, Aug. 12, 2022

DALLAS, Tex. — Last week, yet another round of plant closures was announced by Borden, well-timed as a factor said to be driving shelf-stable milk into schools and other venues in affected regions like the Southeast; however, an industry “innovation” shift to the convenience, “experience ” and reduced deliveries (carbon/energy cost and intensity) said to be associated with lactose-free extended shelf-life and aseptically-packaged milk has been gradually in the making for months, if not years.

The Dallas-based Borden, owned by two private equity firms, will close fluid milk plants in Dothan, Alabama and Hattiesburg, Mississippi “no later than Sept. 30, 2022, and will no longer produce in these states,” the company said.

The Aug. 3 announcement represents Borden’s fifth and sixth plant closures in as many months.

A string of sell-offs and closings since April have occurred under “the great consolidator” — former Dean Foods CEO Gregg Engles. Engles has been CEO of ‘new Borden’ since June 2020, when his Capital Peak Partners, along with Borden bankruptcy creditor KKR & Co., together purchased substantially all assets to form New Dairy OpCo, doing business as Borden Dairy.

“While the decision was difficult, the company has determined that it could no longer support continued production at those locations,” Borden said in the Aug. 3 statement that was virtually identical to the statement released April 4 announcing previous closures of its Miami, Florida and Charleston, South Carolina plants by May 31, including a stated withdrawal from the South Carolina retail market as well.

In addition to ending fluid milk processing at six of its 14 plants — four in the Southeast, two in the Midwest — Borden announced in late June its plans to sell all Texas holdings to Hiland Dairy, including three plants in Austin, Conroe and Dallas, associated branches and other assets.

Hiland Dairy, headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri, is jointly owned by the nation’s largest milk cooperative Dairy Farmers of America (DFA), headquartered in Kansas City, Kansas, and Prairie Farms Dairy, a milk cooperative headquartered in Edwardsville, Illinois that includes the former Wisconsin-based Swiss Valley co-op.

DFA already separately owns the Borden brand license for cheese.

Also in June, Borden announced an end to fluid milk operations in Illinois and Wisconsin at two former Dean plants the company purchased jointly with Select Milk Producers in June 2021 after a U.S. District Court required DFA to divest them.

Borden closed the Harvard (Chemung Township), Illinois plant in July, and local newspaper accounts note the community is hopeful a food processing company other than dairy will purchase the FDA-approved facilities. Borden also ceased bottling at De Pere, Wisconsin on July 9, but continues to make sour cream products at that location.

The combined plant closures and sales by Borden now stand at nine of the 14 plants, leaving an uncertain future for the remaining five plants in Cleveland, Ohio; London, Kentucky; Decatur, Georgia; Lafayette, Louisiana; and Winter Haven, Florida. The sales and closures, including announced withdrawals from some markets, having combined effects of funneling more market share to DFA and to some degree Prairie Farms and others against a backdrop of additional Class I milk plant closures and reorganizations during the 24 months since assets from number one Dean and number two Borden were sold in separate bankruptcy filings.

“Borden products have a distribution area which covers a wide swath of the lower Southeast, including the Gulf’s coastal tourist areas. The Dutch Chocolate is a favorite of milk connoisseurs, and their recent introductions of flavored milks have received great reviews,” an Aug. 6 Milksheds Blog post by AgriVoice stated. A number of Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi farms may be affected by the most recent closures.

Meanwhile, the closures are affecting milk access for schools and at retail. According to its website, Borden serves 9,000 schools in the U.S.  

A random sampling of the many Facebook-posted photos by individuals from northern Illinois to Green Bay, Wisconsin from July 15 to the present after Borden and Select closed two former Dean plants in Illinois and Wisconsin that they jointly purchased from DFA in June 2021. Screen capture, Facebook

In recent weeks, photos have been circulating of empty dairy cases in the Green Bay, Milwaukee and greater Chicago region with signs stating: “Due to milk plant closures, we are currently out of stock on one gallon and half gallons of milk.”

School milk contracts in that region are also reportedly impacted.

However, most notable is the impact on school milk contracts in the Southeast as students begin returning to classrooms.

According to the Aug. 5 online Dairy Alliance newsletter to Southeast dairy farmers, the regional checkoff organization confirmed the latest round of Borden closures are plants that “currently provide milk to 494 school districts… and use around 95 million units a school year.”

The Dairy Alliance reported it is working with schools “to keep milk the top choice for students… We do not want schools to apply for an emergency waiver that would exempt them from USDA requirements of serving milk until they find a supplier.

“These uncontrollable circumstances will lead to more aseptic milk in the region, but this is better than losing milk completely in school districts that have little or no options,” the newsletter stated.

Southeast dairy farmers report their mailed copy of a Dairy Alliance newsletter in July had already forecast more shelf-stable milk coming to schools as part of the strategic plan to protect and grow milk sales by ensuring milk accessibility and improving the school milk experience. In addition to the Borden plant closures, the report cited school milk “hurdles” such as inadequate refrigerated space requiring multiple frequent deliveries amid rising fuel and energy costs and labor shortages.

Southeast dairy farmers were informed that the Dairy Alliance School Wellness Team was already working to mitigate bidding issues with shelf-stable milk for school districts in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia.

Diversified Foods Inc. (DFI), headquartered in New Orleans, was identified as the main supplier of this shelf-stable milk to schools in the region, reportedly sourcing milk through Maryland-Virginia, DFA and Borden.

In addition, DFI is a main sponsor of the Feeding America conference taking place in Philadelphia this week (Aug 9-11), where it is previewing for nutrition program attendees their new lactose-free shelf-stable chocolate milk. DFI also sponsored the School Nutrition Association national conference in Orlando earlier this summer, and social media photos of the booth show the shelf-stable, aseptically packaged versions of brands like DairyPure, TruMoo, Borden and Prairie Farms, along with DFI’s own ‘Pantry Fresh’ shelf-stable milk in supermarket and school sizes.

Coinciding with the flurry of Borden closings and shelf-stable milk hookups for schools, DFA announced last week (Aug. 1) that it will acquire two extended shelf-life (ESL) plants from the Orrville, Ohio based Smith Dairy. The SmithFoods plants will operate under DFA Dairy Brands as Richmond Beverage Solutions, Richmond, Indiana and Pacific Dairy Solutions, Pacific, Missouri. A SmithFoods statement noted the transfer would not affect the farms or employees associated with these plants.

This acquisition aligns with DFA’s similar strategy to “increase investment and expand ownership in this (shelf-stable) space… and create synergies between our other extended shelf-life and aseptic facilities,” the DFA statement noted.

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