‘This is the face of the dairy crisis’

(Author’s note: Look for an update here soon about developments since this town hall meeting on 3/19. As of 3/31, in eastern Pennsylvania, 9 Lebanon County dairy farms have been picked up by Harrisburg Dairies, 2 have been picked up by a cooperative and 2 have decided to exit the dairy business, leaving 2 Lebanon County farms and 11 Lancaster County farms still seeking a market. In western Pennsylvania, 4 of the 16 farms have been picked up by Schneider’s Dairy based in Pittsburgh, leaving 12 still needing a market for their milk.)

Lebanon9490(crowd)Emotional town hall meeting in Lebanon, Pa. draws over 200 people urging contract extensions for Dean’s dropped dairies

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, March 23, 2018

LEBANON, Pa. – “Family is a treasure for all of us here, and we have a family crisis concerning our dairy farms,” said Randy Ebersole, a local car dealer whose family has been part of the Lebanon community surrounded by dairy farms for generations. He moderated a “Save Pennsylvania Dairy Farms” town hall meeting about the 26 Lebanon and Lancaster County dairy farms that received 90-day milk contract termination letters from the Lebanon Swiss Premium plant owned by Dean Foodd on March 3.

The meeting drew 200 people to the Expo Center Monday (March 19) and was covered by three television stations and a host of other media.

State representatives Frank Ryan, Russ Diamond and Sue Helm also attended and spoke about their commitment to work with farmers on solutions.

Jayne Sebright, executive director of the Center for Dairy Excellence also attended, mentioning the Center’s resources for counseling and support as well as a joint venture with the Pennsylvania Dairymen’s Association to launch a “local and real milk” promotion by June Dairy Month.

Pa. Ag Secretary Russell Redding was not present, but Sebright said he will be sending a letter to Dean Foods in support of an extension of terminated contracts for 42 Pennsylvania dairy farms, the 26 in eastern Pennsylvania and 16 shipping to Dean plants in western Pennsylvania.

“This is the face of the dairy crisis. This is not fake news. This is real,” said Ebersole of the panel of three producers, a nutritionist, a veterinarian and a feed mill manager who shared their stories of the impact to the farms whose milk contracts will end May 31, 2018. This represents about half of the Lebanon plant’s daily milk intake.

The message of the town hall meeting was simple: Don’t blame or boycott Dean Foods because there are still another 40 local farms who did not get letters and are supplying the Swiss plant in Lebanon. But do, write, call or email support for a contract extension for these terminated farms until fall or winter.

And yes, drink more milk and eat more dairy products, especially locally-sourced dairy, knowing how it supports healthy bodies and healthy communities.

All told, Dean Foods ended marketing agreements with over 100 farms in eight states as the company says it adjusted its milk volume because of a supply and demand imbalance made worse by the trend among retailers, namely Walmart, to vertically integrate into bottling their store brands and compressing the supply-chain with consolidated intakes and wider distributions.

The emotional 2-hour meeting revealed community support for these farms by those who recognize how these farms touch many of its jobs and businesses.

Yes. A legacy is on the line here. And there were plenty of youth among the 200 attendees, many of them from local dairy farms where the future is uncertain due to the current dairy economics and especially for those in the families whose farms have been blind-sided by these 90-day termination letters.

One after another, people voiced their concern that 90 days is not enough time to find a new market at the worst time of year, ahead of spring flush, nor is it enough time for these families to unwind their businesses by selling cows, assets, even their farms and their homes to settle their lifetime investments in a way that allows these farm families to find a path forward.

“You will not find a more dedicated and hard-working people than dairy farmers,” said Ebersole. “They have invested their money, their time and their lives developing their herds and their businesses. We understand the world is changing, and that we are not an island, but what has not changed is the expectation of fair and reasonable treatment.”

A local pastor asked a blessing on the meeting and referenced Psalms 139 where David asks God ‘search me… and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.’

The parallels of this passage to what these farmers are facing were obvious in the emotion that followed as each of six panelists told their stories and as others attending lent their support and as 8-oz chugs of Dean’s TruMoo milk and trays of cheese from the Lebanon County dairy royalty were enjoyed.

No one blamed Dean Foods.

Producers talked of a good relationship with the plant. They talked of how the letters completely turned their worlds upside down. They talked of how they have called eight to 10 other milk buyers in the region, none of them stepping up to accept new milk.

“Our cows are like our children,” said Kirby Horst of Lynncrest Holsteins, which has produced milk for the Lebanon Swiss Premium plant for 60 years across two generations. “The thought of 90 days and no market for our milk and no place for our cows to go… the thought of looking out at the pastures and not seeing the cows … I don’t know if I can handle that.”

The affected producers and the businesses that serve them stressed that with a little more time, they could do what is best for their families.

“Just like all the 26 farms affected in this community, our minds are missing right now,” said Alisha Risser. She and her husband have been shipping their milk to the Swiss plant for 17 years. She described how they worked full time jobs and saved and rented a barn before purchasing a herd and then building a dairy full time on their farm in 2001, when they began shipping milk to the plant in Lebanon.

“We have been lucky to have our passion be our job every day and to share this with our kids,” said Risser, her voice tinged with emotion as she described how her husband and youngest son bounce ideas off each other about the cows and the crops. “Our children wonder what future we have now. This is such a feeling of helplessness.

“We are proud of our milk that we produce on our farm, and we are proud of the Swiss Premium milk in our community,” she added. “We are just asking the community to support us with letters to Dean Foods to provide a contract extension until fall or winter.”

As milk pricing, promotion, regulatory environments and dietary guidelines are sorted out in the coming months, these farms are left without a milk market, without an opportunity to compete, to survive.

“God is always faithful, and we know we will be okay in the end, but an extension would allow all 26 farms here to make decisions for our families and our futures,” Risser said.

Ebersole added that, “These farms have developed their cow herds over a long period of time. They are rooted in our community. It’s not like a car dealership where you can just go to the Manheim Auto Auction and get in the business of selling cars.”

Lebanon5278(ProducerPanel).jpgIndeed, a legacy is on the line in Lebanon and Lancaster Counties, as in other communities similarly affected.

“I am not sure how we are going to handle this going forward. We have put all we have into the farm. Nothing will settle like it should,” said Brent Hostetter, who received his letter a week after the other farms on his milk hauling route were notified. Hostetter and his wife have been shipping to the plant for 19 years.

“Our kids love the farm. It has been going three generations, and now I am not sure how we can see a fourth,” said Hostetter. Like the others, he said a contract extension would give them some time to figure things out.

He also encouraged the public to “support our Pennsylvania farmers” to buy local milk and to look at the plant codes.

Lebanon5282(AgBizPanel).jpgRick Stehr, a nutritionist and owner of R&J Consulting, directed some of his comments to the significant number of youth in the audience, saying that these farms are where the next generation learns morals, values, work ethic and the joys and failures of life.

“This is worth fighting for,” said Stehr, “worth fighting all together for.”

He noted that for every 9 milk cows in Pennsylvania, one job is supported in the related business infrastructure. In Lebanon County, alone, one job is supported by six cows. The impact is deep if these cows and farms are lost, he said.

“Each cow here produces $14,000 in revenue for our community,” said Stehr, “16% of U.S. dairy farms are located in Pennsylvania where the average farm size is 80 cows. We are not California or New Mexico. We are located well within a day’s drive from 50% of the U.S. population. It seems our location would be pretty good, and yet this is happening.”

The emotion was palpable as Stehr and others offered to do whatever is needed in terms of counseling and assistance through this.

Alan Graves, manager of Mark Hershey Farms, a prominent feed mill in Lebanon County, said 80% of the mill’s feed business is dairy.

“We have been in business 45 years and employ 55 people in this community,” said Graves. “This day is about the producers and how they affect everything else in our communities. Our mill employees and their families rely on these dairies for their jobs. We don’t make business projections for 90 days, we are out a few years in our projections.

“The extension these producers are asking for is a fair request,” he added. “They have spent their lives improving their cows and improving the product they produce. The thought of taking that away in 90 days is almost unjust.”

Ebersole described the community impact this way: “These folks write out checks to other businesses in our community. There has to be a check coming back the other way. In 90 days that will all stop.”

Dr. Bruce Keck of Annville-Cleona Veterinary Service talked about how the public is unaware of what has been happening over the past 30 days and the past 10 years of consolidation and change. He asked the three television stations represented to raise awareness.

“We want to bombard Dean Foods with letters and emails and phone calls,” he said.

“These dairy farmers are so invested in cows and equipment that they can’t just quickly turn around,” said Keck, who has worked with local dairy farmers as a veterinarian for 25 years and took over the practice started by his father in 1961. He understands the family business dynamics.

“Without an extension, these families will be forced to sell their herds, and even their farms, for a fraction of their worth in this environment,” said Keck, “and that will trickle down to affect truckers, nutritionists, equipment companies, feed mills, veterinarians and more. This is like asking a loaded tractor trailer to turn as fast as a speeding car. It’s not enough time.”

To communicate support for the farms facing 90-day termination of contracts, call Dean Foods at 214-303-3767, email dairydirectsupport@deanfoods.com, or mail a letter to Dean Foods, 2711 North Haskell Avenue, Suite 3400, Dallas, TX, 75204.

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Lebanon5240(Hostetter)Brent Hostetter, Lebanon County dairy producer: “I am not sure how we are going to handle this going forward. We have put all we have into the farm. Nothing will settle like it should.”

 

Lebanon5228(Risser)Alisha Risser, Lebanon County dairy producer: “We are proud of our milk that we produce on our farm, and we are proud of the Swiss Premium milk in our community. We are just asking the community to support us with letters to Dean Foods to provide a contract extension until fall or winter.”

Lebanon5216(Horst)Kirby Horst, Lebanon County dairy producer: “The thought of looking out at the pastures and not seeing the cows … I don’t know if I can handle that.”

Randy Ebersole, local car dealer and panel moderator: “This is not about blaming or boycotting Dean Foods. Please do the opposite, fill yourselves up with these dairy products.”

Lebanon5260(Kreck)Dr. Bruce Keck, Annville-Cleona Veterinary Service: “Without a contract extension…This is like asking a loaded tractor trailer to turn as fast as a speeding car. It’s not enough time.”

Lebanon5272(Stehr&Moderator)Rick Stehr, R&J Consulting: “This is worth fighting for…worth fighting all together for.”

Lebanon5257(Graves)

Alan Graves, Mark Hershey Farms: “These producers have spent their lives improving their cows and improving the product they produce. The thought of taking that away in 90 days is almost unjust.”

Lebanon9500(Helms)Rep. Sue Helm: “A group of representatives are writing a letter Dean Foods. We want farmers to stay in contact with us.”

Lebanon5291(RepDiamond)Rep. Russ Diamond: “We wanted to get Pennsylvania milk into Pennsylvania schools but have been told that with the product stream in Pennsylvania, this is hard to do. This Pa. Milk Marketing Board issue is a hard issue to get to the bottom, and people get very protective of it.”

Lebanon5303(RepRyan)Rep. Frank Ryan: “Keep faith first and foremost and your sense of humor and talk with your bankers. This is emotionally draining and people want to run from it. There is a solution and we need to work together to find it.”

Lebanon5314(Morrissey)

Bernie Morrissey, retired agribusinessman: “Dairy farmer Nelson Troutman got me involved in this nine years ago, and I have given up my retirement to work on this issue because it’s important to our farms. No matter who buys your milk, this is all connected… There are over 25 milk contracts from outside dairies selling milk in Pennsylvania while you guys are under the Pa. Milk Marketing Law. You have been shafted.”

Lebanon5318(EbyMike Eby, chairman National Dairy Producers Organization and former Lancaster County dairy farmer: “The media are our friends. We can work with the media to advertise our product in ways the (check off) promotion programs can’t.”

 

Lebanon9495(Signs)

Dairy at a crossroads Part 2: Blinders off, seek help to navigate

PA-Farm-Financials(CrossroadsPart2)Fig1

Fig. 1 from the farm financials in the Pennsylvania Dairy Study shows average annual rate of return on assets 2011-16 for Pennsylvania small, medium and large (over 500 cows) farms compared with a 3-state average (NY, MI, WI) for small, medium and large farms. The Center for Dairy Excellence confirms that producers of all sizes are calling to have Dairy Decision Consultants come out to help them figure out how to move forward and lower their cost of production or the best scenario for exiting the dairy business. 

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, March 2, 2018 

BROWNSTOWN, Pa. — Every avenue of approach to a four-way crossroads comes with a temporary stop or yield and the need to know whether to turn one way or the other, double back, or drive forward. Staying put is only an option for the time it takes to know which way to go.

For dairy producers at this turning point, not one of these options can be exercised without knowing the farm’s cost of production and its equity position to decide upon a direction for what’s ahead.

Difficult discussions are being had around farm kitchen tables across the country. Seek out the help that is available to navigate, say dairy lenders and consultants interviewed recently by Farmshine.

“Don’t internalize too much or to try to do it on your own. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help,” says Dale Hershey of Univest Bank and Trust. “Don’t wait to raise your hand until after it’s too late. There are people out there, good people, who can give advice and ways to do this at little or no cost.”

Competitive cost of production is shaping the future of the dairy industry. While we hear about the multi-owner multi-site dairies with nearly 100,000 cows and a very low cost of production, size does not dictate the ability to compete.

“It is being achieved here. We have 100-cow dairies and 1000-cow dairies with very competitive cost of production,” says Mike Peachey of Acuity Advisors and CPAs.

He explains that the Northeast has historically had a higher cost of production for a variety of reasons.

“We have been saved by having higher premiums for our milk, but as those premiums erode, the competitiveness of our operations is exposed,” says Peachey. “It comes down to how well-managed a dairy operation is — regardless of size — and how competitive we can get in cost of production.”

“We used to have a milk price advantage in Pennsylvania. That is gone,” adds Mike Hosterman AgChoice Farm Credit business consultant. “We are less than 25 to 50 cents difference to New York, when it used to be $1.00.”

They both see a wide range in cost of production among dairy farms that can vary by $2 to $3/cwt.

“There is easily a variance (in profitability) from bottom to top of at least $1000 per cow, so it really is segmented by thirds,” says Peachey. “We have a top third with a very competitive cost of production, a middle third hanging in there and a bottom third making tough decisions that carry a lot of emotion.”

“So much of the difference comes back to debt, especially for younger farmers,” says Hershey. “Dairy is tough to get into, and the biggest thing is how you come in. Those beginning farms won’t survive without capital or backing from family. We will have some startups this year, but fewer than other years.”

In this business of large capital investments, Hosterman observes debt per cow creeping higher.

“If you go back 10 years, debt was just under $3000/cow. As milk prices go through these wild swings, the trendline was still slowly increasing so producers could afford that increase. Now the price is leveling out while debt per cow can be over $5000 or $6000,” he reports.

“As lenders, we’re all stepping up to help these producers, but we may not have the capacity to help them all.” He notes that refinancing options, different debt structures, and FSA loan availability are some options.

While the fundamentals of future dairy demand and proximity to consumers in the eastern U.S. would suggest a key place for small farms here, Hershey is realistic about the hand being dealt.

DPAC(farmbill)9261(ExtraPhoto)“To be in this for the long haul, we have to look ahead and know what we’re dealing with,” he says, wistfully reflecting upon growing when his father made a good living with 40 registered dairy cows.

“That model is pretty tough to cash flow right now. I see a return to where we were 40 years ago, where farms here had different things going on, multiple income streams, seeing more farms diversify to strengthen their positions,” says Hershey. “If producers are solely dependent on their small dairies, it will be very tough unless they have a very low cost of production.”

Key advice? “Bring a team in around you.”

“Dairy producers are managing expenses and monitoring cash flows, budgets and cost of production throughout the year. They are bouncing ideas off their advisors and consultants to be more competitive,” says Mike Firestine of Fulton Bank. He was recently recognized by American Bankers Association with the Bruning Award for dedicated leadership.

Extension educators also report they are receiving very high interest from dairy farmers wanting to do financial analysis because of varying degrees of stress already experienced over the past three years.

As for Acuity, Peachey regularly looks at clients’ positions around four key areas: cost of production, percent equity, profitability and cash flow, providing information and context for discussions about where they stand, what is their competitive position and where they think they are going to be not just now, but a year from now.

Because things change from year to year due to many variables, including weather and markets, Peachey says it’s important to be monitoring all the things that go into that “cost of production stew,” including milk quality, good internal herd growth, good milk components and feed conversion.

Armed with a team approach, and the numbers, they can uncover how well the animal husbandry is being managed, the breeding program, pregnancy rates, heifer replacement programs, milk production, especially components, and milk quality.

“Done well, these things add up,” says Peachey. “Small farms can counteract some of the competitive disadvantages on the cost and income sides, by having their good management in all these areas add up.”

This becomes cumulative math. For each year that one dairy is not as competitive as another on cost of production (COP), the impact compounds.

For example, a $50,000 annual difference between two similarly-sized farms adds up to half a million dollars over a 10-year period that’s either not in a bank or being reinvested in the operation to stay competitive or being used to pay down debt to put the farm in a better financial position to weather these storms – to provide the liquidity and working capital to get through it, according to Peachey.

Continual monitoring of the COP and doing annual year-ahead budgets are key, Peachey points out, because “guarding cash flow is very important right now. Producers are really scrutinizing capital expenditures with an understanding of what is a need and a want. They are focusing on investments and management decisions that reduce cost of production beyond the initial payback.”

He notes that cutting costs is tricky: “If reduced feed costs means reduced milk production, for example, it ends up contributing to a tailspin when a cost-cut reduces top line revenue.”

“Some guys may sell off some assets and use proceeds to reduce debt,” says Hosterman, citing sales of mountain ground, extra timber, and selling heifers. “Heifer numbers have increased so much on dairy farms that selling extra heifers is not a bad option to generate some cash,” he says.

cropped-reprotour-73.jpgIn fact, some farms are opting to sell quite a few heifers. Even though prices are not the best, these sales contribute to cash flow, which is critical. Some farms are breeding to beef breeds and producing a dairy beef cross for the feeder market. Again, not a big price, but the cost of the breeding is less, and the calves generate cash flow as well as cost savings. Such strategies require careful thought so as not to jeopardize the position of the herd for the future.

Knowing the farm’s COP provides the information to make these types of decisions.

If the farm’s COP is not competitive, the question is, can it become competitive? Is the farm within striking distance of getting to a competitive COP? If the answer is ‘no’, there may be tough business and family decisions to make, according to Peachey.

He says it is also very important to evaluate the farm’s equity position, to sit down with the lender and look at the way the farm’s debt is structured.

“If the farm still has a strong equity base to restructure things to provide cash flow relief, it should be paired with an assessment of the farm’s COP and what can be done to improve it,” says Peachey. “How much runway do you have to work with? Knowing this is helpful for a restructure, but the airplane still has to get off the ground.”

In other words, equity for restructure provides the runway and working toward a competitive COP elevates the plane before it reaches the end of that runway.

It’s critical to go through the budgeting process, says Peachey, “to understand your cash burn rate for the coming year, to know if you have the working capital and liquidity to absorb this and if you have the broader equity base to recapitalize those losses. If I lose x-amount, can I put that on a 3-year note and pay it off and still be okay?”

Peachey equates the breakeven to a Class III price and looks at it from both the intermediate and long-term perspectives. For the short term, he sees the goal being a Class III breakeven of $15 to $15.50, so if the farm’s basis is $2 over Class III, that equates to a breakeven of $17 to $17.50 in other discussions or venues.

He cautions that, long term, the marketplace is going to demand a lower COP with Class III breakevens down to $13 and $14.

Hosterman concurs: “Some of our best farms are achieving a COP under $16.50 right now, so they can get by at a $14 Class III price, but the bottom third still needs a Class III price of $17, and the average producer needs a $15 or better Class III price to break even.”

“It is being achieved here,” says Peachey. “We can do it, but it gets back to all of the other little things that add up to how well the operation can be managed. When we know our COP, we know the weak spot in our model and can figure out how to compensate for that and find where the opportunities are.”

Hershey has received numerous calls from producers wanting to do these projections and breakevens to navigate the road ahead, and he cites Dr. Kohl’s four cornerstones of success — plan, strategize, implement and monitor. “We are pushing that, more than anything, that farmers who are struggling can ask for help.”

There is high praise for what the Center for Dairy Excellence and Penn State Extension offer to improve producer competitiveness to also improve the state’s competitiveness in dairy.

“The resources, educational opportunities and ways to connect folks are greater than ever,” says Peachey. “We have a strong infrastructure and a lot of good things in place.”

Other states have similar extension and organizational services. Seek them out.

Look for more in future editions of Farmshine as we continue this dairy crossroads conversation with producers, industry participants and leaders in the East… and beyond. The next installment will move into the policy realm with a look at the critically acclaimed film “Forgotten Farms,” produced in New England, and a panel discussion about our nation’s food policy centering on the burning question: why has dairy largely been left out of the local food movement? And what is being done about it.

 

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