‘It’s getting real, and we’re not alone’

Unsure of future, Nissley family’s faith, community fill gap as dairy chapter closes with sale of 400 cows

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, November 16, 2018

Nissley0051.jpgMOUNT JOY, Pa. — Another rainy day. Another family selling their dairy herd. Sale day unfolded November 9, 2018 for the Nissley family here in Lancaster County — not unlike hundreds of other families this year, a trend not expected to end any time soon.

After 25 years of building from nothing to 850 dairy animals — and with the next generation involved in the dairy — the Nissleys wrestled with and made their tough decisions, saying there’s no looking back, although the timetable was not as they planned because the milk price fell again, and some options for transitioning into poultry came off the table.

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The Cattle Exchange put up the tent, and the community came out in-force to support the Nissley family and their sale Friday. Throughout the weekend, they heard from people who bought their cows, telling them they’ll take good care of them. While many went to new dairy homes, a third of the cows at dispersals like this one have been going straight to beef, despite culling a good 10% of the herd in the weeks before the sale.

They began culling hard the past few weeks and on Friday, Nov. 9 offered 330 remaining milk cows and over 80 springing heifers. The Cattle Exchange put up the tent, and the community came out at 10 a.m. to support the family and — as Mike Nissley put it — “watch a life’s work sell for peanuts.”

Breeding age heifers are being offered for sale privately and the young calves, for now, are still being raised on another farm as they would sell for very little in these trying times.

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As we talk outside the sale tent in the cold November rain, the cell phones in the pockets of Mike, Nancy (left) and Audrey are sounding off with outpourings of support. Know that the smiles through brushed back tears are because of the loving care of others, the family’s faith in a loving God, and the knowledge that they took great care of their cows.

Mike and his wife Nancy aren’t sure what the future looks like, but they are surely feeling the prayers, calls and texts of their friends, family, and community getting them through it.

Both Mike and his daughter Audrey Breneman have loved working with the cows, saying the sale felt like a funeral — “the death of a dream” — standing in the light rain outside the sale tent while the auctioneer chanted prices dipping into the $500s and $600s, even struggling shy of $1000 on a cow making 90 pounds of milk with a 54,000 SCC.

Later, a smile crossed his face, hearing the auctioneer stretch for $1700. “That one’s good to hear,” he says, as they headed back into the tent to watch springing and bred heifers sell.

While Daniel Brandt announced their number-one heifers, bids of $1600 and $1700 could be heard on some.

Nissley2011“It was a privilege to make the announcements on those 425 head, and I was impressed with the turnout of buyers, friends and neighbors as the tent was packed,” said Brandt after the sale. “The cows were in great condition and you could tell management was excellent.”

Mike gave Audrey the credit.

Before the rattle of cattle gates and the pitch of the auctioneer began, Audrey addressed the crowd with words that make the current dairy situation real for all who were there to hear them:

“We would like to welcome you to the Riverview Farms herd dispersal and thank you each for coming. Today feels a bit like attending my own funeral where we bury a piece of me, a piece of my family, and a piece of history, where we say goodbye to a lifestyle, to a way of life, to a lot of good times and many hardships as well. But I stand before you today proud to present to you a herd of cows that will do well no matter where they go.

 “This isn’t the end for these ladies, nor is it the end for us. I’ve had the privilege of managing the herd for the last 15 years and though we may not have done everything perfectly, we’ve done a pretty darn good job of developing and managing a set of cows that can be an asset to your herd. Everything being sold here today is up to date on vaccines. Any cows called pregnant has been rechecked in the last 10 days, Feet have been regularly maintained and udder health was always top priority. We culled hard over the last few weeks and have only the cream puffs left as the auctioneer Dave Rama says.

 “Though it feels like the end, it’s only the beginning of the next chapter, and we’re excited to see where God leads us next. Our milk inspector said once: it’s not a right to milk cows, it’s a privilege, and that’s exactly what this herd of cows was, a privilege.”

Her sister Ashlie’s husband Ryan Cobb offered a poignant prayer. The youngest grandchildren not in school, watched until lunchtime as the selling went through the afternoon, and the cattle were loaded onto trucks in the deepening rain at dusk.

As the sale progressed, a solemn reflection could be seen in the eyes of neighbors and peers. To see a local family sell a sizeable herd leaves everyone wondering ‘who’s next’ if prices don’t soon recover.

Nissley-Edits-21.jpg“It’s getting real,” says Mike. “Everyone is focused on survival, but we can see others are shook, not just for us, but because they are living it too.”

He has spent the last two years fighting to protect everything, including his family, “but now I surrender,” he says. “It feels like failure.”

There’s where he’s wrong. There are no failures here, except that the system is failing our farmers — and has been for quite some time — leaving good farmers, good dairymen and women, to believe it is they who have failed, when, in fact, they have almost without exception succeeded in every aspect of what they do.

Nancy is quick to point out that without Mike’s efforts and the family’s faith, “we wouldn’t have gotten this far, but now it’s time to see where God leads us next.”

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The dairy chapter closed last Friday for the Nissley family in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, but they are looking forward to where God leads them next. Mike and Nancy Nissley are flanked by daughter and herdswoman Audrey (left) and son-in-law and feed manager Matt Breneman and son Mason and daughter Ashlie (right) and son-in-law Ryan Cobb.

“Never have we felt the love and support like we have now from our community,” Audrey relates.

Nancy tells of a group of 20 who met at the farm for a meal the night before: “They prayed with us and rallied around us and supported us.”

Mike feels especially blessed. “We’ve had people just come over and sit in our kitchen with us,” he says. “People say ‘we’re here for you.’ People I never met are reaching out to tell me ‘you’re not alone, you’ll get through it, and there’s life after cows.’”

His bigger concern is that, “The public doesn’t fathom what the real struggles are out here. They have no idea where their food comes from and what it takes to produce it, the hours of work, of being tied to it 24/7/365. As farmers, we don’t have the resources or the time to correct all the misinformation when everyone believes what they see on social media.

“They go in a store and see milk still sold at $4.75/gal. The ice cream mix we buy for our ice cream machine costs the same as it did in 2014, when farm milk prices were much higher. DFA and Land O’Lakes report big annual profits. Where does the money go? Where did our basis go? It used to be $3.00 and now it’s barely 50 cents. There’s not one area to fix if the system is broken,” Mike says further.

“When you really look at this,” he says, “it’s amazing how little farms get for the service they provide, but if the public doesn’t know or understand that service, then they won’t expect the farmers to receive more and will actually make it harder for the farms to do with less.”

Nissley-Edits-25.jpgThe Riverview herd had good production and exceptional milk quality. Making around 25,000 pounds with SCC averaging below 80,000, Mike is “so proud of the great job Audrey has done. Without that quality, and what was left of the bonus, we would have had no basis at all,” he says, explaining that Audrey’s strict protocols and commitment to cow care, frequent bedding, and other cow comfort management — as well as a great team of employees — paid off in performance.

But at the same time, with all the extra hauling costs and marketing fees being deducted from the milk check, the quality bonus would add, but the subtractions would erode it.

He notes further that a milk surplus doesn’t seem to make sense when the bottom third — or more — of every herd that sells out is going straight to beef.

The Nissleys are emerging from the deepening uncertainty that all dairy farm families are living right now in a country where we have Federal Orders for milk marketing, and yet we are seeing an expedited disorderly death of dreams at kitchen tables where difficult decisions are being made.

Nissley2097Trying to stay afloat — and jockeying things around to make them work — “has been horrible,” said Nancy. She does the books for the farm and has a catering business.

Financial and accounting consultants advised holding off the sale for the bit of recovery that was expected by now. But it never materialized, and in fact, prices went backward.

“The question for us became ‘how much longer do we keep losing money hoping that things will get better?” Audrey suggests. “We had to start figuring our timeline.”

She has been the full-time herd manager here for 15 years since graduating from Delaware Valley University with a dairy science degree. Husband Matt has been the full-time feed and equipment maintenance manager.

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Cows have been part of Audrey Breneman’s life as long as she can remember. “They are part of who I am,” she says. Graduating from Del Val with a dairy science degree in 2003 and working full-time for 15 years as herdswoman at then 400-cow dairy farm started from scratch by her parents Mike and Nancy Nissley, have given her options as she moves forward after the sale of the family’s dairy herd.

She loved the cows. Their care was her passion, and the herd record and condition reflected this. But even the strongest dairy passion has limits when tested in a four-to-five-year-fire of downcycled prices.

“It’s too much work to be doing this for nothing,” she says.

With two young children of her own, Audrey could not envision doing the physical work, the long hours, with no sign of a future return that would allow her and her husband to invest in facilities, equipment and labor. How many years into the future could they keep up this pace, continually improving the herd and their milk quality, but feeling as though they are backpeddling financially?

These are the tough questions that the next generation is asking even as their parents wonder how to retain something for retirement, especially for those like Mike and Nancy who are still a way off from that.

We hear the experts say that the dairy exits are those who are older and deemed this to be “time,” or that the farms selling cows are doing so because their facilities have not been updated, or because they don’t have a next generation interested.

These oversimplified answers seek to appease. The truth is that in many cases — like this one — there is a next generation with a passion and skills for dairy farming.

The problem is the math. It doesn’t add up.

How are next generation dairy skills and passions to take hold when the market has become a flat-line non-volatile price? There are no peaks to go with the valleys because the valley has now become the price that corresponds directly with the lowest cost of production touted by industry sources and policymakers when talking about the nation’s largest consolidation herds in the west — and how they are dropping the bar on breakevens.

How are the next generation’s dairy passions to take hold when mailbox milk checks fall short of even Class III levels in much of the Northeast where farms sit within an afternoon’s drive of the major population centers

In Audrey’s 15 years as herd manager, there have been other downcycles, but they were cycles that included an upside to replenish bank accounts and hope. The prolonged length of the current downcycle brings serious doubt in the minds of young dairy producers about a sustainable future, but are the industry’s influencers, power centers and policymakers paying attention?

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Cows congregate in the two freestall barns and in the meadow by the road as a holding area during the Nissley family’s sale of the dairy herd Friday while the milking team milks for the last time in the nearby parlor.

Like many of her peers transitioning into family dairy businesses, the past four years have been draining. Much depends upon how far into a transition a next generation is, what resources they have through other diversified income streams in order to have the capital to invest in modernizing dairy facilities and equipment.

Without those capital investments, these challenging dairy markets combine with frustrating daily tasks when there is insufficient return to reinvest and finding and securing sufficient good labor also becomes an issue.

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As difficult as it is for the Nissley family, they are also concerned for their family of employees. The herd’s production and excellent milk quality are very much a team effort, they say, and the team of milkers pictured with Audrey (l-r) Manuel, Willie and Anselmo were busy Friday with the last milking at Riverview as cows came through the parlor all day ahead of their sale and transport.

The Nissleys are quick to point out that as hard as this has been for their family, it is also hard on their family of employees. They, too, are hurting.

“This is what I wanted to do all my life. It was our dream when we were married. I had a love for it and Nancy had a love for it,” says Mike, whose dairy dream was ignited by visits to his grandfather’s farm. Nancy grew up on a farm too, but the cows were sold in the 1970s.

The couple worked on dairy farms in the early years and saved their money. In 1994 they started dairying on their own farm with 60 cows. In September 2007, they moved to the Mount Joy location and began renovating the facilities for their growing herd.

Cows have been part of Audrey’s life as long as she can remember. “They are part of who I am,” she says, adding that she is glad to have her dairy science degree, along with the dairy work ethic and experience. “Here we are selling the cows, and I have opportunities to consider that I may not otherwise have. That degree is a piece of paper no one can take away from me.”

As the Nissleys closed this chapter Friday, they turn to what’s next. Nancy says she looks forward to being able to do things together they couldn’t do before while being tied to the dairy farm. As to what they will do on the farm, she says “God has not steered us wrong yet. Yes, it’s scary, but we also have faith that He is in this.”

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Mike and Nancy Nissley aren’t sure what the future looks like, but they say they are feeling the prayers, calls, texts and support of friends, family and community. That’s what is getting them through these days.

Mike has also gained new perspective. He observes that for any dairy family that has a future generation with a long-term goal, it makes sense to stay in and try to ride this out. “But if you have any question about that long-term goal, have the tough conversations about your options.

“It’s easy to lose perspective. For the last two years, I lost my perspective because I was so focused on survival. That’s what I take away from this, the importance of getting perspective. We are first generation farmers. We started with no cows 25 years ago and have 850 animals today. It’s hard to see it all dismantled and be worth nothing. But we’re not second-guessing our decision.”

Talking and praying with friends and acquaintances, Mike believes that, “We go through things, and we can’t let it drag us down but use it for God’s glory.”

Under the milky white November sky spilling rain like tears, he says that while the sale “feels like the death of a dream, I know I’ve been blessed to have shared this dream with my wife and to work alongside our daughter and to see the great things she was able to do with this herd, for as long as we could. I’m thankful for that.”

The sale started at 10 a.m. Over 400 cattle were loaded in the deepening rain at dusk as the dairy chapter closed at Riverview Farm, Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, and two generations of the Nissley family said there’s no looking back, only forward to where God leads them next.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What will become of, us?

sunsetbarn.jpgGovernment’s cozy relationship with dairy lobby is problem no. 1

By Sherry Bunting, reprinted from Farmshine, October 19, 2018

These are tough times. The strain of a fourth year of flat-lined milk prices is wearing thin on dairy farmers and those who serve them.

And the folks inside the Beltway don’t get it.

Wait, maybe they do.

The Farm Bill has yet to be passed, the mid-term elections are over… and the question continues to be asked: What can be done about the fact that family dairy farms are dropping like flies?

This question has been asked and answered for the better part of three years and the whole decade before that… and still we find ourselves repeating the same words falling on the same deaf ears, pleasant nods, and ‘sincere’ handshakes.

Where does Washington go for the answers? The dairy lobby. In fact, members of Congress will say that nothing gets done without getting National Milk Producers Federation on board.

What’s the deal for the future? A better ‘welfare’ program for small farms to window-dress the rapid and deliberate consolidation that is running rough-shod over their markets and using the Federal Order and other regulated pricing mechanisms to do it.

For years, a decade or more, grassroots dairy farmers have told their legislators to please work on repairing the damage government has already done to dairy farming.

They’ve pleaded with those inside the Beltway to heed the truth on the decades of flawed dietary guidelines and to right the wrongs in our nation’s school lunch program and other institutional feeding programs that are forced to follow these flawed guidelines.

But alas, instead of real change, we get more of the same, while the dairy lobby cheers and applauds over a tiny change allowing schools to serve 1% lowfat flavored milk instead of the prior Obama-era mandate of fat-free.

Meanwhile, nothing changes for regular milk in schools. It’s been fat-free and 1% for a decade now, and we have lost a generation of milk drinkers and stand to lose even more, and all the while our school kids fight increased obesity and diabetes rates, and we wonder, why?

Heck, you can’t even sell whole milk as a fundraiser during school hours, and you can’t give it away to schoolchildren during school hours due to these dietary rules that –according to those who have done a decade of scientific investigation of the research –show are actually not healthy rules for our children in the first place.

Plus, we have the FDA, having looked the other way for more than 10 years, now talking about milk’s standard of identity within a greater framework of “modernizing” standards of identity to “accomplish nutritional goals” — goals that are guided by flawed government dietary guidelines.

Instead of acknowledging the past wrong and immediately setting it right, the FDA adds comment period after comment period to try to read the minds of consumers. They want to know if consumers understand what they are buying when they buy fake milk.

The short answer? survey after survey shows that an overwhelming majority of consumers are, in fact, confused about the nutritional differences between real milk and the imposters — some consumers even believe there is milk in the not-milk ‘milk’.

Meanwhile, more time passes. Farmers are asked to wait. Be patient, while more damage is done by counterfeit claims that steal market share from dairy milk’s rightful place.

And then there’s the regulated milk pricing. What are the odds that any member of Congress will heed the past 10 years of requests for a national hearing now that California has enthusiastically joined the Federal Orders? That was the death nell of more of the same.

“It’s a free market,” say the legislators, regulators and market pundits.

“It’s a global market,” they add further.

No folks. It is a regulated market, and believe me when I tell you, the USDA and the major national footprint cooperatives operate this regulated market in lockstep.

Processors can’t access the administrative hearing process, unless they are cooperative-owned processors.

Farmers can’t access the administrative hearing process, except through their cooperatives.

Ditto on the above when it comes to voting. Bloc voting on behalf of farmers by their cooperative leadership seals every deal.

At a meeting a few months ago in the Southeast with USDA administrators that was intended to talk about multiple component pricing, farmers brought forward their grievances about bloc voting and their concerns about how milk is qualified on their Orders to share in their pool dollars.

What was USDA’s official response? The same response we hear over and over from legislators. “You vote for your co-op boards and they vote for Federal Orders.”

The Federal Orders were implemented in the 1930’s to keep milk available to consumers, to keep producers from being run-over. Today, these Orders are used to move milk from expanding consolidation areas to regions that have small and mid-sized family and multi-generational dairy farms located near consumer populations and competitive markets.

This is not a size thing. This is not small vs. big thing. This is structural change thing that is happening in the dairy industry at an increasingly rapid rate while the lifeblood is sucked right out of our culture of dairy farming.

troxel-sale-2The storm is brewing. Since the beginning of this year, the financial experts have told us that one-third of producers are selling out or contemplating an exit from dairy, that another one-third are not sure where they even stand, and that another one-third are moving forward with plans for expansion within consolidating industry structures.

The thought occurs to me: When the other two-thirds of producers are gone, what will become of that one-third that is still moving forward expanding, undeterred? What will become of the fabric from which their progress emerged? What will become of the next generation with hands-on experience, passion and love of dairy? Who will be raised on a dairy farm in the future? What contributions will be lost when dairy becomes only a business and no longer a business that is also a lifestyle? Who will be the support businesses? How will our communities change? Will all of our dairies in the future be academically run? What will become of our cow sense, our deep roots, our sense of community?

What will become of, us?

GL 4736For years we have heard “there’s a place for every size dairy in this industry.” That phrase is how we get small and mid-sized farms to advocate with consumers about modern farming so they will accept a more consolidated dairy farming picture.

Now that we are reaching this point, will we hear the large consolidating integrators say the same in reverse? Will they slow down, push pause, and realize there IS a place for the diversity of farms that make this industry the shining star it is and could be?

While at World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wisconsin in October, the strain of now a fourth year of low prices was evident. Attendance “felt” lower even if the official numbers don’t totally reflect it.

Show entries were down. Traffic among trade show exhibitors was interesting and steady, but ‘off’ and ‘different.’

Dairy farmers are struggling. Large, small, and in between, these times are tough, and clear answers are elusive.

Dairy farmers remain paralyzed by three things:

1) the inability to have an effect on their circumstances or seat at the decision table;

2) lack of understanding of an incredibly complex regulated market; and

3) the innate desire to trust the establishment that handles their milk because they are too busy milking, managing and caring for cows, not to mention the land, to handle the milk marketing themselves.

Just think about this for a moment. In the past four years, National Milk Producers Federation has created and implemented the F.A.R.M. program where someone can come in and put you on a list for a subjective heifer bedding evaluation, where more is being not asked, but demanded, while at the same time, the pay price from which to do more is declining.

The milk checkoff programs continue to focus on partnerships. All kinds of efforts emerge to give away milk and dairy, and meanwhile supermarket wars by large integrating retailers push milk further into a commodity corner from which all imposters can brand their ‘more than’ and ‘less than’ marketing claims.

What we learned at some of the seminars at World Dairy Expo is that nothing will change in the milk pricing system, that it’s a free market, a global market, and that the best Congress can do is improve the margin protection program and other insurance options so farmers have the tools to deal with it.

I’m here to tell you that as long as this remains true, no farmer should be ashamed to use these tools even if it means receiving taxpayer dollars because it is the government’s actions and inaction over a decade or more that have created the problems in milk pricing and marketing today, and furthermore, the government shows no sign of wanting to let go of its stranglehold on dietary guidelines, how it enforces dairy’s standard of identity in fraudulent labeling, nor how it conspires with the dairy lobby — made up of the nation’s largest cooperatives — to regulate pricing in a way that further consolidates the dairy industry.

And by the way, all of the rhetoric on trade and NAFTA and Canada’s supply management system and Class 7 pricing has been nothing more than a smokescreen.

wGDC18-Day1-56Trade is important, but again, we have reached a point where 2018 is seeing the demise of dairy farms at rapid rates while exports continue to set new records. As of Oct. 5, 2018, U.S. dairy exports for the first 8 months of the year (Jan-Aug) accounted for a record-setting 16.6% of milk production on a solids basis. That’s the largest ever percentage of the largest ever milk production total – more of the more – in the history of the U.S. dairy industry’s recordkeeping.

In fact, traders will be the first to tell you that “more exports” don’t translate into “better farm milk prices” because the export markets are largely commodity clearing markets and they are fueling expansion of commodity processing in areas of the U.S. where it is easiest to export to Asia and Mexico. A global supply-chain is in the works.

The exports, in fact, are diluting the Federal Order pricing at the same rapid rate as declines in consumer fluid milk consumption, putting severe pressure on eastern markets in particular.

Meanwhile, the eastern milk markets are extremely tight on milk. This information is sourced to cooperative managers and the independent USDA Dairy Market News. Plants are seeking milk and not receiving it. Trucker shortages are complicating the problem. State regulated pricing mechanisms, such as in Pennsylvania, still interfere, making milk cheaper to bring in than to use what is here. In some Federal Orders to the south, this is also the case because of how their pools are administrated.

We are seeing the vicious circle of self-fulfilling prophecies. Producers who want to operate 50 cow, 100 cow, 300 cow, 500 cow, 1000 cow, 1500 cow dairy farms in the eastern U.S. within a day’s drive of the largest population are in jeopardy. They have lost their location advantage but continue to deal with the disadvantages. As milk tightens they are not seeing their premiums return, instead some farmers report getting docked by their co-ops for not making enough milk, or they are socked with incredible hauling rates because their milk was hauled out while other milk was hauled in.

What can Congress do? Hold that national hearing on milk pricing. Give farmers a seat at the table apart from the company-store. Learn what is happening. See government’s role in it.

Dear Congress, if you really want to know what to do, look in the mirror.

Before it’s too late, please right the fundamental wrongs government has done to our dairy consumers and dairy farmers as it controls what fat level of milk kids are permitted to drink at school, how milk is priced, how milk is marketed and how milk is allowed to be advertised and promoted with farmers’ own money – while at the same time still turning a blind eye and deaf ear to loss-leading supermarket wars that operate off the backs of farmers and the processing industry’s pillaging of milk’s market share with nondairy imposters.

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New PMMB consumer rep sees dairy crisis from outside-in

Dr. Carol Hardbarger is digging in and looking at all angles of PA dairy crisis.

Hardbarger9825 (1).jpgBy Sherry Bunting, from Farmshine, Sept. 7, 2018

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Solving problems, bridging gaps, making connections, bringing different interests together – these are skills Carol Hardbarger, Ph.D. has been using throughout her career in education. Today, she brings a unique combination of skills and background to the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board (PMMB). She was appointed by Gov. Tom Wolf in May and confirmed by the Senate in June.

“It is a tremendous honor for this to come at the end of my career, to be asked by Governor Wolf, to meet with Senators during confirmation, and to have this opportunity to do something for the state and the dairy industry I love,” Hardbarger said in a recent interview with Farmshine at the PMMB offices in Harrisburg.

She reflects on that call from the Governor’s office, telling her she had been nominated and asking if she would serve. She promptly began looking at the information on what the PMMB does.

“There is a crisis in the dairy industry,” says Dr. Hardbarger. “Oftentimes, when there is a problem, there is a solution that can be obvious to someone looking at the problem from the outside, to go back to what the objectives are of an organization or project at hand, looking at what has been done and why it hasn’t worked.”

She talks about the smaller steps that may be missed in trying to get to an end goal.

“That’s how my brain is wired,” the intense, but easy-to-talk-to Hardbarger says with a smile. She is a big-picture thinker with an obvious knack for process details.

In every job before retirement, she was brought in to help solve a problem and was able to deal successfully with those situations.

The dairy industry issues go well beyond the regulatory aspects of the PMMB. As the board’s consumer representative, Hardbarger seeks a broader role in marketing and advocacy that is refreshing.

She has rolled up her sleeves to dig in, confessing that she loves an intellectual challenge.

Her intention to spend one day a week at the PMMB offices in Harrisburg, quickly became two days a week and has now evolved into a full-time 40- to 50-hour work week.

Hardbarger serves on the board with dairy producers Jim Van Blarcom of Bradford County and Rob Barley (chair) of Lancaster County. They are also putting more time in their roles.

“That’s okay,” she says. “In order to accomplish what the Governor and Senators have communicated, that level of time and organization is necessary.”

She spends her time combing through records, meeting with government and industry entities, opening lines of communication, and being helpful to staff, which has been reduced in recent years by unfilled retirements.

Hardbarger sees external communication and a visible, accessible board on “advocacy things” as vital for developing the relationships that lead to solving problems.

She started the PMMB facebook page and twitter feed (@PAMilkBoard), as well as an email newsletter to legislators and industry that will eventually broaden to consumers. She also helped organize upcoming listening sessions. There is no need to pre-register or pre-submit comments, and the board urges those who can’t attend to send comments electronically to ra-pmmb@pa.gov.

The first listening session was held Sept. 26 from 6 to 9 p.m. in western Pennsylvania. The second will be Oct. 16 at Troy Fairgrounds in northern Pennsylvania, and another is being planned for southeastern Pennsylvania, potentially in Lebanon in November.

In the office with staff through the week, Hardbarger says Pennsylvania’s dairy industry is lucky to have these individuals, who are “highly capable and dedicated in jobs that are not easy.”

On the road forward, she sees a starting point is identifying where there is agreement.

“We have to start with what we all agree are issues to address. Otherwise, we are just putting on band-aids,” says Hardbarger, explaining that such a “holistic approach” is a way for deep-rooted past, present and future issues to be addressed for the long-term.

“I have some concern as I listen to the various constituency groups in the dairy industry — the farmers, the dealers, the retailers, the consumers — that when they speak, for the most part, I hear a lot of individual agenda,” she relates. “I believe strongly that we must be able to look at the agendas of all the groups and somehow integrate them to come up with solutions and prioritize them.”

When Hardbarger talks about “systemic solutions,” as she did in her Senate confirmation hearing, she means the longstanding parts of the system that are “built into how the industry operates.”

She gives the example that some are talking about “temporarily suspending” the minimum milk price, which would require changes in the law.

“We told the Senate that we want to look at some legislative items and see what makes sense for 2018 and 2019,” says Hardbarger.

Another example is some want the over-order premium to end.

“They believe it is not working the way it needs to,” she says. “We are not hearing many suggestions to raise the over-order premium. It will be interesting to see what comments and ideas we get at the upcoming listening sessions.”

The challenge is, according to Hardbarger, “how do we blend a holistic approach to a problem and how it developed systemically over the years with legislation and regulation that was implemented in a time very much different from today.”

She says the board is taking a neutral approach as they look at impacts.

“There are some misconceptions about what the board can and cannot do… so I hope the newsletter and outreach will develop good lines of communication with the legislature while correcting misconceptions and give us the ability to come back to the Assembly with information they need,” Hardbarger relates. “We obviously have the two laws we are responsible for with the associated regulations. But as our name implies, we are ‘marketing.’”

Through facebook and twitter, Hardbarger posts things she sees every day of interest to dairy. The newsletter will eventually include a calendar, an information piece from the chairman, questions and answers by staff, and the school nutrition aspect will be discussed.

Asked why the PMMB’s facebook and twitter profile picture is the PA Preferred logo, Hardbarger responded simply: “We want to promote Pennsylvania dairy products.”

She gave the example of a recent step — sending information to retailers and processors on how special milk promotions can legally be done, and suggesting such promotions be linked to PA Preferred milk.

Hardbarger says she wants PMMB’s communications to be an information clearinghouse between the industry and the legislature and ultimately the consumer.

In developing her role as consumer representative, she is already pursuing relationships with consumer groups and civic organizations to provide information about the nutritional benefits of consuming dairy products and what the industry means to Pennsylvania and its communities.

For example, Hardbarger has already reached out to school nutrition officials with ideas about how milk and dairy are nutritionally assessed within the USDA meal profile for school breakfast, lunch and after school programs.

“If milk and dairy products were separated from the nutritional analysis… we may see schools offer more milk and dairy in the morning and after school programs without having to fit into a total nutrition analysis,” she suggests, adding that this idea is being provided to Representative G.T. Thompson, who sits on the Congressional workforce and education committee as well as to U.S. Senators Pat Toomey and Bob Casey.

“We are also communicating with USDA on this issue of getting whole milk (unflavored) in the schools along with now flavored 1% milk,” she said.

PMMB also sent official comments to the FDA docket to enforce and uphold milk’s standard of identity, and sent emails encouraging others to do so.

Hardbarger understands the nutritional tightrope schools walk to serve foods and milk that students enjoy and will consume. She is aware of the steady drumbeat of scientific studies showing dairy as a complete protein and complete source of vitamins and minerals children today are lacking, as well as the positive dietary revelations about whole milk and full fat dairy, especially for children.

She remembers her youth and spending much time on her grandparents’ dairy farm in northern Maryland, of making and consuming everything from homemade cottage cheese, butter and farmers cheese to whipped cream pies.

And she reminisces about doing just about every chore on that diversified farm, pointing out a decades-old framed photo of her son as a child milking one of four Jersey cows the family kept at that time.

While her career has been in education and technology, she is quick to point out that she has been around farmers and agriculture all of her life.

“There is a passion people have for this life, this business. And the dairy industry is vital to the economy of our state and a big part of what defines us, of who we are,” the proud mother and grandmother two-generations removed from dairy farming explains.

Since her first day on the PMMB in early July, Hardbarger has encountered “no real surprises” but a fuller understanding of issues that have swirled for years.

What surprises her is “the differences of opinion among constituent groups and their differing opinions about what needs to be done,” and seeing how far the industry is from dealing with differences over coffee and a handshake.

“Now we have groups with lawyers and CPAs and very strong individual agendas,” Hardbarger observes. “That has surprised me. I wasn’t aware of how fractured it is. This is an observation, not a criticism, because each constituency has a business interest to protect.”

From staff development to planning a staff retreat, to emailing staff for their ideas, Hardbarger says the momentum is “forward,” even though it’s “frustrating” to learn that state bureaucracies do not move as quickly as desired and there are regulations for literally everything.

“We can’t” are words she does not like to hear.

“There are very few things in this world that cannot be done. It may be that we need to do them in a different or particular way,” says Hardbarger. “We have to fix this dairy crisis, and we can, if we get all the players involved.”

Toward that end, Hardbarger says her next goal is to have the PMMB work with other agencies in forming a “rapid response team” for dairy.

“We hear stories about how a vital bridge can be fixed within 40 days… how the state government made it easier to deal with regulatory processes and provided waivers to make something happen, fast, because it was economically feasible to do that,” she says. “Pennsylvania has a Dairy Development plan… and we need the same ‘rapid response’ in dealing with our dairy crisis.”

Looking ahead, she is most hopeful that, “We can get a working group together of one or two representatives of each constituency group… and start hammering out solutions to our problems, to talk honestly face-to-face about the issues and come up with a few solutions that will work, and that my time here will be productive.”

Adds Hardbarger: “The most rewarding thing so far is the people I’ve met. There is nothing like coming into the office in the morning and seeing smiles and enthusiasm among the staff and having positive responses and feedback from Senate and House staff, to see us moving in a direction.”

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PHOTO CAPTION Hardbarger9825

Retired education and technology expert Carol Hardbarger, Ph.D., of Newport, talks about the dairy crisis and her role as the new consumer representative on the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board during a recent interview at the PMMB offices in Harrisburg. She says the Bonnie Mohr painting behind her is a favorite reminder of youthful days spent on her grandparents’ dairy farm. “It also reminds me that the number of dairy farms throughout Pennsylvania help define who we are as a state,” she says. Photo by Sherry Bunting

 

Changing of the guard: New PMMB chairman sees increased fluid milk demand as job no. 1

RobBarley6539 (2).jpgBy Sherry Bunting, Reprinted from Farmshine, August 3, 2018

CONESTOGA, Pa. — The number one problem needing solved for dairy is bringing back fluid milk demand. Good things are happening in the dairy industry, which makes now the critical time to seek ideas, think outside the box, and be open to seeing — and seizing — opportunities.

That’s what came through during a recent interview with Rob Barley in his office at Star Rock Farms. The Lancaster County farmer and dairy producer is having a busy summer as the new chairman of the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board (PMMB).

He is also the first dairy farmer to be appointed by USDA to the at-large general public seat on the National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Board, which funds the Milk Processors Education Program (MilkPEP) for educating consumers and increasing fluid milk consumption.

“For way too long, producers have been struggling with profitability. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to help bring back a positive atmosphere, that gives farmers hope, to know we have a product people want, that makes their lives better, while providing a return for our hard work,” says Barley. “In the long term, there are issues to address and to quantify, but in the short term, we want to find ways to increase fluid milk consumption because that solves a lot of our problems.”

In the farm business partnership with his brother and cousin, as well as in leadership roles through the years, what Barley says he enjoys most is “the people in this industry. They are good and hard working. I’ve been part of the dairy industry all my life, and I want Pennsylvania to remain a strong dairy state.”

July brought a changing of the guard and a fresh spirit of optimism and forward-looking energy to the PMMB with the June Senate confirmation of both Barley and Dr. Carol Hardbarger, who join Jim Van Blarcom on the three-member board.

While Barley wasn’t actively seeking the appointment, he was often been called upon to give a dairy producer’s point of view at House and Senate hearings over the past 10 years during his previous involvement with the Dairy Policy Action Coalition (DPAC).

“There was a clamor for change, and people were encouraging me to consider a PMMB appointment,” he says. People were vocal about it. Fellow dairy farmers asked Rob to get involved, and the support of Senators Scott Martin and Ryan Aument of Lancaster County, as well as the Senate leadership, was instrumental.

Once it became clear there were two openings for board terms that had expired without re-appointment, Barley had discussions with Pa. Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding and was honored when the Governor appointed him in May.

Now, just a month after being confirmed by the Senate, Barley says he is getting a feel for the PMMB’s regulatory function. At the same time, he wants the board to exercise a leadership role in the collective efforts underway to strengthen Pennsylvania dairy.

That process of idea-gathering began with Secretary Redding’s letter to the previous board in April, followed by the previous chairman, Luke Brubaker, holding several open hearings for public comment.

Barley wants to keep that momentum going. In addition to spending a day or two each week in Harrisburg with staff, he has been reaching out in person and by phone to talk with people from all facets of the dairy industry. He wants to understand the landscape of what’s being done now, and take-in ideas from others about what can be done going forward.

“We have opportunities, and a board and staff that really want to work on this. We’ve had discussions about many things, including how to support and encourage our schools where milk is concerned. Jim is really engaged in this and Carol has some ideas on the consumer side,” says Barley of his fellow PMMB board members. “Carol is a retired educator, and she really has a passion to get information to the consumers, and that’s in her purview as the PMMB member representing consumer interests.”

During the July 2 hearing and sunshine meeting, the first for Barley as PMMB chair, the enthusiasm was apparent among board, staff, industry participants and onlookers as the reorganized board is challenging everyone to bring forward ideas.

“We want all ideas on the table, whether or not they’ve been looked at before,” says Barley. “At this point, we’re focusing on putting anything on the table that will increase demand or bring it back. We’ve challenged the staff to bring out ideas, and they are very engaged.”

The PMMB is also engaging the Pa. Department of Agriculture, Center for Dairy Excellence and the PA Preferred program.

“There’s a limit to what we can do from a regulatory side, because our job as a board is fairly narrow, but we can show vocal support and leadership, and if we see something we can do that can help, we can consider it, or make suggestions to the legislature,” Barley explains.

In fact, the Senate Ag Committee encouraged Barley and Hardbarger to do just that during their confirmation hearing. Senators said they wanted to keep dialog going and see ‘marketing’ put back into the meaning of the Milk Marketing Board.

Barley sees real opportunity in Pennsylvania. And while the multi-part Pennsylvania Dairy Study shows the Keystone state as a good bet for new processing, he realizes new plants are costly, and attracting a new processing plant will take time.

“We are competing with other states that may have more incentives or more sites, but we have the milk and the infrastructure and the quality and the people, and we can overcome some of those challenges by looking at new opportunities with existing plants,” he suggests.

Discussions are already happening with existing fluid milk plants in the industry around ideas for expansion associated with re-tooling and innovation.

“The normal market for fluid milk is not expanding, but maybe we can offer other ways for consumers to enjoy milk,” says Barley. Working with businesses already located in Pennsylvania, with a commitment here, could be a less expensive and faster course of action to get accomplished versus attracting a new plant or new business to the state.

That’s how Barley thinks. He thinks in terms of opportunities and how to capitalize on them, and in these new roles, he is using those skills to strengthen an industry he cares about and bring that to the farm level.

“I’m excited to finally see some good things happening in dairy,” he cites the recent University of Texas Health Science Center published July 11 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It shows the clear health benefits of enjoying full-fat dairy products and whole milk. Barley is also is encouraged by FDA’s recent move to look at what actually is milk.

“Consumption of most dairy products is good, but we are losing fluid demand. With some of the good things beginning to happen, we have this opportunity right now,” says Barley. “All we ever heard for decades is that eggs are bad for us, and now they’re recommending two eggs a day. I see this happening with science supporting dairy.”

Barley looks forward to his first MilkPEP board meeting in Boston in August. Of that separate and voluntary, unpaid promotion board seat, he says “I’m looking to bring the farmer perspective.”

Of the PMMB chairmanship, Barley acknowledges that, “There are hurdles in the current system, and we’re finding out what the board can do, where we fit as the state looks at dairy processing and economic development and in what ways we can encourage innovation to increase demand.”

In both appointments, Barley is focused on fluid milk demand. Pure and simple, he considers it job number one. His bottom line is that doing the right thing is something no one should be afraid of.

“That’s really what I want to see — and what farmers want to see, and what everyone wants to see — is that fluid milk demand to increase. If everyone working on it can start bringing it back, that will help the profit margins the whole way through the chain,” he says. “If we continue to have fluid milk demand being destroyed, nothing will save our industry.”

As the board and staff engage with farmers, cooperatives, processors, retailers, and even consumers, Barley stresses that, “We want to hear as many ideas and meet with as many folks as possible. There’s more agreement in this industry than most people think.”

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RobBarley photo caption

Rob Barley at Star Rock Farms, where he is in partnership with his brother Tom and cousin Abe in the diversified dairy, crop and livestock business. As the new chairman of the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board (PMMB), and first dairy farmer recently appointed to an at-large seat on the National Fluid Milk Processors Promotion Board, he hopes to help make fluid milk demand job number one. “That’s really what I want to see — and what farmers want to see, and what everyone wants to see — is that fluid milk demand to increase. If everyone working on it can start bringing it back, that will help the profit margins the whole way through the chain. If we continue to have fluid milk demand being destroyed, nothing will save our industry.” Photo by Sherry Bunting

A story interview with the new PMMB consumer representative, Dr. Carol Hardbarger, appears in Friday’s Sept. 7 Farmshine, beginning on page 3. This one will also be posted at this blog in the future.

Fort Wayne bottling startup delayed, How Walmart may shape dairy landscape

By Sherry Bunting, edited from Farmshine and Farmers Exchange May 18, 2018

GreatValueMilk(WalmartPhoto).jpgFORT WAYNE, Ind. — Bottling at Walmart’s first-of-its-kind milk plant in Fort Wayne, Indiana will be delayed.

“We’ll begin bottling later this summer and will kick in to full production later this year,” notes Walmart spokesperson Molly Blakeman in an email response.

Until then, she said, “we have a plan in place to ensure there are no disruptions in the supply chain for customers.”

Described earlier as a 250,000 square-foot plant to bottle Great Value and Member’s Mark milk for 600 Walmart and Sam’s Club stores, Blakeman confirmed: “Once it becomes operational and once fully utilized, it will be one of the largest fluid milk plants in the U.S.”

Processing capacity was not disclosed, but Blakeman did discuss milk sourcing.

“By operating our own plant and working directly with the dairy supply chain in the Midwest, we will further reduce our operating costs and pass these savings on to our customers, so they can save money,” she related.

“We are working with three milk cooperatives and a number of independent farmers. Each farm that is supplying milk to our facility is within 180 miles of the plant,” noted Blakeman, explaining that farms terminated by Dean Foods that are “closer to Fort Wayne have signed contracts with the cooperatives to work with Walmart.”

She indicated the plant will serve stores “throughout most of Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and parts of Illinois and Kentucky.”

Beyond that, she confirmed: “Dean Foods remains a very large fluid milk supplier to many (Walmart) stores.”

When questioned about reports that Walmart is already eyeing sites for future plants, Blakeman said they want to be successful with this plant before seeing if other opportunities exist.

“Walmart’s goal is to produce the highest quality and freshest-tasting fluid white milk and chocolate milk possible — and deliver a great value on that purchase,” Blakeman stated.

Meanwhile, the milk price wars among supermarkets, discounters and big box stores have reached new lows of 67 cents per gallon in states without loss-leader protection — including Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Illinois, the states to be served by the new Walmart plant.

Does Walmart accept these below-cost retail milk prices as a cost of customer acquisition and loyalty?

Blakeman cited the Federal Milk Marketing Orders (FMMO): “Any loss Walmart takes on milk cannot be passed on to the producer because of how our milk payments are regulated by the FMMO. We, as a non-coop processor, have a minimum milk price that is set by the government that we have to pay our producers and cooperatives.”

Furthermore, noted Blakeman, “Walmart will not do well in this plant if our dairy producers do not do well. We will provide a dedicated market for their milk, so they can focus on milk quality and animal care.”

She notes that Walmart understands the role of quality.

“We have strict policies in place in regard to animal welfare,” Blakeman explained, noting full support for the National Dairy Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) program initiated by National Milk Producers Federation, a milk cooperative membership organization, and Dairy Management Inc., an organization funded by the mandatory milk promotion checkoff.

At a link provided by Blakeman (https://corporate.walmart.com/policies), Walmart states that it is “committed to continuous improvement and aspires to achieve the globally-recognized Five Freedoms of animal welfare for farm animals in our supply chain.”

When asked how Walmart’s milk-sourcing addresses consumer desires for locally-produced milk, Blakeman put the focus on the plant.

“The farms and coops we are sourcing from are local and family-owned producers,” she said. “Milk being supplied to our plant comes from no further than 180 miles away.”

Walmart also seeks to work with single-source loads instead of commingled farm milk, and their efforts to work more directly with the milk supply chain go beyond the area served by the Fort Wayne plant.

A number of reports have surfaced among industry sources that some of Walmart’s milk-source will make its way to Dean Foods’ plants in Pennsylvania that bottle a mix of in- and out-of-state milk and where Walmart’s Pennsylvania milk dealer license is associated.

“The sourcing strategy in Pennsylvania remains unchanged since the Fort Wayne plant is not supplying any of our stores in Pennsylvania,” said Blakeman when asked about this potential development. She declined to address questions about the milk sourcing strategy further east.

In 2013, Walmart acquired a Pennsylvania milk dealer license from the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board listed for six fluid milk bottling plants owned by Dean Foods — one in New Jersey and five in Pennsylvania — including plants that cut half of their dairy farm suppliers, 42 in Pennsylvania, four in Ohio and one in New York.

In Pennsylvania, the 80-year-old milk marketing law authorizes the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board (PMMB) to set retail and wholesale milk prices at levels to cover retailer and processor cost-recovery plus a profit margin.

The PMMB also sets a producer-over-order premium that is only followed back to the farm level on milk that meets three criteria — produced and bottled in Pennsylvania and sold to stores or warehouses within Pennsylvania’s borders.

That premium was reduced from $1.60 per hundredweight of milk to 75 cents in January due to pressure from out-of-state milk sourcing that allows retailers and processors to keep the producer premiums.

Tennessee has a loss-leader law for milk. While not as robust or lawyered-up as Pennsylvania’s complex system, the provision keeps retail milk prices from going too low.

In addition, Pennsylvania has a state logo (PA Preferred) plants can apply for, and if qualified, use the logo to signify the milk was produced on farms in Pennsylvania. Efforts are underway in Tennessee to see if something like this can be achieved, and the state already has bottlers doing local marketing.

Producers who received Dean letters in Pennsylvania and Tennessee were largely able to find new milk contracts with bottlers that source and advertise their milk using local marketing strategies, but even in those states, some of the affected farms ultimately had to sell their cows.

While a few farms in each affected state sold cows and exited the dairy business, most who found markets, found them with smaller bottlers or smaller cooperatives. However, 14 in central Kentucky, 7 in southern Indiana , 1 in Tennessee, 2 in Ohio and 1 in western New York, have not. (Update since publication: Dean Foods did give a 30 day extension until July 1 to the Kentucky producers and a select few in southern Indiana whose contract renewal dates differed.)

As reported previously, of the 25 Indiana farms facing Dean contract terminations on May 31, those in northern Indiana have largely been resolved with offers from two cooperatives — Michigan Milk Producers and Great Lakes Milk Producers — while the southern Indiana farms are having more difficulty, according to Doug Leman, executive director of Indiana Dairy Producers.

“We have had contacts with some of the affected Indiana farms and are looking for opportunities for them,” said Doug Brechler for Great Lakes Milk Producers. “Like the affected farms, we are still making decisions. We can only take the milk we have a market for.”

Brechler confirmed that Great Lakes Milk Producers is one of several entities that will be supplying the Fort Wayne Walmart plant. “We’re thankful to be one of the suppliers and look forward to working with Walmart and happy to be a part of providing them with high quality milk and service.”

Brechler and Leman see the new Walmart plant as an opportunity for milk producers in the Mideast milk marketing area even though the current situation in milk markets is difficult at this time.

The farms in Kentucky, southern Indiana, Ohio and western Pennsylvania having trouble finding new milk buyers are on the southern and eastern ends of the area to be served by the new Walmart plant and on the fringes of the Southeast and Northeast regions that are considered milk-deficit. (Update since publication, some of the remaining western Pennsylvania farms were picked up by Schneider’s Dairy, a PA Preferred milk bottler, that has taken on at least 8 of the 16 western Pennsylvania producers dropped by Dean).

These eastern deficit regions were noted recently by University of Wisconsin dairy economist Dr. Mark Stephenson in a “changing dairy landscapes” presentation at the Heartland Dairy Expo in Springfield, Missouri. Stephenson said getting milk from surplus regions to deficit regions is a “tricky challenge.”

Most of the farms still seeking new milk buyers are not large enough to be “single-source-loads,” and they are outside of the 180-mile sourcing distance for the Fort Wayne Walmart plant. Yet the Walmart store brand in their area will be supplied by the new plant instead of the regional Dean plants these farms had long supplied.

According to state officials and Federal Order reports, there are other processors operating in the region, and supplemental milk is regularly brought in from outside the area to serve their needs.

In Kentucky, for example, two cooperatives operating across a wider region are the gatekeepers to these plants, and they have previously indicated they will not accept new members.

Maury Cox, executive director of the Kentucky Dairy Development Council is concerned that losing the 14 Kentucky farms could damage the dairy infrastructure and unravel the state’s significant dairy industry.

“It’s down to the wire and we’re working on a hail-Mary,” says Cox. “We started with 19 affected producers, and we’re down to 14. Some have exited the business and we may lose a couple more.”

He says the KDDC, Kentucky Department of Agriculture and the Governor’s Office of Ag Policy have all gotten involved helping these farms find a solution before their last pickup.

Both Leman and Cox share the concern that if the southern Indiana and central Kentucky farms are lost, other farms in the region — both independent and cooperative – will be more vulnerable in terms of future milk markets and transportation costs.

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Pa. Gov. Wolf names Barley to PMMB, Senate confirmation hearings in June

DairyFarm(EasternLancCo)7138w.jpg

By Sherry Bunting from Farmshine, May 25, 2018

HARRISBURG, Pa. — The Pennsylvania State Senate will take up consideration and confirmation of two new appointments from Governor Tom Wolf for the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board (PMMB)

The Governor’s appointment of Lancaster County farmer and dairy producer Rob Barley of Conestoga and education technology consultant Carol Hardbarger, Ph.D., require confirmation by the state Senate.

That process is anticipated for June and begins with a Senate hearing via the Senate Ag Committee, which could be scheduled as early as June 6.

RobBarley (1)

Rob Barley

While the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Law does not specify two “farmer” representatives and one “consumer” representative, the familiar practice over the years is for the 3-member board to be comprised in this manner. Rob Barley has been nominated by the Governor, pending confirmation by the Senate, to fill the expired “farmer” seat of PMMB chairman Luke Brubaker, also a Lancaster County dairy producer.

According to the Milk Marketing Board website, Brubaker was first appointed by Gov. Tom Ridge in 1997 and re-appointed by Governors Ed Rendell and Tom Corbett. Brubaker’s third term expired in 2016.

“I am supporting Rob Barley’s nomination and think he will do a great job in this position, given the current challenges for dairy today,” said Senator Scott Martin of Lancaster in a phone interview Monday. “Even thought Rob comes from a larger dairy farm, I have already heard from many smaller farms who support his nomination because they see that Rob understands their plight.”

The PMMB completed the second of two listening sessions last week on ideas presented by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture through a petition by Ag Secretary Russell Redding as well as ideas presented by the public.

The dairy farming community has brought concerns over the past 10 to 15 years about the transparency of the PMMB over-order premium and other regulatory and statutory aspects of the Milk Marketing Law, as well as questions about the modern-day impact of this unique system not found in other states at a time when milk moves coast to coast and around the world.

“This (appointment) is just one step in us looking at the dairy issue and how it impacts our communities and our local farmers,” said Sen. Martin. “We can’t continue to allow expired positions to go as long as it has in this case. We need to show that we care about these issues, and get this confirmation done.”

Martin notes he is “glad the Governor nominated these individuals for the farmer and consumer representation. We need to get them confirmed and move forward to address the dairy issues.”

Barley operates Star Rock Farms, a diversified dairy, livestock and cropping enterprise, with his brother Tom and cousin Abe. They were recognized as 2017 Mid-Atlantic Master Farmers. Among other involvements, Barley has served on the board of the Lancaster County Ag Council and the township planning commission. He has also served as president of the Dairy Policy Action Coalition and has testified in past years before both the Senate and House Ag Committees when various bills were considered to address transparency in the PMMB pricing system.

If confirmed by the Senate, Barley would fill the expired seat of Luke Brubaker, who has served on the Milk Marketing Board for 21 years, including the past nine as chairman.

Dr. Hardbarger, an education technology consultant, earned her degrees in agriculture and education at Penn State University. She is a former assistant professor at Cornell and has applied her specialized skills to various positions in public and private education with interest in technology and resource utilization, professional development, and grant and proposal writing.

If confirmed by the Senate, Hardbarger would fill the expired board seat of Lynda Bowman, a Lancaster resident who was appointed by Governor Tom Corbett in 2011. She previously served as secretary of the PMMB and is a past president and lifetime member of the International Association of Milk Control Agencies.

The third member of the board unaffected by these appointments is Jim Van Blarcom, a farmer and dairy producer from Columbia Cross Roads, Bradford County. He was appointed by Gov. Tom Corbett in June of 2014.

To support the Governor’s appointments to the PMMB, contact your state Senator. Also contact the Senate Ag Committee chairman Elder Vogel at 717.787.3076 and Senate President Joe Scarnati at 717.787.7084 by June 6. To locate your state Senator, use this guide

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Start your engines… the milk’s a’chillin’

By Sherry Bunting, May 25, 2018

kim-minich-684x1024x

Photo credit ADAI

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Just as those Indy Cars are fueled to perfection for 500 miles at blistering speeds of 215 to 225 mph, that famed Bottle of Milk fuels the checkered-flag dreams of winners at the finish line of the Indy 500.

It’s the honor of the Milk People (aka dairy farmers) to get it there.

While I didn’t meet this year’s Indy 500 Milk Woman — I did meet her husband and children during a visit to the farm last March while passing through Northern Indiana.

Kim Minich, Triple M Dairy, LaPorte, was the rookie last year when Milk Man Joe Kelsay, Kelsay Farms, Whiteland, had the honor of delivering the “coolest trophy in sports.” This year, Kim is the veteran, and her rookie understudy is Andrew Kuehnert, Fort Wayne. They all hail from six and seven generation Indiana dairy farms.

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Photo credit ADAI

Last year, as the ‘rookie,’ Kim learned the ropes for this year’s 102nd big race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where legends are born, speed and tradition rule, and milk always wins!

During my brief March visit to Triple M Dairy where Kim and her husband Luke are part of the dairy farm that has been in his family since 1909, their children Anna, Kate, Mary, Will and Calvin were looking forward to May. They talked of how exciting it was to see Mom’s rookie year as Milk Woman in 2017 … How it felt like the dairy farmers were celebrities like the Indy car drivers — two long and storied traditions brought together when three-time Indy 500 winner Louis Meyer requested buttermilk to quench his thirst after his second win in 1933.

Indy500-4137According to American Dairy Association Indiana (ADAI), Meyer was then photographed in Victory Lane drinking milk after his third win in 1936. Milk was presented off and on during the next several years until, in 1956, the Bottle of Milk was made a permanent part of the post-race celebration by Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Anton “Tony” Hulman.

Today, the milk choices of the drivers are kept cold in a secure “Winners Drink Milk” cooler.

The drivers are polled ahead of time on their milk preferences — whole milk (3.5%), 2%, 1% or fat-free, and the cooler is stocked with these choices, so the ‘milk people’ are ready.

For this year’s race, 17 drivers chose the whole milk option, 10 chose 2%, 4 chose fat-free and 2 said any milk was fine with them!

Hoosier driver Ed Carpenter chose to up the ante with a request for the throw-back choice of Louis Meyers: Buttermilk. That could be a lucky move as he is considered a strong contender going into the race scoring a pole position.

Tomorrow, as always, the milk will be kept under lock and key in a secret location with one of the Milk People keeping a watchful eye at all times. This year, in fact, the Milk People will be the first to enter the Indianapolis Motor Speedway grounds at 5 a.m., Winners Drink Milk cooler in tow.

Minich5414wRecalling her mom’s rookie year in 2017, Anna says “they looked like the secret service in sunglasses guarding the milk cooler!”

In 2016, the 100th running ended with a milk toast by spectators. The children wonder what milk drama will unfold this year.

“The bottle of milk is the star,” says Kim’s husband Luke. “When they start making their way toward the winner’s circle with that cooler, and you hear the crowd chanting ‘It’s the milk,’ as a dairy farmer, that’s pretty cool.”

Each year the ADAI selects a dairy producer to represent Indiana’s 1100 dairy farms as the Milk Man or Milk Woman.

People flocking through the gates want to talk to the Milk People (aka dairy farmers), and for weeks ahead of the big day, they have opportunities to tell the story of milk and dairy farming. They even co-host the Fastest Rookie Luncheon earlier in the week.

Kim married into dairy farming, and in one pre-race-day interview, she explained how she grew up in the Indianapolis suburbs and would watch the Indy time trials with her father.

Minich5418wToday in her career as a nurse-practitioner, Kim says she has a big appreciation for the milk-side of the big race and appreciates the opportunity to tell others about the nutritional goodness of milk and dairy products as well as the life their family lives — like other dairy farm families across the country — caring for the animals and the land.

The children are passionate about the farm too. They have a growing array of 4-H projects that make your head spin: Cattle, chickens, rabbits, goats, horses. In fact, while the dairy farm is home to 1000 mainly Holstein milk cows, Luke and Kim’s older children each have a few of their own breed — Anna with Jerseys, Kate with Brown Swiss, Mary with Shorthorns, and Will with Ayrshires. They love their chores and are happy to show visitors, like me, around.

“This is a great way to raise a family and produce a quality product for other families to enjoy,” says Luke on a brisk March day at the farm.

His wife Kim could not agree more, saying in pre-race interviews that being part of the dairy farm “has been absolutely wonderful, and as a nurse practitioner, I’m able to talk to my patients about the importance of dairy.”

As for her job tomorrow as the provider of the Indy 500 Bottle of Milk, “It’s a great honor to do this,” says Kim. “It’s exciting to meet the drivers and to represent our dairy farmers and what we do.”

web2016WinnersDrinkMilk-46As the sun rises tomorrow, drivers and crews will be getting ready, spectators will be pumped, our nation’s service men and and women will be honored, anthems will be sung and tributes given… and after 500 miles of exhilarating speed, the winner drinks milk!

So chill your milk, and get ready. The thrill of the 102nd Indy 500 is hours away.

Here’s a video teaser from the 100th Indy 500! Wait for it… The powerful and patriotic blend of freedom and speed that ensues after the recognition of our military, the moment of silence for fallen heroes, the singing of America the Beautiful, the National Anthem followed by the Blue Angels flyover, the singing of Back Home in Indiana, the anticipated “Gentlemen Start Your Engines”, the breaking free of the pace cars as the field of Indy cars passes the paddock with Old Glory in tow!

 

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Global dairy thoughts Part II: Who’s being creative?

Part Two of Five-part “Global Dairy Thoughts” Series in Farmshine

wGDC18-Day1-56By Sherry Bunting, from Farmshine May 4, 2018

BROWNSTOWN, Pa. — Everywhere we turn, we receive the message that fresh fluid milk is a market of the past and exports of less perishable dairy products are the wave of the future. As discussed in Part One of this ‘global dairy thoughts’ series, that seems to be the trend if you look at the markets.

Yet, could a portion of the reason we are in this fluid milk decline, be the effect of USDA-regulated pricing, USDA-imposed restraints on the ability to promote competitively in the beverage space, and the resulting industry neglect of this regulated commodity category — fresh fluid milk?

The government — USDA — and the checkoff and cooperative leadership have no appetite for significant change to any of these factors. USDA gets to pay less than it otherwise might for milk in its nutrition assistance programs, while both the proprietary and cooperative processors get to pay less than they might otherwise for components in a range of products.

Meanwhile, dairy farms see the first product to come from their herds — milk — declining, and their futures along with it.

Yes. We all know it. Fresh fluid milk — the most nutritious and natural option — is in the fight of its life. In meeting after meeting, presentation after presentation, we hear the messages from the industry and university economists — both subtly and outright.

Like this: “The fluid milk market is the dead horse we need to stop beating.”

Or this: “Do we want to hitch our wagon to a falling rock?”

And so forth, and so on.

It is difficult to question the industry and its economists on anything to do with the Eastern U.S. or the fluid milk market. Some have gone so far as to say that if the East is relying on fluid milk, they are out of luck.

Meanwhile, dairy farmers in eastern regions suggest that if fluid milk does not stabilize its losses or restore its market share — at least partially — they see their value as producers vanishing.

And in fact, this has an impact on our global advantage — that being the U.S. having a large consumer base at home to anchor the base production while growth is said to be the reason why we need exports.

As mentioned briefly in Part One, the Federal Orders are designed to move the milk from surplus regions to deficit regions, and that is what the proposed USDA change in Orders 5 and 7 will do further, the experts say.

Meanwhile, who is being creative to figure out how the deficit regions of the East can use or regain their primary competitive advantage — having a base of consumers within a day’s drive. This line of thinking is analogous to how the U.S. fits as an exporting nation with quite a large consumer base at home.

What really requires our creativity is the U.S. product mix and how milk resources are priced and sourced.

Here are some numbers. U.S. dairy protein disappearance has had average annual growth of 6.3% over the past five years, though it has been a bumpy ride, with U.S. production of milk protein concentrate (less exports) at its lowest levels over that five-year period in 2014.

Meanwhile, demand for fat is increasing as consumers heed the dietary revelations and switch from lowfat and fat-free milk to whole milk and have their butter without guilt.

Mentioned last week in part one is that global milk production increases are beyond the stable rate of 1.5% per year. According to the U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC), the combined growth rate from the EU-28, U.S., New Zealand, Australia and Argentina was double that collective 1.5% threshold. Looking at 2018, however, reports are surfacing to show spring flush is delayed in Europe just as it appears to be in the U.S.

Or is global production reining in? The markets are trying to figure that out with quite a rally going in powder right now.

One thing rarely mentioned in these reports is that Canada’s production has also grown with increased quota to account for the greater demand they see in their domestic market for dairy fat.

In fact, despite its supply management system, government figures show Canada’s milk production had year-over-year growth between 3 and 6% for each of the past three years, and 2018 production is off to a 5% start.

In Canada, as in the U.S., fat fortunes have changed over the past four years, so the belt has been loosened to serve that market, leaving more skim swimming around.

Canada’s new export class (Class 7) mainly pertains to this excess skim, which has reduced the amount of ultrafiltered milk they now buy from U.S. processors.

In addition, as pointed out by Calvin Covington in his presentation at the Georgia Dairy Conference in January, milk can be purchased at lower prices for this Canadian export Class 7 because the excess skim is used in products that are then exported.

This means the resulting products in the Canadian export class can be sold at globally competitive prices. While not in huge volumes, some of this product is going to Mexico.

This brings us to Mexico — currently the largest buyer of U.S.-produced nonfat dry milk, making the outcome of NAFTA negotiations a sticky issue for industry leaders, especially as Mexico recently signed a trade deal with the EU to include dairy.

The two forks come together in regions like the Northeast, where Class IV utilization has become an increasing part of the blend price and a more important balancer of the shrinking Class I.

While March showed a surprising jump in Class III utilization to a 15-year high in the Northeast, the overall trend over the past four years has been a blend price with increasing Class IV utilization and decreases in Classes I, II and III.

Dairy economists indicate the U.S. is making more world-standard skim milk powder for export, but in reality, the U.S. still makes a high percentage of nonfat dry milk (NFDM), which is still the largest domestically-produced milk powder category and it is the only milk powder that is used in the Federal Order pricing formulas.

NFDM is primarily made in conjunction with butter. As butter demand has grown and prompted greater butter production in the U.S. over the past four years, more NFDM has been made and stored (or the skim is dumped) as a result.

The market issue in the U.S. has been compounded by the EU having a mountain of intervention powder stocks in storage, some of it aging.

After the European Commission sold over 24 metric tons two weeks ago, global and domestic powder markets moved higher. It was the largest chunk to come out of that mountain to-date and was offered at reduced prices to attract buyers. But by the time the bidding was done, it sold at or above the GDT price for SMP powder.

It’s really true. Inventory depresses prices. Having a big chunk of a huge inventory gone, is, well, big.

The flip side of the coin is that European processors have shifted from powder production with their excess to making more cheese and butter.

Next in Part Three, we will look specifically at some differences between the products made in the U.S. vs. what is traded globally, and at the differences between the U.S. and global trading platforms.

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PHOTO CAPTION

GDC18-Day1-56

While attending the 2018 Georgia Dairy Conference in January, a large global cargo ship on the Savannah River, passed by the glass windows at lunchtime on its way out to sea. Several dairy producers walked outside for a closer look, we all hoped there was plenty of powder on board. Photo by Sherry Bunting

Global dairy thoughts Part I: Whirlpool of change. Who’s minding the store?

Part One of Six-part “Global Dairy Thoughts” Series in Farmshine

By Sherry Bunting, from Farmshine, April 27, 2018

BROWNSTOWN, Pa. — Even though U.S. per-capita milk consumption is in decline, consumption of other dairy products is strong. As the industry devotes resources to new milk markets abroad and puts the fluid milk market here at home on commodity autopilot: Who’s minding the store?

While it is true that the U.S. dairy market is ‘mature’ — not offering the growth-curve found in emerging export markets — the U.S. consumer market is still considered the largest, most well-established and coveted destination for dairy products and ingredients in the world.

As U.S. milk production continues to increase despite entering a fourth straight year of low prices and market losses, industry leaders look to exports for new demand that can match the trajectory of new milk.

The U.S. has already joined the ranks of major dairy exporting nations, and the U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC) has set a goal to increase exports from the current 15% (milk equiv) to 20%. Keep in mind that as our percentage of exports increases while our milk production also increases, the volume of export markets required to meet this goal is compounded.

On one path at this fork in the road is the mature domestic market with its sagging fluid milk sector that is increasingly filled in deficit regions by transportation of milk from rapidly growing surplus regions.

This dilemma of getting milk that is increasingly produced away from consumers packaged and moved toward consumers was cited as a “tricky challenge” by Dr. Mark Stephenson, Director of Dairy Markets and Policy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in his presentation on Changing Dairy Landscapes: Regional Perspectives at the Heartland Dairy Expo in Springfield, Missouri earlier this year. In this presentation, Stephenson pegged the Northeast milk deficit at 8 bil lbs and the Southeast deficit at 41 bil lbs. (More on this in a future part of this series).

On the other path at this fork in the road is the industry’s desire to expand exports within a global market that needs a 1.5% year-over-year global production increase. But, as the USDEC reported in its February global dairy outlook, global milk output is growing by twice that rate, mainly from gains in Europe.

Meanwhile, U.S. regulatory pricing structures are based on milk utilization. As the total dairy processing pie grows larger, the neglected fluid milk sector becomes a shrinking piece of the expanding pie, and income is further diminished for dairy farms.

The emerging export markets are rooted in the demographic of rising middle-class populations improving diets with dairy. And yet, just because these new markets offer new growth curves for new milk production, the anchor for this ship is still the U.S. market, still No. 1 as the largest dairy consumer sector globally, and still moving milk via Federal Order pricing that hinges on that shrinking piece of the expanding pie: Class I.

What are the obstacles to improving this sagging fluid milk sector? How are regulated promotion and pricing constraining restoration of declining fluid milk sales?

Over the past three years, two prominent and longstanding milk bottlers in the New York / New Jersey metropolis have either closed their plants (Elmhurst in New York City), or sold their dairy assets (Cumberland Dairy in New Jersey sold to DFA). Amazingly, the former owners of both plants are expanding into the alternative beverage space — adding new plant-based beverages to the proliferation of fraudulent ‘milks’ that already litter the supermarket dairy case.

GlobalThoughts(Chart1).jpg

While dairy milk sales decline, plant-based beverages are a growth market, though the pace of growth has slowed.

At the Georgia Dairy Conference in January, Rob Fox, Dairy Sector Manager of Wells Fargo’s Food and Agribusiness Industry Advisors, talked about big picturedairy trends, and he showed graphically the way these alternatives are eating into the U.S. dairy milk market. While dairy milk sales decline, the plant-based beverages are a growth market, though the pace of growth has slowed. (See Chart 1)

Fox also showed a pie chart of combined supermarket sales of dairy and plant beverages at $17 bil., with dairy accounting for $15.6 bil. and plant-based at $1.4 bil. (Chart 2).

GlobalThoughts(Chart2)

Rob Fox showed a pie chart of combined supermarket sales of dairy and plant beverages at $17 bil with dairy accounting for $15.6 bil. and plant-based at $1.4 bil.

Doing the math, Fox remarked that the plant-based alternatives now represent 8.9% of the combined dairy and plant-based ‘milk’ market. He said that in other countries with mature dairy markets, these alternative beverages tended to level off in growth when reaching 10% of total dairy market share. But at the same time, the combined dairy and plant beverage sector has also declined from 6.4 billion units in 2013 to 6.1 in 2017, according to Fox.

He noted the alternatives are also infiltrating other dairy product categories and that these ‘next generation’ products are offering much better nutrition than earlier versions. “But they will never compete with dairy milk, nutritionally,” Fox said.

What these alternative beverages have going for them, said Fox, is very high margins for processors and investors.

He explained that plant-based dairy products have low ingredient costs, are easier to manufacture, package, market and distribute and are seen as ‘greener’ and animal friendly. They are better positioned for e-commerce and kiosk-type retail outlets and are made by innovative marketing companies and startups with a market and margin profile that attracts investors.

Meanwhile, dairy milk is a highly regulated market with a prevailing commodity mindset worn down even more-so by supermarket price wars at the retail level, making it difficult for the dairy milk sector to adapt to U.S. consumer market trends.

U.S. consumer trends gravitate toward innovation and specialization so everyone can be a ‘snowflake,’” Fox explained, adding that areas of growth for the dairy milk sector will be full-fat in smaller containers, dairy protein in sports nutrition, and non-GMO branding. (No joke: Look for more later on genetically-modified, aka GMO, lab-manufactured products like Perfect Day that are actively defending what they see as their right to use the term ‘animal-free dairy’ because their product is said to be compositionally the same as milk, derived from genetically modified laboratory yeast exuding a white substance they say IS milk.)

That said, where is the true and simply original dairy in its re-branding process? What efforts are being made to compete to reverse this fluid milk market decline? Wouldn’t revitalization of the fluid milk sector also provide a demand pull for U.S. production growth?

Fresh fluid milk is not interchangeable on the global stage as are milk powders, fat powders, protein powders, cheeses, butter and aseptically packaged shelf-stable fluid products.

Meanwhile, the fastest growing surplus regions of the U.S. are busy aligning with retailer/processors and utilizing the Federal Order pricing schemes to pull their production growth into milk-deficit regions, leaving the milk-deficit region’s producers sending their milk to manufacturing homes in other Orders, or even looking for ways to export from eastern ports.

The U.S. has the water, the feed, the space, the transportation, logistics and support infrastructure, as well as a large existing domestic market to anchor the base production level of our nation’s farmers. The U.S. also has a legacy of dairy producers that are respected for their progress, animal care and food safety.

The ingredients for global success are here, but other factors need evaluation because the success is eluding dairy farm families as they face their fourth year of low prices and lost markets forcing increased numbers to exit the business.

In future installments of this multi-part series “Global Thoughts,” we’ll look more closely at the export side of this fork in the road, including the product trends, product and trading platform differences, imports, transportation and logistics, the role of regulatory pricing and cooperative base programs at a time when the dairy landscape is being forever changed.

As this series proceeds, thoughts and questions are welcome: agrite2011@gmail.com

 

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Will ‘local’ focus stem tide of milk displacement?

PA-preferred (1).jpgHarrisburg Dairies, Schneider’s Dairy step up for milk from at least 9 of 42 dropped Pa. farms

 

(Author’s note: Farmers whose milk has been displaced in 8 states are in various stages of determining their futures. Some are exiting the dairy business, a few have been picked up by cooperatives, or as in the case of this story, by processors. Some are resorting to marketing milk with brokers at much lower prices. In addition to PA Preferred, Tennessee’s legislature is working on a state label for milk.)

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, March 30, 2018

BROWNSTOWN, Pa. — In the days following the “Save Pennsylvania Dairy Farms” town hall meeting in Lebanon March 19, some breakthroughs came for 9 of the 42 Pennsylvania farms notified by Dean Foods that their contracts will end May 31.

Harrisburg Dairies, based in Harrisburg, picked up 5 (possibly 9) of the 26 farms let go by Dean’s Swiss Premium plant in Lebanon.

Schneider’s Dairy, based in Pittsburgh, picked up 4 of the 16 farms let go by the Dean plant in Sharpsville.

Both Harrisburg Dairies and Schneider’s Dairy source their milk through direct relationships with local family farms, and they use the PA Preferred logo on their milk labels, signifying it was produced and processed in Pennsylvania, which also means the state-mandated over-order premium paid by consumers is passed back through the supply chain.

“It really made the decision for us, when it came to needing our milk supply to be independent producers that we can have a direct relationship, monitor and inspect ourselves,” Alex Dewey told abc27 News, Harrisburg about the PA Preferred label and their decision to add five of the displaced farms to their Pennsylvania-sourced milk. Dewey is the assistant general manager of Harrisburg Dairies.

Likewise, Schneider Dairy president William Schneider told Clarion news that, “We really didn’t need the milk, but… these people were going to lose their livelihood. I didn’t want people to be out on the street, so we did what we could.”

Both dairies appear to have chosen their 4 and 5 farms based on hauling routes and proximity to their respective plants.

Meanwhile, the situation is in limbo the remaining 12 farms in western Pennsylvania, along with the handful of Ohio and New York producers, affected by volume adjustments at Sharpsville and New Wilmington as well as 21 in eastern Pennsylvania affected by volume adjustments at Dean’s Swiss plant in Lebanon.

In addition, producers affected by these notices in Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and the Carolinas are also currently still seeking markets. A few in the Southeast have made plans to sell, but overall, there are still about 100 dairy farms displaced by Dean’s system-wide consolidation and Walmart’s new plant coming on line in May in Fort Wayne Indiana.

Some other marketing factors are emerging.

For example, the Dean Sharpsville plant continues to notoriously bring in loads of milk from Michigan. The company confirms that the 90-day notices sent Feb. 26 to over 100 dairy farms in 8 states, did not include Michigan.

The Sharpsville plant was referenced specifically in the December Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board (PMMB) hearing where the Pennsylvania Association of Milk Dealers and Dean Foods requested a significant reduction in the producer over-order premium to its lowest level in 17 years. This change to a 75-cent mandated premium went into effect for wholesale and retail milk price minimums January 1.

At the time of the hearing, both John Pierce and Evan Kinser of Dean Foods testified that retailers are getting accustomed to bargain-priced milk elsewhere with documented retail milk prices offered to consumers in other states as low as 87 cents per gallon. Kinser testified that this new reality made Pennsylvania’s high state-minimum retail milk price an increasingly attractive destination for milk bottled elsewhere.

Kinser had further testified that the pressure from the increasing influx of out-of-state milk was making it difficult for milk produced in Pennsylvania to compete for retail (and apparently farm level) contracts.

Kinser also indicated that the mix of milk sourcing at the Sharpsville plant, in December, was already much different than the mix at the Swiss Premium plant in Lebanon. With Sharpsville close to the Ohio and New York borders, the plant has been sourcing milk from Ohio and New York for some time, but also increasingly from Michigan and Indiana.

In fact, at the December PMMB hearing, Kinser’s much-redacted testimony warned of Pennsylvania milk becoming displaced and that the new and lower 75-cent over-order premium level is “already a compromise that represented the highest level the current economic conditions can sustain.”

Kinser warned that if the premium were any higher than 75 cents, Dean Foods would be forced to renegotiate its contracts with suppliers to change the mix of milk used at ALL of its plants within the state in order to compete for contracts with packaged milk coming into the state from plants beyond Pennsylvania’s borders.

Even though the PMMB granted Dean’s request to lower the mandated premium to 75 cents, it appears the mix of milk is being renegotiated anyway as part of the company’s milk supply chain consolidation process as the volume adjustments at Pennsylvania plants have fallen primarily onto Pennsylvania farms.

Also emerging in the marketplace is the increased occurrence of brokered milk. This trend began in 2013 as producers across the Northeast and Mideast have dealt with contract losses in the fluid market at smaller levels than seen today.

Great Lakes Milk Producers is an example of a recently organized group of producers from Ohio, Michigan and Indiana, which is organized “like” a cooperative but markets milk as single-source loads through a broker.

Part of the drill is getting the milk qualified with farm audits and certifications as single-source loads that can be matched up to spot needs from cheese and yogurt plants to even, at times, the Dean plant in Sharpsville, Pennsylvania, the Southeast in the summer, and potentially even the new Class I Walmart plant in Fort Wayne.

Marketing through a broker can mean a long haul in a long market with changing conditions. This option makes milk quality a mandate without a premium.

As 27 farms in Indiana continue to seek a market, it is unclear whether brokering with Great Lakes Milk will become an option. The size of the displaced Indiana family dairy farms fits the single-source criteria, ranging 300 to 1500 cows and collectively represent an estimated 20 million pounds per month of displaced milk volume let go by a Dean plant in Indiana as well as Louisville, Kentucky.

“This is a huge issue for our state right now with an overwhelming impact,” said Indiana Dairy Producers executive director Doug Leman at a recent annual meeting in Indianapolis about the 27 farms with displaced milk scattered around the state. “Conversations are starting to happen, and we are planning a meeting for these farms. But just because Dean is not buying this milk, does not mean that the consumer demand has gone away. We have to let the dust settle and go through the milk shuffle.”

Among the recently affected Indiana farms is the sixth generation Kelsay Dairy Farm, operated by brothers Joe and Russ Kelsay and milking nearly 400 cows near Whiteland.  Joe Kelsay was the milkman for last year’s Indy500.

“We are exhausting all contacts and connections with cooperatives and plants,” said Kelsay in a phone interview. “Several told us they are not in a position to take any additional milk, some are doing some checking, and we do have a couple meetings scheduled. We are cautiously optimistic.”

When asked if the new Walmart plant will pick up any of the Dean dropped farms, Leman said the plant’s supply has been locked up with a percentage coming from undisclosed dairies doing contracts directly with Walmart and the balance being single-source loads via third parties.

“We can’t tell Walmart where to get the milk, but we are letting them know to check with these farms,” said Leman. “Some are within 50 miles of the plant.”

Kelsay doesn’t blame either Dean or Walmart for the market loss his family and others are experiencing. “This is a difficult time, but we can’t fault one company or another for doing their best to run their businesses,” he said.

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, town hall meetings were held (and reported in last week’s Farmshine) to raise public awareness. Ag Secretary Russ Redding wrote to Dean Foods asking for contract extensions.

But Dean has indicated its problem with excess volume will begin before these contracts end.

“We explored all our options before we made this decision,” noted Reace Smith, Dean Foods director of corporate communications. “At this time, we can’t extend the contracts further. As a fluid milk processing company, we are unable to store milk long-term.”

The timing is difficult with spring flush and spring decisions around the corner.

“We’re all in limbo right now,” said Agri-King nutritionist Bob Byers in a phone interview. He works with 25 farms, serving in the affected area of western Pennsylvania for 20 years. He notes that affected farm families have only so much time to make decisions like what crops to plant, what fuel and supplies to order. These decisions revolve around whether or not they will be milking cows after May 31.

“There is a timeline involved to unwind a multi-generational dairy farm with inventories of cows and feed and with a team of employees to think about,” says Kelsay. “If there is no one to purchase our milk, how can we continue? What happens here has a significant impact on our team of employees, and their families, as well as our hauler, nutritionist, equipment and feed suppliers – our whole web of contacts. We do a lot of business with a lot of people.”

Byers notes that this is the worst of times in the dairy business that he has seen in his 20 years and that it definitely affects local jobs and businesses.

Lebanon9495(Signs)

“Local people want local milk,” he said. “That is the only thing that will help these local farms at this point. Media attention will help get that message in front of consumers, and in front of companies like Walmart.”

CAPTIONS –

PA-preferred

Alisha Risser of Lebanon posted this photo of Harrisburg Dairies’ milk displaying the PA Preferred label signifying the milk was produced on Pennsylvania farms. The Rissers were part of a town hall meeting in Lebanon reported in last week’s Farmshine, and they are one of five farms whose contracts were dropped by the Dean Swiss Premium plant in Lebanon that will be picked up by Harrisburg Dairies.