By Sherry Bunting
WASHINGTON – There are irons in two fires when it comes to federal milk pricing and dairy policy. One is to do modernization through the Federal Milk Marketing Order (FMMO) hearing petition process. The other is to make some adjustments or seek authorizing language through the dairy title of the 2023 Farm Bill.
On the farm bill front, the May 12 CBO baseline score shows this could be the first trillion-dollar farm bill. Food assistance programs, like SNAP, are eating into the capacity to do other things, say top-level staff for the Senate Ag Committee.
For dairy and livestock, the Dairy Margin Coverage (DMC) baseline now includes $1 billion in additional outlays projected over the 10-years, while livestock disaster outlays have doubled – even without making any changes in these programs that some are suggesting.
Still, farmers and organizations that represent them are seeking some expansion for the DMC, livestock disaster, and other programs and safety nets, and some are seeking language to instruct the Secretary to do hearings on the Class I ‘mover’, or to expand the flexibility of the scope of a hearing, or to require mandatory reporting germaine to things like raising make allowances.
The jury is out on whether a farm bill gets done by September 2023 after the May 12 baseline was announced by CBO in the current political environment, but members of the House and Senate Ag Committees and their chairpersons are gathering information in earnest toward that goal.
On the FMMO hearing front, as previously reported in Farmshine, the USDA responded April 28 to the March 30 petitions from two processor organizations by asking for more information instead of granting or denying a hearing on their make allowance update request.
The two petitions from International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) and Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association (WCMA) both requested a hearing focused exclusively on updating the ‘make allowances’, which are processor credits that are subtracted from the wholesale end-product prices used to derive farm level milk class and component prices.
Make allowances were last updated in 2008 using 2006 plant cost data.
Four days later on May 2, the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) submitted its petition seeking an FMMO hearing on a range of national amendments.
NMPF is petitioning USDA for a hearing on these five items:
1. Increase make allowances in the component price formulas to the following levels: Butter $0.21 per pound, Nonfat dry milk $0.21 per pound, Cheese $0.24 per pound, Dry Whey $0.23 per pound
2. Discontinue use of barrel cheese in the protein component price formula
3. Return to the “higher-of” Class I mover
4. Update the milk component factors for protein, other solids, and nonfat solids in the Class III and Class IV skim milk price formulas
5. Update the Class I differential pricing surface throughout the U.S.
Not noted within this list is a point that NMPF’s board approved on the legislative front, and that is to seek language in the 2023 farm bill directing USDA to do periodic mandatory and audited plant cost surveys instead of voluntary surveys for future hearings on make allowances.
The American Farm Bureau Federation took a positive approach in their response letter to USDA, showing support for the fact that NMPF’s petition is comprehensive and includes areas of strong consensus among farmers such as returning the Class I mover to the ‘higher of.’
However, AFBF president Zippy Duvall also points out in the response letter that the Secretary of Agriculture already has the authority under the Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act to require processors to provide information relevant to FMMO pricing. This could include mandatory surveys of plant cost data when used to determine the processor credit, or make allowance, in the pricing formulas.
It is Farm Bureau’s position that make allowances should only be updated based on mandatory and audited plant cost surveys.
This leaves a bit of a loophole in the discussion about how to acquire the data to make current or future updates. The Secretary may have the authority to require data from plants that participate in FMMOs. However, it is unclear if the Secretary has this authority to require cost data from plants that do not participate in the FMMOs.
The end-product pricing formulas are based on wholesale prices that are collected mandatorily by USDA AMS on a weekly basis through the Livestock Mandatory Reporting Act on only those products that are used in FMMO formulas. This includes butter, nonfat dry milk, dry whey and 40-lb block and 500-lb barrel cheddar cheese.
The USDA AMS weekly National Dairy Product Sales Report surveys 168 plants for this price data. Therefore, if make allowances are updated as processor credits against those prices, then all 168 plants should have to report their costs, and only the costs that pertain to those specific products, whether or not they participate in FMMOs. In a recent voluntary cost survey, more than 70% of those plants did not report their cost data.
During a Center for Dairy Excellence Protect Your Profits zoom call recently, risk management educator Zach Myers had as his guest Cornell dairy economist Dr. Chris Wolf to talk about the FMMO reform process and background from an economist’s perspective.
Dr. Wolf gave some important and relevant background and statistics.
The FMMOs have been around for 85 years and were created because of disorderly milk marketing conditions. Their primary function is to make markets function “smoothly” with a second stated objective to provide price stability.
“If we were to re-do them today, I would say price adequacy should be addressed,” Wolf opined, noting that “we have times that the milk prices are very stable, but not very adequate.”
Other stated objectives of FMMOs are to assure adequate and wholesome supplies of fluid milk and equitable pricing to farmers.
“These things are still important today,” Wolf suggests, adding that the auditing, certification and a certain level of market information that is provided by the FMMOs benefits all participants and contributes to the public good.
He explained that FMMOs are changing.
“The primary sources of dissatisfaction with FMMOs in recent years arise because there is not enough money to go around, and some of this is related to the longer-term trends (in Class I sales),” Wolf explains.
He showed that while per capita dairy consumption has been increasing roughly three pounds per person per year, the decline in Class I fluid milk is the underlying factor.
“It really is startling how much of that decline (in Class I) in most areas really happened since 2010,” Wolf illustrated with graphs.
Not only did per-capita fluid milk sales decline more rapidly since 2010 than the already long-term decline charted since 1980, but population growth in the U.S. also stalled — so the total Class I sales have been hit with a double-whammy.
“This relates back to where the value is in the Orders, with most of the decline in the past 20 years occurring in that second half, — since 2010,” he explains.
(The Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 was the precursor to USDA removing whole and 2% unflavored and flavored milk from schools and requiring flavored milk to be fat-free. Today, USDA has a proposed rule that could eliminate flavored milk until grade 9 as reported previously in Farmshine).
Because Class I has to participate in FMMOs, the FMMOs were “intentionally structured” in a way that the Class I revenue has always tended to be the highest class price because the FMMOs are in place to structure the fluid milk market, and so Class I accounted for at least 50% of the pool revenue – until 2010.
“We finished 2021 at 34% (down from 50%),” Wolf notes. “So there’s not enough money to go around with less (Class I) value in there.”
What changed? Wolf notes some of the long-term trends.
“First, exports are now 18% of U.S. milk solids production when it used to be that the U.S. exported about 5%… Milk beverage consumption is down while cheese, butter and yogurt are all up. We are still importing 4 to 5%, but as a large net-exporter now,” he says, “The U.S. is basing bulk commodity product prices off the world market. This introduces more outlet for milk but brings back the issues that come with international price-setting, overall,” he explains.
Another change, according to Wolf, is the level of consolidation at every level of the supply chain.
Wolf went over some of the make allowance data based on existing voluntary surveys as well as a prior California state order audited survey. He showed there is a wide range in costs between older and smaller plants vs. larger and newer plants. When determining where to set make allowances – as an ‘average’ or at a percentile of this wide range — there are regional impacts to consider, he suggests.
Wolf also took webinar attendees through the steps of a hearing that can take at least a year or more to complete and he dug into the make allowances from an economic perspective and some of the other pieces of potential reform. Over the next few weeks, we’ll continue to examine them in this series.
The Center for Dairy Excellence Protecting Your Profits webinar with Zach Myers and Dr. Chris Wolf can be heard as a podcast at https://www.centerfordairyexcellence.org/pyp/ or viewed on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEMDA4iWyNw