Sen. Gillibrand calls for dairy farm payments, Senate hearings on pricing, investigation of corruption, antitrust concerns

Summertime is pastoral on this central New York dairy farm, but U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) says she is concerned about the state’s diverse dairies.

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, June 4, 2021

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), chair of the Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Dairy, Livestock and Poultry, told reporters last week that she is working on milk pricing legislation and wants to have dairy pricing hearings before the August congressional break. 

She also said she believes a thorough review and recommendations are needed regarding her concerns about corruption and antitrust activity in milk pricing.

After sending a bipartisan letter with 21 Senate co-signers to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Sen. Gillibrand called a press conference by zoom on May 26 to cite dairy farm losses and push for use of existing funds to provide direct payments to dairy farmers for the first half of 2021, retroactive to Jan. 1.

“I’m working on legislation right now to change how we do dairy pricing in America, but ultimately we need something like a 9/11 style commission to actually investigate the industry. You’ve seen it in New York. We’ve had dairy farmers that have committed suicide. We’ve seen the dairy industry steadily decline over the last 20 years,” said Gillibrand, calling food production an issue of national security.

“We cannot lose the ability to feed our own people. If you have a market that’s fundamentally flawed and constantly are leaving producers unable to survive in the industry, there’s a problem. So I think we need a very thorough investigation of my concerns of corruption and antitrust activity,” she said.

Gillibrand told reporters that her office has “already asked to hold hearings. on dairy pricing to start the ball rolling on an investigation and have not been given permission yet from the larger committee,” she said, noting the Senate subcommittee she chairs would be appropriate to hold the hearings.

“I want to hear from producers, I want to hear from the middlemen, I want to hear from retailers. I want to figure out where this corruption lies, and then perhaps, based on the information we get, set up the commission, and I want it ready for the next farm bill,” Gillibrand explained. 

Right from the outset of the press conference, the Senator raised concerns about the Class I milk pricing change in the last farm bill that has had devastating effects in dairy farm income losses when hundreds of millions of dollars in collective Class I price devaluation occurred, contributing to de-pooling of milk, negative Producer Price Differentials (PPDs) and failure of  risk management tools amid the volatility of pandemic market disruptions.

Referencing the bipartisan letter from senators to Secretary Vilsack, Gillibrand said USDA has the funds available through the existing CFAP and Pandemic Assistance for Producers initiative to move right now to make direct payments to dairy farmers she said are necessary to help them recover.

“One of the few things that has helped dairy farmers offset some of their losses was the CFAP dairy payments,” she said. “This assistance was critical to farmers, but these payments were put on pause in January, when the administration announced it was doing a 60-day regulatory review. When the review was concluded, no further payments to dairy farmers were announced.”

Gillibrand noted that USDA announcements cite funding for purchases through the Dairy Donation Program within the new Pandemic Assistance for Producers, but USDA has failed to announce direct dairy farm payments in 2021.

“That’s why we sent the letter to Secretary Vilsack,” the senator said. “My colleagues and I outline the need for USDA to continue issuing payments to dairy farmers for the first six months of 2021 retroactive to January 1st.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) also weighed in on dairy farm relief last week in a joint press release with Gillibrand. The two New York senators cited the importance the Empire State’s dairy farms and noted that U.S. dairy farmers collectively received a smaller and inequitable share of pandemic ag assistance payments to-date.

“For an industry that had razor thin margins before the pandemic, for some of our dairy farmers, receiving additional federal assistance is the difference between keeping their farms and losing their livelihoods,” Schumer said in a statement.

Asked how much money should be allocated for direct payments to dairy farmers, Gillibrand said it needs to be responsive to individual producers and their market conditions, to be flexible like the Paycheck Protection Program in being tailored to businesses that lost money during the pandemic.

“I’d like it to assess losses in any given market and what would make these dairy farmers whole. I’d like it to be nimble and specific,” she said. “The money’s there. This is in USDA’s hands, so we need to have a response from Secretary Vilsack.”

On dairy pricing, Senator Gillibrand was emphatic.

“Even before the pandemic, dairy farmers were struggling to receive a fair price for their milk,” she said, noting the change in the method of calculating the Class I mover “compounded this issue. That one change caused dairy farmers to lose out on $725 million in income since 2019.”

The 2018 Farm Bill changed the Class I price at the request of International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) and National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) to an averaging method plus 74 cents. This was implemented in May 2019. 

Previously, the Class I base price ‘mover’ was calculated using the ‘higher of’ Class III or IV prices.

This Class I mover change not only resulted in net losses of now over $750 million from May 2019 through June 2021 but also contributed to negative PPDs across Federal Milk Marketing Orders for 17 of the past 24 months.

When government cheese purchases for food boxes and stop/start domestic and global economies during the pandemic created volatile shifts in demand, there were intervals of higher cheese and Class III milk prices that could have provided some much-needed milk-pricing relief for dairy farmers. 

However, as the averaging method devalued Class I in relation to Class III, milk handlers depooled massive volumes of milk — changing the blend price equation. While a few handlers may have passed some of that value on to their own producers, most did not.

As previously reported in Farmshine, American Dairy Coalition has been facilitating grassroots phone conference calls since early March on the Class I pricing, depooling and negative PPD issues to foster industry dialog on solutions. One idea that came from those grassroots discussions was to return, temporarily at least, to the higher-of method for calculating the Class I mover until a future path can be properly vetted by what is normally a lengthy USDA FMMO hearing process.

On April 12, after collecting signatures from hundreds of producers and state and national organizations, ADC sent a letter to NMPF and IDFA seeking a seat at the table for producers to seek solutions.

On April 23, NMPF floated its proposed solution to adjust the average-of ‘adjuster’ every two years and publicly announced its intentions to ask USDA for an expedited emergency FMMO hearing.

On April 27, four midwestern dairy groups — Edge Cooperative, Minnesota Milk Producers, Wisconsin Dairy Business Association and the Nebraska State Dairy Assiciation — put forward a Class III-plus proposal for calculating Class I and were joined by the South Dakota Dairy Producers in a May 19 request that USDA broaden the scope should there be an emergency FMMO hearing.

On April 26, Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters during a meeting of the North American Agriculture Journalists that the issue is “very complex,” and that “conversations need to mature before anybody makes a decision that there’s going to be a significant change.”

On May 5, Farm-First cooperative, based in Madison, Wisconsin, announced it would submit a proposal to revert to the higher-of method of Class I mover calculation if a USDA FMMO hearing is held.

On May 15, producers in the Southeast FMMOs began circulating a letter addressed to Secretary Vilsack seeking payments to dairy farmers that reflected inequitable losses in high Class I FMMOs.

On May 18, the letter from senators to Secretary Vilsack called for assistance in the form of direct payments to U.S. dairy farmers.

In the absence of action or response from USDA on relief or solutions at the time of the May 26 press conference, Sen. Gillibrand described a potential “two-part” Senate subcommittee hearing on dairy pricing, where experts could give testimony on all aspects of the problem.

The bipartisan letter from senators to Sec. Vilsack noted more than a decade of decline in dairy, multiple consecutive years of milk prices below cost of production and even mentioned competition from plant-based dairy alternatives labeled as ‘milk’.

“Our dairy farmers have really been hit hard for the last six years,” said Gillibrand, stressing the critical role dairy farmers play in the food supply chain, the economy, their communities and national security. 

“We really need answers now,” she said.

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Buy back and give? Sell cheap and dump? You decide.

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Cheese was loaded recently for Hunger Task Force, based in Wisconsin and part of the Feeding America network. Changes in USDA feeding programs are making Food Banks a more vital food access point for the poor. Farmers rise to the occasion when it comes to feeding the hungry. Dairy Pricing Association seeks to work continually with farmer funds to see that paying forward helps give back as times are very tough today on dairy farms across America. Facebook Photo: Dairy Pricing Association

Commentary, by Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, December 19, 2017

BROWNSTOWN, Pa. — Buy back and give? Or sell cheap and dump?That is the question.

“Just imagine what we could accomplish if there was a groundswell of farmers coming on board to fund this process to clear excess milk and dairy products and help others in need at the same time,” notes Amos Zimmerman of Dairy Pricing Association, Inc.

Zimmerman lives in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and works with farmers here and in the Midwest on behalf of Dairy Pricing Association. He and others involved are excited about the organization’s track record and the new projects that are starting up that are funded by voluntary assessments. Dairy farmers sign up because they believe in the power of helping to clear the overloaded milk system of excess while helping people in need as the ultimate form of promotion.

Founded initially in Taylor, Wisconsin, the farmer-funded organization operates nationwide to help balance dairy plants across the country.

Dairy Pricing Association (DPA) does not disrupt the flow of milk. Instead, DPA uses the funds contributed by dairy producers to buy dairy products for donation to feeding programs in a way that has begun making a difference and has the potential to do even more.

Disappearance positively affects price, according to DPA literature. However, this is not milk ‘dumping,’ this is dairy giving. DPA’s activity in the marketplace is one that values the hard work of the dairy farmers while recognizing the pain and suffering caused by hunger in the world. DPA purchases dairy commodities and donates them for humanitarian purposes, for a two-fold benefit.

These and other donations show the heart of this dairy industry we are all proud to be a part of. Though it has been around for more than a decade, DPA is a lesser-known entity that is out there buying and donating milk and dairy products, not just at the holidays, but consistently throughout the year.

Buying excess dairy for donation is something Dairy Pricing Association has been expanding upon since its inception gathered steam in 2009 when a call to action by founder Robin Berg of Wisconsin led to a more systematic method. Farmers designate voluntary milk check assessments by signing up. Now others can also donate through a joint effort between Dairy Pricing Association and Hunger Task Force.

Tom Olson, DPA vice chair, tells of this history: “After the second meeting we could see that no one in the industry was going to help get this started. We were going to have to start this at someone’s kitchen table.”

With private donations for startup costs, Dairy Pricing Association, Inc. was born.

Today, their work is supported by dairy farmers who sign up to pay a voluntary assessment for the expressed purpose of buying excess milk and dairy products and channeling it to feeding programs that are the only option for poor consumers. The base of operations has expanded from the Upper Midwest into California and the Northeast as more farmers in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and Indiana have come on board to provide the necessary funding.

Dairy Pricing employee Amos Zimmerman of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, is excited about the organization’s track record and the new projects that are starting up. In a phone interview with Zimmerman, Farmshine learned that dairy farmers can tailor the amount and purpose of their voluntary assessment to participate in this double-goal: To help clear the overloaded milk system of excess and help those in need as the ultimate form of promotion.

Every three months for the past two years, Dairy Pricing has been buying block cheese for donation to feeding programs. “We have gotten into a routine and the industry is starting to predict our purchases,” said Zimmerman. “We are changing things up and working on new projects for next year to start in January.”

One new project Dairy Pricing is working on is to satisfy the desire of the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank to have cheese donations coming every month of the year, not just at certain intervals, with the Food Bank paying half and DPA paying half.

“Central Penn Food Bank came to us to talk about a monthly arrangement,” Zimmerman said. With this in mind, Dairy Pricing is looking at a plan with Pennsylvania milk, processed in Maryland, but then cut to consumer package size by a Pennsylvania firm. DPA would purchase the cheese and Central Penn Food Bank would pay wholesale price for half of it, delivered in retail-size, pantry-ready.

Back on the bulk cheese purchases in the Midwest, recent loads of block Cheddar include one in October at 41,592 pounds, purchased by Dairy Pricing for donation to the Houston Food Bank for their needs after Hurricane Harvey.

The first load of blocks were purchased in 2016, when 30,588 pounds were bought at $1.65/lb for the Hunger Task Force in Milwaukee. That was followed by a $1.90/lb purchase of 41,604 pounds in December 2016 for Hunger Task Force and 41,860 pounds at $1.65 in April 2017 for Hunger Task Force. In July 2017, 39,662 pounds were purchased at $1.61 for Ruby’s Pantry in North Branch, Minnesota, followed by the October purchase of 41,592 pounds at $1.84/lb for the Houston Food Bank of Houston, Texas.

Dairy Pricing will be trying to do both the bulk purchases in the Midwest and the new programs in the Northeast and Midatlantic region, with the money available through dairy farmers’ voluntary assessments, according to Zimmerman.

Similar milk balancing through cheesemakers for feeding programs has also been happening in the Midwest, including recent milk to cheese through Lynn Dairies to The Community Table in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

Another new startup project is coming about through inquiries by dairy farmers wanting to be involved in dairy donations through Christian Aid Ministries, based in Ephrata, Pa.

“They only handle powder because it goes overseas,” said Zimmerman. People who want to be involved in that project can sign up for a voluntary 15-cent/cwt assessment.

The powder project will be 100% whole milk powder to a host of oversees destinations where hunger is prevalent.

“Whatever we buy or donate, it has to be the whole milk product, not just the skim,” says Zimmerman, who spends his days on the road talking to farmers and attending meetings. He does a conference call with farmers every Monday night, attracting 100 to 150 people, and he serves as the boots-on-the-ground contact person for Dairy Pricing here — covering the whole East Coast and spending time in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Virginia and Wisconsin.

He also works with farmers and farm groups on the side to help them with local processing start ups and other marketing solutions. He has been involved in the dairy industry his whole life, working as a herdsman for dairy farms since he was 18 and known for his curiosity in always looking for information about how the dairy industry works with a keen interest in the processing side.

“I’ve always had an interest in it, and since the marketing system is going the way that it is, people are having to find different routes to their consumers,” said Zimmerman, adding that “local consumers come to us all the time wondering how to support local farmers.”

This has become a difficult direct line within an increasingly national and global marketplace. Processing investments are the tough part of this task.

.“I can’t stress enough how important it is for dairy farmers to be informed to make better decisions,” Zimmerman says.

Since Dairy Pricing Association expanded to the east with its producer voluntary assessments, the very first milk donation was to New York for hurricane victims in 2012. When surplus milk is available over holidays, Dairy Pricing pulls gallons for donation, including donations last year to feeding programs in Washington D.C.

“None of what we do is to get the credit for doing it,” said Zimmerman. “We are doing this because it needs to be done.”

In fact, a bit more credit for doing this work could help get more of it done. As farmers learn more about what DPA is doing, more voluntary milk check assessments could accomplish an even greater impact.

Zimmerman noted that since Dairy Pricing balances the bottling of White Gold Milk and Chocolate Gold here in the East at California standards, this is the brand they typically pull from the wholesale supply for donations of fluid beverage milk. This utilizes both fresh fluid milk and powder to arrive at the higher solids content of the milk, including a 3.5% fat profile for whole milk instead of the minimum standard of 3.25%.

“What we can accomplish hinges on signups,” said Zimmerman. “The more we get the word out, the more interest we see. In 2014, we could hardly talk to farmers, prices were good. But that’s when we should be jumping on board to fix things before they get bad again.”

A ubiquitous figure in local dairy circles, Zimmerman gets calls every day from farmers in trouble thinking of selling their cows. “This problem is deeper than the milk prices,” he says. “It is the whole structure that is at risk that could destroy the infrastructure, even in Lancaster County.”

The typical voluntary assessment signup is 10 cents/cwt. But can be as little as 5 cents/cwt or as high as 30 cents. To specifically participate in the whole milk powder donations through Christian Aid overseas, a 15 cent/cwt level is required. (See form at the end of this story).

“It is all a donation, and farmers can cancel at any time,” Zimmerman explains, stressing that this assessment cannot be used to replace the 15-cent promotion checkoff nor the 4-cent CWT deductions taken off milk checks by member cooperatives.

In addition, others can also donate through a joint effort with Hunger Task Force. (See form at the end of this story).

DPA notes at their website that when milk is in great supply, many loads are sold at up to $3 per cwt below the Class III price. “When this happens, this cheap milk goes into storage as cheese or powder and starts to pile up,” according to DPA. “We need to have a fund to buy at these times to keep the system from being overloaded.”

Through Food for the Poor and Christian Aid, exporting to 17 countries overseas, the need is great for all the whole milk powder that can be supplied and as well for domestic use through Feeding America for soup kitchens and feeding the homeless here in the U.S.

The point is for the dairy product to go to people who could not get it any other way except through donation, not to take a sale away from a store. It is estimated that for every semi-trailer load of whole milk powder exported or used in domestic soup kitchens, eight tanker loads of milk are removed from the overloaded system.

Because the program is voluntary, producers can follow the progress of what DPA is doing, and can continue their contributions or cancel at any time.

Whether it is tens of thousands of gallons of milk or tens of thousands of pounds of cheese, DPA has steadily increased its benevolent presence from coast to coast as more farmers sign up to be involved.

Who are DPA members? They are dairy farmers from coast to coast shipping their milk via nearly every cooperative and direct milk plants. These dairy farms span the milk marketing and handling system across the U.S.

According to the DPA website, farmers funding Dairy Pricing Association with their voluntary assessments include shippers to Agri-Mark Inc. in New England; Associated Milk Producers in Minnesota, Clover Farms Dairy in Reading, Pa., Cloverland Farms Dairy in Baltimore, Md., Cooperative Milk Producers in Blackstone, Va., Dairy Farmers of America, Dean Foods, Farm First Coop in Wisconsin, Galliker’s Dairy in Johnstown, Pa., Grassland Dairy Products in Wisconsin, Guggisberg Cheese in Ohio, Horizon Organic based in Colorado, King’s Kreamery in Lancaster, Pa., LaGranders Hillside Dairy in Wisconsin, Lancaster Organic Farmers Cooperative and LANCO-Pennland, both based in Hagerstown, Md., Land O’Lakes, Lynn Dairy in Wisconsin, Maryland-Virginia in  Reston, Va., Mount Joy Coop, Mt. Joy, Pa., Nasonville Dairy in Wisconsin, National Farmers Organization headquartered in Ames, Iowa, Organic Valley, Prairie Farms based in Illinois, Smith Foods in Ohio, Westby Cooperative in Wisconsin, and former DMS shippers in New York and Pennsylvania.

 

Current dairy prices are not sustainable for the future survival of dairy farms and the rural communities and businesses that rely on them. At the same time, we read about the concerns of food insecure Americans as well as staggering numbers of war refugees and victims of disasters and famine throughout the world.

If our industry builds a storehouse of dairy goods that end up pressuring farm milk prices lower, and if growing numbers of people here and abroad are unable to access dairy nutrition without assistance, what better way to meet the needs of both than to voluntarily, consistently and strategically provide this assistance?

When the storehouse of goods is channeled to the needy through farmer-funded purchases in a way that helps to balance the market, America’s farm prices can improve and the food-security of our nation in the future can be assured.

The government and the industry do not have a plan that adequately addresses either of these concerns. This is why DPA exists as a way for farmers to help themselves by helping each other and helping those less fortunate at the same time.

Dairy Pricing Association is not funded by the government, nor is it funded by processors or marketers. Participation in DPA funding cannot be used to replace the 15-cent federally mandated promotion checkoff or the 4-cent CWT assessment. Nor can it  replace new deductions showing up on milk checks in the current marketing environment.

However, DPA attracts new farmers every day because the mission is funded by dairy farmers who believe that sitting back and doing nothing but complain is not an option. They want to take the future by the horns and move forward.

Through membership donations in the form of 5-cent to 15-cent per hundredweight (some even give 30 cents/cwt), farmers are joining together through DPA to strengthen the organization’s ability to place orders for finished dairy products from processing plants and once the order(s) are filled, donating the product for humanitarian purposes.

The possibilities of this concept are only limited by the funding available, and that means dairy farmers, themselves, can make the difference. Unlike the marketing and balancing fees that are being increased on dairy farm milk checks, the Dairy Pricing Association assessment is completely voluntary, simple, direct, farmer-run and built from the ground up to help dairy farmers help themselves, help each other and help children and families who know real hunger throughout America and the world.

The question is: Do farmers want to gain strength by joining together voluntarily to buy back their own excess for giving to people less fortunate?

Or do they want to continue to allow the system to do the incomplete job it has been doing – bound by its Federal Order rules that allow dumping but not giving, and costing farmers ever-higher deductions from their milk checks to “balance” the excess through below-class sales that create market-depressing inventory or by dumping milk down the drain at a cost to the farmers?

Hats off to the givers. May their vision and efforts continue to multiply.

To learn more about Dairy Pricing Association, Inc. and to acquire forms for milk check pledges, call Tom Olson at 715.284.9852 or 715.299.1332 or Amos Zimmerman at 717.872.1464  or email dpainc@ceas.coop. Visit DPA online at visit dairypricing.org and follow on Facebook @dairypricing. Ask about national producer conference calls.

To learn more about Christian Aid Ministries, the vehicle for a new farmer-funded Dairy Pricing Association, Inc. project of whole milk powder donations for hunger assistance worldwide, visit christianaidministries.org and dairypricing.org

Find out more about what they are doing, and then decide if your farm can help make a positive two-fold impact on markets and hunger. See below the forms for farmer milk check deductions and for non-farmer donations.

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