The time has come to disrupt the disruptors

Opinion: Dean bankruptcy offers opportunity we should earnestly pursue

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, Friday, Nov. 29, 2019

If ever there was a time for state governments to sit down with their dairy farmers and agriculture infrastructure for a meeting of the minds… it is now.

The future is very much at stake with Dean Foods – the nation’s largest milk bottler – in Chapter 11 bankruptcy and sale proceedings, as the industry is largely signaling the buyer should be DFA.

But not so fast.

This could be an opportunity to look at the strength of Dean’s holdings and consider a different path forward, one that returns some of the regional branding power to farmers and consumers in the regions served by Dean’s 60 milk processing plants.

Dean Foods accounts for one-third of the milk bottled in the U.S., and the roots of its holdings go back to family operations with brands that were once – and some still are – household names.

In focus groups and shopper surveys, consumers demonstrate they understand what it means to buy local. They understand that buying local – especially fresh staples like milk – means keeping their dollars working in their communities. Consumers also say they want to help local farms. And they want to see clear labeling to know where their milk comes from.

Meanwhile, surveys show the gallon and half-gallon jug are still the most popular packaging among real milk buyers. Even though the category as a whole is declining, it is still a huge category and one that has not been tended or nurtured or cared for in more than a decade. In fact, the category has seen the deck stacked against it by government rules and government speech.

Taste is also important to consumers, as is nutrition. Where fluid milk is concerned, these two areas have also been lacking because checkoff-funded promotion became government speech that pushed fat-free and low-fat milk to the point where consumers have no idea what real milk tastes like – until they switch to whole milk, and they are.

Folks, this is an opportunity to chart a new path for fresh fluid milk, to breathe some life into it. We see it in whole milk sales that are rising. Just think what could be accomplished if significant resources were devoted to truly revitalizing milk.

As the dairy industry streamlines behind innovation and checkoff-funded partnerships to disrupt the dairy case — to be more like the plant-based non-dairy disruptors — there is still a majority of consumers choosing real milk, and more of them are choosing real whole milk as whole milk today is the top seller in the category, and whole flavored milk is growing by double-digits.

Can we disrupt all the disruption with a disruptive back-to-the-future original? I think so. But now is the time to hit it hard. A few years from now will be too late.

Dean Foods has the network and the facilities and the history a savvy consortium of buyers could tap into for going back to local or regional emphasis with brands. The DairyPure national branding experiment started out strong, but in the past few years has been squeezed-out by large retailers – and notably Walmart — pushing their own store brands with loss-leading strategies while hoisting the price of Dean DairyPure much higher.

And that’s part of the problem. Stores think it’s okay to loss-lead with milk, but they are not willing to eat that loss themselves. We need them at the regional dairy future table as well.

In the bankruptcy proceedings at hand, some of Dean Foods’ unsecured bondholders are protesting a rapid sale of assets to DFA in what they say equates to a “fire sale” that doesn’t maximize value. Did Dean receive a proposal from them too before filing bankruptcy? Sources indicate bondholders offered restructuring terms before the bankruptcy filing that would have changed the current picture for Dean Foods.

Will these bondholders that are opposing sale to DFA make an offer now? Can Dean Foods’ assets be sold piece by piece to be broken up more regionally? These questions don’t have clear answers at this time.

What is clear is that payments for milk by Dean to DFA are being delayed five business days as bondholders want to be sure they are truly ‘critical vendor’ payments and that there are no shenanigans between the would-be buyer and seller.

What is also clear is that Dean and DFA have a history, and that history includes the good, the bad, and yes, the ugly.

DFA was there every step of the way as mergers and acquisitions led Dean Foods on its path to become the nation’s largest milk bottler. DFA is Dean’s largest supplier of milk, and DFA leaders are on record stating that Dean Foods is the largest buyer of DFA milk.

If DFA purchases “substantially all” of Dean’s assets, we know more rapid consolidation of the fluid milk market will occur. DFA’s leaders — as well as the leaders of all the prominent organizations in the dairy industry, including the dairy checkoff — have been clear if we’re paying attention. The future they see is in moving away from investing in fresh fluid milk and moving toward ultrafiltration and aseptic packaging and blending and innovating for beverages that can be supplied to anywhere from anywhere without transporting milk’s water-volume by tanker.

Those are more of the ingredients for a monopolization of milk that may not even be considered by the Department of Justice. Without another offer or series of regional offers on the table, DFA would stand as the only option — other than complete failure of the firm under bankruptcy. This, alone, could put the sale to DFA on the fast track as sources talk about bankruptcy clauses that allow purchases to occur — without DOJ approval — when failure is the only other option.

So while consumers are consciously being pursued by the industry and dairy checkoff to move them away from their habit of reaching for that jug of milk and toward new beverages that contain milk — or are innovated new varieties of milk, or are blended and diluted with plant-based alternatives — what happens to the dairy producers in communities whose relevance is tied closely with retaining fresh fluid milk as a nurtured market and being a producer of a ‘local’ and fresh product? These producers are also forced to pay into the dairy checkoff that is developing these alternatives, not promoting or educating about fresh whole milk, and in effect funding their own demise.

Who will tend this store, nurture these customers, satisfy consumer desires to buy-local and ‘help farmers’ and their new-found eagerness to learn more about real fresh whole milk nutrition?

If states and regions don’t work to keep fresh milk facilities in their midst, the global message on ‘sustainability’, ‘carbon footprint’, ‘flexitarian diets,’ and ‘planetary boundaries’ will overtake the public consciousness, and the choices disrupting and diluting the dairy case will overtake fresh fluid milk.

In business today, that’s all we hear: Innovate and disrupt. Maybe it’s time to disrupt the disruptors, to put together a fresh fluid milk branding and packaging campaign that makes milk new again.

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DEAN BANKRUPTCY: Court allows critical vendor payments; DFA's Smith says 'We are logical owner'

The level of transparency in the Dean Foods Chapter 11 bankruptcy is unprecedented.  Included in the Chapter 11 proceedings are Dean’s 60 dairy plants and numerous name brands, including: national brands DairyPure and TruMoo; along with regionally branded milks, as well as Friendly’s Ice Cream and other cream products. This graphic in the Dean Foods’ declaration to the bankruptcy court shows the implications for consumers, farmers, businesses throughout the nation, reinforcing the importance of Dean Foods continuing operations during the Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings and court-supervised sale of assets.

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, Friday, Nov. 22, 2019

BROWNSTOWN, Pa. – When a dairy firm files bankruptcy, the first concern is whether farmers will be paid for milk already shipped. That first hurdle was passed as independent shippers to Dean Foods plants in at least three states report receiving payment in full for October milk, though the settlement checks due Nov. 15 were deposited two to three days late, in many cases.

In Pennsylvania, because of its unique Milk Marketing Board that implements and oversees the state’s Milk Marketing Law, PMMB indicates they are following up to be sure payments are made every two weeks instead of waiting for normal periodic auditing. Pennsylvania’s mandatory over-order premium on fluid milk produced, processed and sold in Pennsylvania is part of the minimum price bottlers must pay, and there have been no actions by the board to adjust this in any way.

Other states’ producers also report receiving payments in full.

In fact, Dean Foods’ spokesperson Anne Divjak reported to Farmshine last week that it is “business as usual” for Dean Foods to keep the milk flowing from farms to schools and supermarkets during the Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization and sale. The first regulated payments for milk after filing bankruptcy encountered just a small delay as banks needed to be aware of honoring the payments after the bankruptcy court decision last Wednesday afternoon allowed “critical vendor” to be paid.

Multiple sources indicate that Dean focused on getting payments to independents first, then small cooperatives, then DFA. There is no confirmation on whether DFA’s milk shipments were paid in full or what portion of the $172.9 million attributed to DFA as a creditor in the bankruptcy filing represent milk shipments.

Orders signed by Judge David Jones of the Southern District of Texas bankruptcy court where Dean’s petition was filed, are what allowed Dean Foods to pay “critical vendors” for pre-petition purchases and to continue its operations by accessing cash on hand as well as having access to up to $475 million of the new $850 million in debtor-in-possession financing to keep the ship sailing for nine months as reorganization and sale are sorted out.

Included in the Chapter 11 proceedings are Dean’s 60 dairy plants and numerous name brands, including: national brands DairyPure and TruMoo; along with regionally branded names for example Swiss Premium and Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania; Garelick in New York and New England; Mayfield and Purity in the Southeast; as well as the Land O’Lakes milk brand in the Central Plains, where Dean licenses the Land O’Lakes logo and name and the cooperative supplies those plants. It also includes Friendly’s Ice Cream and other cream products produced by Dean Foods.

As the nation’s largest milk bottler, Dean Foods accounts for roughly one-third of the U.S. fluid milk market but saw volume losses from various fronts in the past two years and stock shares had fallen below $1.00 with bonds also decreasing in value.

Overall fluid milk consumption is down. Private label store brands are a larger share of the down-trending market compared with brands. Walmart’s new plant in Fort Wayne last year affected their contracts to bottle Great Value and also changed the geography and position of Dean brands in several important Southeast and Mideast markets. 

Dean also suffered other contract losses last year, and as Walmart bottled its own store label brand in several states and worked with Midwestern cooperatives to accomplish and supplement that start up, Dean saw its DairyPure and TruMoo brands replaced by Prairie Farms in many of those stores, and other Walmart stores as well.

Divjak did confirm that Dean’s majority interest in Good Karma, a non-dairy alternative beverage made from flaxseed, is separate from their dairy holdings in the bankruptcy proceedings. Dean purchased the Good Karma majority share a year ago for $15 million.

Interestingly, on Tuesday, November 12, the day that Dean Foods announced its bankruptcy petition, DFA was holding its Northeast Dairy Leadership meeting in Syracuse. Part of Dean’s announcement indicated that the company is in “advanced” talks with DFA about purchase of “substantially all assets.”

Chicago-based food science writer Donna Berry, with ties to DMI, was in Syracuse that day as a guest speaker on dairy protein and how it can be used in innovative foods and beverages to make plant-based options better. According to her Berry on Dairy blog story two days later, entitled “Dairy protein completes plant-based foods,” the mood in Syracuse was “upbeat.”

“Let’s face it, too often dairy marketers take the conservative road when it comes to promoting their products. Dairy Pure was the best Dean Foods could do for fluid milk, and it was not enough, as we see in its bankruptcy filing this week.

Berry went on in her blog post to quote DFA CEO Rick Smith before “a room packed with about 500 Northeast members of DFA and suppliers of services to DFA” at Tuesday’s Syracuse meeting.

The news of Dean Foods’ bankruptcy filing had just broken that morning, and Smith was already stating that, “Everybody’s been telling me for years that we are the logical owner of Dean’s. And I’ve already gotten phone calls about people who want to partner with us. We will be interested in some assets, undoubtedly. And not interested in some, undoubtedly. Some (assets) should be closed. Some will require partners.”

The week before, DFA chairman Randy Mooney’s comments at the NMPF / DMI meeting in New Orleans were loaded with concern about dairy farmers going out of business and loss of rural towns and infrastructure and that NMPF’s priorities were trade and immigration.

But something else Mooney said at that convention the week before Dean’s bankruptcy filing was foreshadowing. He talked about looking at a map and seeing “milk plants on top of milk plants” and how the industry needs to “collectively consolidate” toward plants “capable of making the new and innovative products consumers want.”

Dairy checkoff has made it clear that the emphasis of the future is on innovative new beverages and other products. While we are told that consumers are ditching the gallon jug (although it is still the largest sector of sales in 94% of households) and we are told consumers are looking for these new products; at the same time, we are also told that it is dairy checkoff’s innovation strategy to work with industry partners to “move consumers away from the habit of reaching for the jug and toward looking for these new and innovative products” that checkoff dollars are launching.

Meanwhile, Mooney’s comments about consolidating plants gives us a window into how DFA might treat those Dean assets if the “advanced talks” with Dean about purchasing them come to fruition. DFA will be a prime mover in the further consolidation of fluid milk assets markets if history is a guide.

Other industry analysts are also indicating that potential sale of “substantially all” Dean assets to DFA would likely consolidate these regional fluid milk bottling plants and create major shifts in how fluid milk is supplied to consumers in the future.

Dairy checkoff weighed in just hours after Dean’s bankruptcy announcement, Scott Wallin, vice president of industry media relations and issues management for Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), sent a media statement that, “Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) is in discussions to purchase the assets,” and went on to point out that, “In a decade shaped by a constantly changing marketplace, U.S. dairy has and will continue to successfully navigate the current economic environment… well positioned to expand its growth through innovation to meet the changing tastes and needs of today’s consumers.”

Others make the point that the Dean bankruptcy signals a milk information problem, not a milk demand problem. Noted agriculture radio personality Trent Loos stated in a broadcast drawing on his history with dairy farmers over the past 20 years, stating: “progressive producers were on the cutting edge of consumer education,” but that “their associations and most of the processors” have pushed in the opposite direction, insisting that consumers want low-fat and skim milk and skim water. He talked about how this is affecting the health of our children and teenagers not consuming enough milk, especially whole milk.

“Now that the producers are filing bankruptcy, the milk processors are filing bankruptcy too. Where does the milk industry go from here? The consumer’s not always right when they don’t have all of the information,” Loos said.

Meanwhile, in the “first-day” hearing on the Dean Foods Chapter 11 bankruptcy in Houston, Texas last Wednesday, at least one attorney — representing one-third of Dean’s bondholders — equated the filing and potential sale to DFA as a “fire-sale” of the company’s assets to DFA and they opposed this move.

Whether other serious buyers emerge – or strategies to regionalize sales of assets – remains to be seen.

For now, farms who ship milk to Dean Foods as independents or cooperatives are operating under levels of transparency and “business as usual” that were not seen in dairy bankruptcies of the past. Stay tuned.

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Dean Foods files bankruptcy, talks advance with DFA about assets

The map of Dean Foods’ plants around the U.S show regional brands of years gone by that are part of the Dean Foods national milk business. Some analysts observe that the refrigerated distribution network of the company make it an optionality for whole milk and full-fat dairy products as those sales are rising while overall fluid milk sales have continued declining and the company is further challenged by contract volume losses and margin losses to below-cost private-label milk wars. Alternative beverages, reduced cereal (and with it milk) consumption, and other factors are being blamed. But at least some in the industry are recognizing that as the industry’s associations and some processors, along with the government, have pushed fat-free and low-fat as what consumers want or should have, fluid milk sales suffer from an information  and education problem that has led to a consumption problem, and questions about where milk goes from here. More analysis on that next week.

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, Friday, Nov. 15, 2019

HOUSTON, Tex. — The dairy industry shake-up reached new levels Tuesday, Nov. 12 when Dean Foods, the nation’s largest milk bottler, filed voluntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy restructuring “for orderly and efficient sale.”

The announcement indicated that the sale of “substantially all” assets could most likely be to DFA as talks between the two parties have “advanced.”

The bankruptcy filing includes all Dean entities and holdings under one name — Southern Foods Group LLC d/b/a Dean Foods — in the bankruptcy court of the Southern District of Texas, where case judge David R. Jones signed an order the same day granting “complex Chapter 11 bankruptcy case treatment.”

The early morning announcement came just ahead of Dean’s scheduled third quarter earnings call, which was canceled, although Q3 SEC reports were filed. Dean Foods’ shares on the Stock Exchange have been halted.

A hearing of 17 motions — including provisions to pay for milk delivered in the 30 days prior to the bankruptcy filing — was slated for Wednesday afternoon, Nov. 13, where the judge granted Dean Foods’ request to pay “critical vendors” in order to continue operating during the Chapter 11 proceedings and sale.

In its pleadings, Dean specified the need to retain access to cash flow in order to pay suppliers and employees and other routine costs of doing business.

As for milk shipped after the Nov. 12 bankruptcy filing, new financing from existing lenders has been secured so that payments can be made going forward.

This is a court-supervised process, to which Dean Foods has filed a number of these customary motions seeking court authorization to continue to support its business operations, which includes paying for the milk. Dean states in the announcement that it expects to receive court approval for all of these requests and that it is officially filing bidding procedures with the court to conduct a sale.

“Our expectation, based on the motions Dean has filed and the hearing in Houston this afternoon (Nov. 13), that they will be allowed to pay for pre-petition milk shipments,” said PMMB chief counsel Doug Eberly in a Farmshine phone call Wednesday. He indicated that while any bankruptcy proceeding is unpredictable, the Board expects that the four Dean plants in Pennsylvania and the plants in other states, will continue operating and paying producers.

“This is a priority for the Board and our auditors to be out there first thing every two weeks when advance and final payments are due to make sure payments are made,” said Eberly. Pennsylvania’s Milk Securities Act administrated through the Pa. Milk Marketing Board ensures such auditing and bonding of milk dealers and handlers.

Not all states have this bonding protection; however, the motions before the bankruptcy court Nov. 13, if granted, would allow Dean to pay for the milk already shipped. Dean estimates having $100 million in commercial surety bonds, not enough to cover all of the payments to suppliers and employees and other required payments to continue operating, which is why there is an expectation that the motions that would allow the company to use cash on hand to do so would be uncontested and granted. Without this ability, the company would not be able to continue, the proceedings would become disorderly, and then no one’s interests would be ultimately served.

New financing to keep Dean operating

In order to keep the milk flowing, and to keep suppliers, vendors and employees paid in the future during the bankruptcy process, Dean has secured $850 million in new “debtor in possession” financial support on Nov. 11 from existing lenders, led by Rabobank.

Approximately half of the $850 million in new financing will be used to restructure current debt with those existing lenders and the other half, combined with cash on hand, would finance continued operations for nine months, including paying suppliers, vendors and employees “without interruption” as restructure and sale take place under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

“Right now, it is business as usual for us,” notes Anne Divjak, vice president of government relations and external communications for Dean Foods in an email response to Farmshine Tuesday. “This means we are continuing to work with our raw milk suppliers so we can continue providing our customers an uninterrupted supply of dairy products.”

She notes that information about the restructuring is found at DeanFoodsRestructuring.com and additional information will be available from pleadings and motions as they are filed.

Will Dean assets be sold to DFA?

In announcing the bankruptcy filing, Dean Foods also announced it is engaged in “advanced discussions with Dairy Farmers of America, Inc. (DFA) regarding a potential sale of substantially all assets of the company.”

If the two parties reach agreement on terms of a sale, it would be subject to regulatory approval by the Department of Justice and the bankruptcy court and would be subject to higher or otherwise better offers in the bankruptcy, according to Dean announcements and statements made by DFA CEO Rick Smith in a letter to members, obtained by Farmshine Tuesday.

DFA’s largest customer

Dean Foods is DFA’s largest customer, according to Smith in his letter to DFA members, where he also indicated that DFA produces and delivers the vast majority of milk to Dean Foods.

According to the Chapter 11 bankruptcy docket, DFA is the third largest “non-insider” creditor owed $172.9 million.

In his letter to DFA members, Smith referenced this substantial amount owed to DFA as being for milk shipped prior to the bankruptcy filing, “You will receive milk checks without interruption, and milk will continue to be picked up as normal throughout this bankruptcy process,” Smith wrote.

In addition to pension funds and DFA as the top three creditors, others on the list of the top 30 “non-insider” creditors include USDA $16.8 million, Land O’Lakes $8.9 million, Saputo $8.9 million, California Dairies $7.4 million, Southeast Milk $6.5 million, and Select Milk Producers $6.2 million. Former Dean Foods CEO Ralph Scozzafava is also listed as a creditor for his unpaid employee severance of $5.4 million.

Smith explained that DFA has monitored Dean Foods’ financials closely and have “prepared for various scenarios to minimize the impact to DFA.” He also confirmed that DFA “decided to enter into discussions” about purchase of Dean’s assets.

Questions about how long DFA and Dean Foods have discussed potential sale of assets were unanswered, although previous reports indicate some level of discussion occurred prior to the bankruptcy filing and are now, according to Dean Foods, “advancing.”

Questions about how Dean Dairy Direct shippers would be handled in the event of a sale of assets to DFA, along with other questions, were not answered. Instead, a request for an interview was declined by DFA chief of staff Monica Massey, who responded to this reporter to say: “We will not be participating in an interview with you as, in the past, you have not been fair and balanced — or accurate — in your reporting.”

Dean Foods responded to questions to indicate their website will be updated frequently and their are frequently asked questions and answers there for producers and others, including a separate website devoted to the Dean restructure and sale.

As of mid-November, no Dean Direct shippers have reported any communication on any changes to their status as a result of these actions, and Dean’s spokesperson confirmed they are conducting “business as usual.”

At the root

Dean Foods had appointed a new CEO, Eric Beringause, on July 26, and then concluded a strategic review process announcing in September that a sale of the company would not be pursued, but instead work on other strategies as the company dealt with volume losses, contract losses and in the face of “rising commodity costs.”

Beringause, on the job less than four months, said in a public statement Tuesday that these actions “are designed to enable us to continue serving our customers and operating as normal as we work toward the sale of our business.”

He talked about Dean’s “strong operational footprint and distribution network, robust portfolio of leading national brands, extensive private label capabilities and 15,000 “dedicated employees.”

“Despite our best efforts to make our business more agile and cost-efficient, we continue to be impacted by a challenging operating environment, marked by continuing declines in consumer milk consumption,” Beringause said.

With a new management team in place, he noted that this bankruptcy for an orderly sale is the best path forward after taking a look at the challenges.

Look for more analysis in Milk Market Moos and stay tuned. Additional information is available at www.DeanFoodsRestructuring.com

In addition, court filings and other information related to the proceedings are available on a separate website administered by Dean Food’s claims agent, Epiq Corporate Restructuring, LLC, at https://dm.epiq11.com/SouthernFoods, or by calling Epiq representatives toll-free at 1-833-935-1362.

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As producers struggle, cooperatives fumble: How is ‘excess milk’ determined to be a problem in deficit areas?

By Sherry Bunting, updated from Farmshine, June 1, 2018

KENTUCKY — As the calendar turns to June, the saga of lost markets has meant a transition for some, exits for others, and in Kentucky, 14 producers who still faced May 31, 2018 contract terminations with Dean Foods were given a 30-day reprieve.

“It’s down to the wire and we’re working on a hail-Mary,” says Maury Cox, executive director of the Kentucky Dairy Development Council (KDDC). “We started with 19 affected producers, and we’re down to 14. Some have exited the business and we may lose a couple more.”

According to Cox, the KDDC and other state officials are still working, leaving no stone unturned, for these 14 producers, confirming on May 28 that Dean Foods did extend their contracts to July 1.

Five of the original 19 affected producers in Kentucky have sold their cows and a few others, like Curtis and Carilynn Coombs, are in the process of incrementally downsizing their herds as the termination approaches.

In southern Indiana where seven producers were unable to find a market, Doug Leman, executive director of Indiana Dairy Producers, indicates that some are drying off cows, others are selling, and one is getting into on-farm milk processing. There are a select few that have been offered 30-day Dean contract extensions, mainly because their contract renewal dates were different, and Dean could utilize the milk.

In Kentucky, there is the added and unusual situation of an 800-cow dairy not being able to move into their new 8-robot dairy barn because the processor receiving their milk classified the second location, two miles from the main barn, as a start up instead of an existing patron’s modernization project that in total represented a modest expansion.

As the new robot barn sits empty, and many contacts made with no takers, Kentucky dairy leaders scratch their heads at the gate-keeping that is going on — wondering how is it possible that these things are happening? That in a milk deficit region, just two loads of milk from 14 former Dean Dairy Direct farms — that now have until July 1 — can’t find a home? That in a milk-deficit region, this separate situation happens to  a progressive dairy having to let their new completed barn sit empty and keep milking exclusively in the old facility, in order to keep their existing milk contract with another bottler?

All of this happening in a state that is part of the Southeast region that University of Wisconsin dairy economist Mark Stephenson says has a 41-billion-pound milk deficit in terms of production and consumers. And all of this happening in a state spanning two Federal Milk Marketing Orders (5 and 7) that regularly utilize transportation credits and diversions to move milk — bringing milk in from up to 500 miles away to meet the actual processing needs.

It doesn’t make sense. The movie playing-out in Kentucky could come to other theaters in the eastern U.S., and the previews are already being shown.

Repeated emails to Dean Foods went unanswered over the past two weeks as the company’s corporate communications director indicated by automatic reply that she is on “paid time off” until June 4.

Phone calls and emails to the communications department for the Kroger Company have also not been returned as Kroger bottles 100% of its store-brand milk at its own plants, including the Kroger Winchester Farms Dairy plant in Winchester, Kentucky, which is supplied by Select Milk Producers, Inc. and Dairy Farmers of America (DFA).

IMG-0010x(Incidentally, a billboard popped up recently on I-65 North outside of Louisville, Kentucky –picturing Holstein dairy cows grazing and proclaiming Kroger as “proud to support Kentucky farmers”. What could this mean? As noted in this report, requests to Kroger’s communications department — to understand what these billboards mean and what percentage of milk in Kentucky Kroger stores actually comes from Kentucky farms — have gone unanswered.)

Prairie Farms recently announced it is closing a plant in Fulton, Kentucky and will operate a distribution point there. Prairie Farms and DFA own or supply other milk processing assets in the state and region.

Numerous sources outside the directly affected region indicate that Prairie Farms is working with Walmart to source milk and bottling for Walmart while the Fort Wayne plant start up is delayed . Prairie Farms, Great Lakes Milk Producers and Foremost Farms are the three cooperatives, along with Walmart’s independent milk contracts, meeting the single-source loads requirement for Walmart’s new plant in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

(Author’s note: While Walmart touts the milk for its new bottling plant, once fully operational, will come from within 180 miles of the Fort Wayne plant, the plant’s reach in Great Value bottled milk distribution will be much farther — up to 300 miles away where milk that is more ‘local’ to those Walmart stores in Kentucky and southern Indiana is displaced. So far, none of the cooperatives working with Walmart have taken on this southern milk.)

With Prairie Farms, Dairy Farmers of America (DFA), and Select Milk Producers all supplying milk processing operations in Kentucky, not one has agreed to take on the Dean-dropped dairy producers as members.

New members are a problem for Prairie Farms when their own members are on a quota system, and yet, the cooperative is working with other cooperatives and Walmart to source milk to supply a consumer need that was previously sourced from the dropped herds via the Dean plants.

As for other plants, even Bluegrass Dairy and Food, a dairy powders and ingredients company — with plants in Glasgow and Springfield, Kentucky balancing milk supplies in the region — is not exclusively owned by the local Williams family who founded it in 1995. The majority of the company was purchased in 2010 by a private investment firm. Sources indicate Bluegrass cannot accept the displaced milk from independent producers because they are completely co-op supplied and balance co-op milk at the two Kentucky plants as well as a third plant in Dawson, Minnesota.

When asked if DFA is taking new members, John Wilson, senior vice president and chief fluid marketing officer wrote in an email: “Our Area Councils monitor local milk marketing and manage membership decisions as well as other local issues. Membership decisions by this group of local dairy farmers are evaluated based on a number of factors, including an available market for milk, which continues to be out-of-balance in some areas of the country.”

On the Kentucky situation, specifically, Wilson said that, “We are concerned for family farms. We recognize the dairy farmers in Kentucky and southern Indiana who have been displaced face a tough situation. While there is excess milk in the area and finding a home for this milk will be a challenge, we are working with others to determine if we can provide any assistance.”

DFA-FMMO.jpgFollow up questions about how “excess milk” is determined to be a problem in a milk-deficit area, have not been answered. (Since publication, DFA’s John Wilson replied in an email that the excess milk situation is really the region, not specifically Kentucky.” One can see why when comparing the DFA Area Council Map, above right, to the USDA Federal Order Area Map, above left…  Note how in the above DFA Area Council Map, the lines are drawn with the navy blue of DFA’s Mideast Area Council dipping straight into the maroon of the deficit Southeast Area Council right through central Kentucky, for example, and it becomes apparent that the decisions can be weighted toward surplus transport between Orders within Area Councils and between them.)

After all, milk moves in mysterious (and not so mysterious) ways.

MilkTruck#1Meanwhile, of the over 100 dairy farms in eight states affected by the Dean contract terminations, it has been the willingness of smaller regional bottlers and smaller regional cooperatives to mobilize compassion, leadership and local marketing efforts to pick up the slack.

In Pennsylvania, it was localized (PA Preferred / Choose PA Dairy) bottlers like Schneider’s Dairy and Harrisburg Dairies that picked up many of the eastern and western Pennsylvania farms, with much of the balance being picked up by New York-based Progressive Dairymen’s Cooperative, marketing with United, a bargaining co-op covering both New York and Pennsylvania. Six Pennsylvania farms sold their cows.

In addition, one New York producer shipping to the Erie, Pennsylvania plant slated for closure, made his last shipment of milk on May 31 and sold his 150-cow herd and equipment, although he is hoping to rent the freestall barn he built a year ago.

In Tennessee, at least one farm exited, and all but one remaining were picked up by the new Appalachian Dairy Farmers Cooperative that is marketing to a bottler featuring local milk.

In northern Indiana, the farms with lost markets were picked up by two regional cooperatives Michigan Milk Producers and the Ohio-based Great Lakes Milk Producers.

In addition, with the new Class I Walmart plant in Fort Wayne, and the destabilization of fluid milk sales as U.S. population growth is not making up for declining per-capita fluid milk consumption, Dean plant closings are on the horizon. Sources indicate that Dean plans to close as many as seven plants by September but that no new producer-termination letters are expected in the near-term.

This level of Dean consolidation was mentioned in quarterly earning reports. However, Dean Foods has not publicly announced specific plant closings and repeated emails and calls to the Dallas-based company were not answered.

Three plant closings later this year have been confirmed by town authorities quoted in press reports.

One is the Garelick plant in Lynn, Mass.

Another is Dean’s Meadow Brook plant in Erie, Pennsylvania. The Erie Regional Chamber reported to Erie News Now that Dean intends to sell the Erie plant and transfer its bottling to the plant in Sharpsville, Pennsylvania while purchasing a smaller property in Erie for a distribution center.

The third reported Dean plant closure of an estimated seven to be announced is the Louisville, Kentucky plant where many of the Kentucky and Indiana farms that received contract-termination letters ship their milk.

Meanwhile, as Walmart’s new milk sourcing with the “Midwest supply-chain” gets underway ahead of its new Fort Wayne plant becoming fully operational, the 90 to 100 million gallons of milk per year (roughly 800 mil. lbs) are already being moved away from regional bottling and distribution channels to consolidated sourcing and distribution — with the biggest effects at the farthest edges of the new Fort Wayne plant service area, like Kentucky, where dropped producers are unable to find milk buyers.

There just does not appear to be any market access at other plants in the region without being members of cooperatives like DFA or Select or Prairie Farms, and despite multiple attempts by state dairy leaders, none of these three cooperatives have stepped up to accept the displaced producers as members.

As noted in a May 15 Farmshine report,  the KDDC, Kentucky Department of Agriculture and the Governor’s Office of Ag Policy have all been involved in helping these farms find a solution.

It is not an issue of no processors for the milk. The issue is the gates to these processors are closed to these displaced independent producers because they are not already members of the cooperatives manning the gates.

In the most recent March/April edition of KDDC’s Milk Matters newsletter, president Richard Sparrow talked about the situation for these Kentucky dairy farms as “operating in a very limited, if not closed market, with few or maybe no options.”

In his Milk Matters president’s corner, Sparrow offers this commentary:

“It is a really sad commentary on the state of our dairy industry that all the major fluid milk processors in Kentucky have a large percentage of their day-to-day milk supply coming from farms hundreds of miles outside our state’s boundaries. Yet, at the same time, Kentucky dairy farm families can’t find a home for their milk,” writes Sparrow. “This situation did not happen overnight. It is not an oversupply problem or a quality problem. It is a marketing problem.”

KDDC executive director Maury Cox said in a phone interview that he did not want to be negative. However, when he looks at the whole picture of the market, the increased hauling and marketing fees, the quota programs and base-excess programs in this milk-deficit region, the amount of milk being sold $1.00 or more below mailbox price, and the effect of potentially losing these producers upon the infrastructure for remaining producers, he admits that it is difficult to see light at the end of the tunnel.

“They are putting us out,” he says. “I think we are looking at the complete demise of Kentucky’s dairy industry. I think that is what we are seeing.”

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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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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.

 

 

 

 

‘This is the face of the dairy crisis’

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

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

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, March 23, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No one blamed Dean Foods.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Lebanon5257(Graves)

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

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

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

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

Lebanon5314(Morrissey)

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

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

 

Lebanon9495(Signs)