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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Value added? Or subtracted? DMI, DFA partner on new blend

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, July 26, 2019

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. – The news of DFA’s new Dairy Plus Blends – a half lactose-free low-fat milk / half plant-based beverage concoction broke mid-July. DFA’s Live Real Farms brand website showed Lund and Byerly’s stores as the place to buy the Dairy + Almond and Dairy + Oat, but a visit to two stores on the list at the Minneapolis city limits did not have the beverages in the dairy case – yet.

Looking at the packaging, a first impression is: Wow, why doesn’t 100% milk packaging look this good. If only the agencies managing mandatory milk promotion funds and dairy-farmer-owned co-ops put as much thought into packaging and marketing 100% Real Whole Milk as they do for a diluted “innovation,” imagine what could be accomplished!

A further examination of the new Dairy Plus Blends packaging brought this thought: Why use words such as “Purely Perfect” and “Original” for a blend, when such words would seem best reserved for marketing the actual original, purely perfect 100% Real Whole Milk that the DFA member-owner dairy farmers produce and that actually results in the dairy-checkoff promotion funds.

We asked DFA for some background. In fact, we sent 11 questions to DFA and to DMI communications staffs because we were aware that DFA’s Live Real Farms brand is part of a checkoff-supported partnership between DMI and DFA to innovate products in the fluid milk space under the auspices of DMI’s Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.

We first wanted to know, why the blend? Why not just create an almond FLAVORED 100% real milk beverage? Because, after all, the new Dairy Plus Blends have half the calories, but they also have half the natural nutrients and only slightly more than half the protein of real 100% dairy milk.

It seemed like value was being subtracted, not added.

We all know that almond beverage has barely any almond in it, being mostly filtered water and some additives, so it seemed like the product is an offering of diluted milk. Since we couldn’t find any on the shelf yet at Lund and Byerly’s in Minneapolis, we aren’t sure if consumers will be asked to pay more – for less.

Of course, the packaging does have more. It touches all the right chords.

DFA was kind enough to answer some of our questions, although we have heard nothing back yet from DMI.

“In an effort to meet the demands of modern consumers, Live Real Farms has launched a new beverage, Dairy Plus Blends, which combines all the nutritional benefits of real cow’s milk with the flavor and texture of alternative beverage options like almond or oat,” stated Rachel Kyllo, senior vice president of growth and innovation at Live Real Farms, a DFA-owned brand.

The reply came by email to the questions we submitted.

“All the nutritional benefits of real cow’s milk”? (The label says 5 grams of protein per 8-ounce serving, not 8, and the other naturally occurring nutrients in real cow’s milk are also reduced.)

Kyllo continues in the reply:

“Nearly 50% of consumers who buy plant-based beverages also have dairy milk in the fridge, so they’re buying both products,” she writes. “This product is not about pivoting away from dairy, instead we saw an opportunity to fulfill a need as people like almond or oat drinks for certain things and dairy for others. This product combines the two into a new, different-tasting drink that’s still ultimately rooted in real, wholesome dairy.”

We wanted to know DMI’s part in developing this concept, seeing that dairy farmers mandatorily pay a checkoff promotion fee on every 100 pounds of milk they sell.

DFA’s response stated that, “The overall product concept for Dairy Plus Blends was developed along with DMI and the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. Consumer focus groups were conducted with Millennial and Gen X primary shoppers. Overall feedback was positive regarding the product concept, taste and packaging.”

We wanted to know more about how the product will roll out.

“Dairy Plus Blends are now being test marketed at more than 300 retail stores in Minnesota,” the DFA response stated. “If successful in test, the brand plans to roll out more broadly across the United States, beginning in the Central and Northeastern regions of the U.S.”

DFA has already been bottling plant-based alternatives in copacking arrangements in the Midwest. And, the Cumberland Dairy plant in New Jersey, formerly owned by the Catalana family, and purchased in 2017 by DFA, bottles plant-based beverages also as the Catalanas still operate the plant and retained ownership of their plant-based beverage investments.

We also wanted to know how the real dairy milk that makes up 50% of the new Dairy Plus Blends is classified for Federal Order pricing, but that question was not answered.

And, we wanted to know if DFA in its “partnership to innovate” with DMI has any plans to innovate the marketing and packaging of 100% Real Whole Dairy Milk in such a pleasing and attractive way as they have with the Dairy Plus Blends? That question was not answered either.

We also wondered if this “blend” will pull dairy milk drinkers as they hear all this talk about becoming “flexitarian” – cutting back on foods that come from cows and adding more foods that come from plants to, you know, save the earth and all.

Along these lines, DFA’s response attributed to Kyllo at Live Real Farms was: “We’re confident milk will continue to have a place on family tables for years to come, but we also understand and appreciate that consumers have choices in what they drink today. We think Dairy Plus Blends offer a refreshing taste experience and provides a unique way to get dairy in front of consumers who might explore other beverage options.”

We wonder if this is an invitation by a dairy-farmer-owned cooperative, funded in part by dairy-farmer-checkoff to lure consumers into experimenting with something new instead of dairy milk or will it appeal to people who have no intention of drinking 100% real dairy milk? It’s hard to tell, but it’s worth watching.

Some advocates of this kind of experimentation say that the fluid milk market needs more lactose-free choices. There are already lactose-free milk choices, there is also A2 for other types of digestive sensitivity, and there’s one thing everyone seems to be forgetting. Whole milk is more easily digested by people with these sensitivities. There’s actual real proof of this now, not just personal experience, but that’s a story for another day.

In this time of continued fluid milk sales losses, farm milk prices below breakeven for five years and dairy farms exiting the business, why does the dairy-checkoff not re-brand and re-market and innovate the packaging and promotion of Real 100% Whole Milk that is virtually 97% fat-free and loaded with natural goodness? Why not actually partner to innovate the brand-promotion MILK? What a novel idea!

Oops, that’s right. I think USDA lawyers would have a problem with that.

One thing that is impressive coming out of Live Real Farms is the Wholesome Smoothie line of Whole Milk yogurt smoothies last year. DFA says it plans to develop “a robust product line with the launch of additional, innovative products over the next three to five years.”

We’ll be paying attention to all of them.

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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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