Global dairy thoughts Part 3: Do regulated milk checks reflect true value?

KYTour-223w.jpgBy Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, June 1, 2018

BROWNSTOWN, Pa. — To discuss the U.S. role in global dairy trade and the role of global trade in how the value of milk is, or is not, reflected in milk checks at the farm level, we first have to understand our product differences.

For starters, there are subtle differences between global skim milk powder (SMP) and domestic nonfat dry milk (NDFM), traders say they view the two as one market. Global SMP trends translate promptly to CME trends for NFDM.

Product listings describe SMP as a standardized product with a minimum 34% protein, whereas NFDM is variable, ranging as high as 38% protein. The U.S. price for NFDM normally lags the global price for SMP, in part because it lacks the standardized specifications. Thus, the lag is even more significant on a per-protein-unit basis.

The U.S. makes more SMP today than 10 years ago, but NFDM production, typically a byproduct of butter production, remains more than four times larger than SMP. Year-to-date SMP production through March trailed year-ago by 15% while NFDM production was up 15%.

According to the U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC), the U.S. exports 50% of its combined production of SMP and NFDM, and the U.S. has about 25% of the total export marketshare for these powders.

Butter is also different. Globally-traded European style butter is fermented (soured) before churning, mostly sold unsalted and contains 82 to 85% butterfat. U.S.-produced butter is churned from sweet cream that is not cultured, contains 80% fat, and is available salted or unsalted.

More European style butter is made today in the U.S. than 10 years ago, and it has curried favor with urban chefs for its cooking and baking properties.

Specialized dairy ingredients, like milk protein concentrate (MPC) and whey protein concentrate (WPC), are also significant globally and rely on specialized technologies and markets. The U.S. makes and exports a lot of whey products, WPC and WPI as byproducts of cheese production. These products have significant value to ingredient markets.

At a meeting in Lebanon, Pennsylvania last fall, Dr. Mark Stephenson, University of Wisconsin-Madison, indicated how some cheese plants view the whey products as primary to the cheese. Specialty plants have also come online to make MPC and MPI for infant formula, sports and geriatric beverages, and other products for dairy ingredient markets.

Another product that is important globally, and traded only on global platforms, is whole milk powder (WMP). It is a market equalizer. The global market performance of WMP gives insight about both the fat and the protein sides of the market.

China’s current demand for WMP may be driving what is now being described as a potential “acute” global shortage of butter.

Like whole fluid milk sales in the U.S., WMP sales globally represent whole milk finding one market rather than being broken down for various markets. Often, this product is purchased by countries that reconstitute it for drinking milk and flavored dairy beverages. The bakery and confection industries also utilize both SMP and WMP.

More U.S. plants are making WMP. Interestingly, USDA’s March Dairy Products Report showed production of WMP at 21.6 mil lbs — up 11% from February and a whopping 93% greater than a year ago. It was the highest level of WMP production since 1993.

GlobalThoughtsPart3_CHART#2In fact, going back through USDA records to 1983, the U.S. once made up to 700 metric tons of dry whole milk powder (Chart 2). We don’t hear about that.

In the 1980s we also exported a lot of WMP, up to 420 metric tons of it (Chart 3). We don’t hear about that either.

GlobalThoughtsPart3_CHART#3One reason we don’t make more WMP today is we have a large and growing domestic market for cheese and butter and cream products. U.S. manufacturers want to keep the cream and not sell it overseas, whereas other dairy-producing nations — like New Zealand with its much smaller consumer population — make a lot of WMP for Asia.

China is a large, but erratic, buyer of WMP. In first quarter 2018, the U.S. exported 20% more WMP than a year ago, but the amounts are small compared to skim powders.

In fact, the drive of consumers away from margarine has led to greater sales and production of butter in the U.S. As more butter is made, and more cream salvaged for other products, NFDM production also increases as part of that model.

 As fluid milk sales decline in the U.S., more WMP can be made, and as whole fluid milk demand is restricted by dietary guidelines, more fat becomes available as a byproduct to dairy processors.

Right now, China is buying a lot of WMP and paying higher prices. So high, in fact, that Australia is seeing limitations in infant formula sales in their country due to China’s pull on powder stocks from that country.

GlobalThoughtsPart3_CHART_#4One lesser-known category of exports that grew by 85% in the first three months of 2018 is UHT shelf-stable milk. China is the biggest buyer, and DFA is a primary supplier with its California Gold, a primarily 3.5% fat, shelf-stable drinking milk with a non-refrigerated shelf life of one year. This product is shipped to Walmart and other chains in China. These sales have grown significantly since 2006. (Chart 4)

(Interestingly, here in the U.S. during the first five months of 2018, major supply-chain-related absences of whole milk from supermarket shelves — while fat free and lowfat rows are stocked full — have been observed across a wide swath of the U.S., mainly east of the Mississippi, and across a variety of supermarket chains with a sort of random consistency)

With the U.S. system set to keep the cream and export as much powder as possible, problems arise when geopolitical factors interrupt that export market pipeline. This can have big consequences in a market where demand for cream vs. skim is out of whack — in part because the U.S. dairy industry’s processing, marketing, pricing, promotion and exporting schemes have been designed to work in tandem with 40 years of flawed lowfat government health guidelines.

A national dairy pricing hearing is needed to look at the reality of today’s domestic and global markets.

Are dairy farmers receiving the true value of the milk they produce? If the true value of milk components were passed through the supply-chain to the farm level more accurately, could this help encourage right-sized production growth?

Can the pricing of “growth milk” be more directly aligned to global market growth trends? We’ll explore that in a future part of this series, and it is an important question for the industry to tackle.

In Part Four, we’ll look at the differences in U.S. and global trading platforms and pricing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so forth, and so on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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PHOTO CAPTION

GDC18-Day1-56

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

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

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

By Sherry Bunting, from Farmshine, April 27, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GlobalThoughts(Chart1).jpg

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

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

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

GlobalThoughts(Chart2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Milk Map MATH…

map-1.jpgAuthor’s note: Since Milk Map Math was published April 6, I came across another interesting piece in April 11 Tank Transport Trader, where Dr. Mark Stephenson talks of the surpluses in the Midwest and West and states the 8 bil. lbs. Northeast milk deficit and 41 bil. lbs. Southeast deficit, and how the challenge is getting milk from the surplus areas to deficient areas. Read on, for Milk Map Math – 2017 data.

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, April 6, 2018

BROWNSTOWN, Pa. – Dairy consolidation away from the eastern U.S. continued in 2017, aided by further losses in basis revealed in the average net mailbox milk prices.

As the state and regional variations in mailbox milk prices move closer to a national price, the losers on the map are the states encompassed by the Federal Orders with highest Class I utilization: Northeast, Mideast, Appalachian, Southeast and Florida.

Not only is fluid milk the shrinking piece of the expanding pie, it is also the segment of the market with a legacy tied to local farms, family farms, farms that are getting dropped by bottlers as the milk bottling industry is also consolidating into wider spheres of milk sourcing.

The only way to slow this trend is to work directly with consumers and retailers because they have already told the dairy industry they want: local milk. Trouble is, the industry, and the checkoff dollars paid by these significant farms in the diminishing eastern region, are not listening to consumers. They’ve got eyes set across the seas on exports hitting 20% by 2025, while leaving the domestic market for nature’s most perfect food — milk — vulnerable and neglected.

Meanwhile, the milksheds on both the East and West Coasts had production levels in 2017 that were lower or unchanged, while big gains in production in the Western Plains milkshed overtook all milkshed production for the first time.

ChartWhile U.S. production was 215 bil. lbs., up 1.4% over 2016, the traditional Northeast milkshed, at 36.88 bil. lbs. added just 0.6%. Anchored by New York (up 0.9%), Pennsylvania (up 1.1%), Ohio (up 0.8%) and Vermont (unchanged), this milkshed includes other New England states that lost 3 to 5% and Maryland down 0.4%.
National-footprint cooperatives, like DFA and Land O’Lakes talk of the flood of milk in the Northeast.

Land O’Lakes is shrinking the Eastern base from 9 mil. lbs. per day to triggering penalties above 8.6 mil. lbs. per day, according to letters received by members. At the same time, different rules are applied in the Upper Midwest where demand will be affected by expansion of the Agropur plant driving expansion in the I-29 corridor.

DFA has placed a base program on members in parts of the Southeast, despite the Southeast deficit and virtually unchanged milk production in the milkshed, while different rules are applied elsewhere on the map, even in states that ship milk to the eastern states throughout the year and have a new powder facility in Kansas to balance that.

When the industry refers to the eastern markets being oversupplied, they are really talking about the ability of expansion areas of the U.S. to serve the markets and consumers of the East.

In particular, they are including in the description of a Northeast supply, the Mideast states of Michigan (up 3.3%) and Indiana (up 2.7%). Even when we figure in these states, the combined Northeast and Mideast milksheds produced 52.37 bil lbs in 2017, up 1.3%.

The Midwest milkshed — from Wisconsin and Illinois to the Dakotas, including the rapidly growing I-29 corridor of Iowa, Minn. and South Dakota — made 50.25 bil. lbs, up 1.3%.

The sea of green in milk production, however, can be found in the Western Plains milkshed from Texas, New Mexico, Arizona in the south to Nevada, Utah, Idaho to the north, including rapidly growing Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma. This milkshed grew by 5% to 53.12 bil. lbs.

Texas, alone, produced over 12 bil. lbs., up virtually 12% on the strength of output per cow and 7% more cows — leapfrogging both Pennsylvania and Michigan for the No. 5 spot — pushing Pennsylvania to 7th.

New Mexico grew 6.5% to 8.21 bil. lbs. with 4.3% more cows. Every state in this milkshed grew by more than 5% except for Nevada’s growth of 3.6% and number 4 Idaho’s small loss of 0.3%. The West Coast made 48.85 bil lbs, down 1.7% in 2017 with No. 1 California off by 1.7% and Pacific Northwest off by more.

Shifts in state and regional Mailbox Milk Prices tell the story. Losing the most ground relative to the U.S. average were Pennsylvania and the Southeast states. Both were averaged by USDA at $17.55 for 2017. In fact, the eastern Pennsylvania portion of that price was even lower, at $17.39.

Interestingly, the West Coast gained the most ground on net mailbox prices with California’s mailbox at $16.19, up 9.3% over 2016 and the Northwest at $17.59 up 10.2%.

Florida regained the number one position with a mailbox price of $18.96, up 9%, while the Southeast milkshed was tie for 10th with Pennsylvania at $17.55. This value represented a 7.2% gain over 2016 for Pennsylvania but just a 5.8% gain over 2016 for the Southeast.

New England was second at $18.65 and the Appalachian region regained third with a 2017 mailbox price of $18.09, up 8% over year ago. New York was $17.46.

Wisconsin had the fourth highest mailbox price in the nation at $17.95, up 7.6% while Minnesota was 9th at $17.56, up 6.4%. Iowa and Illinois were up 8 and 9% with mailbox prices of $17.69 and $17.96, respectively.

Ohio was up 9% with a mailbox average of $17.61, while Indiana was up 7.4% at $17.02.

Michigan, up 8.3% at $15.59, and New Mexico, up 5.4% at $15.24, were the states with the lowest mailbox prices. West Texas garnered a mailbox average at $16.77, up 8.6%.

Wisconsin and Pennsylvania remained the top two for the number of licensed dairy farms. Pennsylvania lost 80, down 1.3% at 6570. Wisconsin lost 430 at 9090, down 4.6%.

Overall, the U.S. milk production increase of 1.4% came from 67,000 more cow on 1600 fewer licensed dairy farms. Across the 50 states, the number of licensed dairy farms fell 4% to 40,219 and the number of dairy cows grew 0.7% to 9.3 million head.

Keep in mind, USDA milk production statistics are compiled, in part, using Market Admin. pooling reports for marketings relative to cow numbers. With milk moving in ways it never has before, there could be some gray areas in some of these state and regional tallies.

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Something different: My public comment on milk marketing rules

My great grandmother grew up milking cows in East Berlin, Adams County, Pennsylvania, not far from the battle of Gettysburg. She loved to cook. She always smiled. She was seldom cross, but you knew she meant business when she said: “Now, mind!” She was practical and daring. She wore pants before it was fashionable for ladies to do so and pierced her ears when the younger generations were still wearing clip-ons.

Growing up, I heard Sadie Phillips say more than once: “Trust your gut and Be bold!” Today, I have decided to do just that. I am using my blog to carry the public comments I will submit to USDA on the due date Monday, April 13 regarding the FEDERAL MILK MARKETING ORDERS and how they are (or are not) fulfilling their purpose and the effect on small businesses (A Section 610 Review). I’ll get knocked around for this in some circles, I am quite sure. And this is certainly very long for anyone to read. But here it is. Have at it. Or, if you are so inclined after reading it, shoot me a message, note, or thumbs up if you want your name added before I submit officially to USDA on Monday. 

April 11, 2015    

RE: Comments on the Federal Milk Marketing Order Program

Dear Mr. Rex A. Barnes, Associate Administrator of Agricultural Marketing Service: 

As a freelance ag journalist and market reporter for the past 30-plus years — as well as having as clients multiple small businesses and dairy farmer organizations for whom I do writing and photography — I get around the country and see firsthand what is happening to milk movement and dairy markets and the effects on dairy farm small businesses — as well as the small businesses that serve the dairy farms and the combination of jobs and revenue they provide to sustain rural economies.

Small businesses in the dairy industry — from the farm, to the service and supplies, to the processing, to the retailing — are in trouble. National Big-Business retailers and processors as well as national Big-Business cooperatives employ stables of milk accountants, attorneys and others in a centralized management model to re-shape the grid of milk movement within and between Federal Milk Marketing Orders (FMMO). Why would any small-business want to innovate in the fluid milk category when the two national Big-Business cooperatives (who work together through regional “marketing arms”) can come in and swoop the earnings away using FMMO rules to do so?

Yes, it has become increasingly difficult for the Northeast and Southeast milksheds to hold on to their Class I utilization in their respective blend prices. It is becoming more difficult to supply local milk beverage needs with a local supply of farm milk as the FMMO program of marketwide pooling actually facilitates the move to centralized models that displace milk from the local small businesses, local farms, local communities.

In effect, national Big-Business cooperatives are locking up regional balancing assets. By owning or controlling with full supply contracts most, if not all, of the dairy manufacturing in a region, independent bottlers and small co-ops find fewer options for selling extra loads to self-balance their local-to-local fluid market.

As a result, we are seeing individuals and small co-ops lose longstanding contracts with local bottlers in pockets all over the Northeast — especially in western Pennsylvania and central New York. In some cases, farms have been forced to sell their cows because they are now without a market at all.

These devastating effects have played out in other regions where small co-ops lost their markets to the Big-Business bottler and national Big-Business cooperative, and now this same effect is playing out in the Northeast — this time facilitated in part by complex FMMO rules.

The current FMMOs provide a needed structure and accountability in the buying and selling of milk. They also have the purpose of stabilizing prices through marketwide pooling. But opinions and analyses differ on whether the classification system — as it exists today — is stabilizing or instead contributes to price volatility. It also seems to detract from a competitive value being paid for manufacturing milk.

None of the above points are the actual defined purpose of the FMMOs. According to USDA, here are the 3 purposes of the FMMOs:

  • To provide for orderly marketing
  • To assure reasonable prices to both dairy farmers and to consumers
  • To assure an adequate supply of wholesome beverage milk to consumers

These 3 purposes (above) are not being realized in the current FMMO system.

  • A signal of DIS-orderly marketing is the fact that dairy farms within the Eastern markets are losing their access to milk marketing.

Milk produced in Georgia — that used to go to Florida — is moving North, while milk from Texas moves into Florida. Milk in Pennsylvania and New York is being displaced from its own milkshed by milk from Michigan. Milk from Illinois moves into Order 5 while milk from Kentucky has recently been trucked all the way to Texas, and vice versa. Truckers talk (more than tongue-in-cheek) about loads passing each other on the highways.

Both the Northeast and the Southeast are being chastised for having dared to increase their production. Farmers in Pennsylvania and New York are blamed for creating their own bottlenecks of surplus milk forcing tankerloads of milk to be dumped. Those ‘bad boy’ Eastern producers should not be growing their dairies. After all, that growth is throwing a monkey wrench into the planning of other regions to grow rapidly with eyes on filling the Eastern milk market deficit, using Class 1 sales in the East to sweeten the blend price paid to dairies that locate or relocate near huge dairy manufacturing plants in the West so those plants can enjoy the cheaper price paid for the milk they use to make dairy products.

  • The fight is on for the shrinking Class I piece of the milk market pie, when in reality other manufacturing uses have more value! In the process, consumers pay MORE for their beverage milk and farmers receive LESS. Farmers receive a shrinking percentage of the consumer retail dollar and a shrinking percentage of Class 1 sales. And yet…. the milk is all the same standard whether it goes in a bottle, in a cheese vat, a butter churn or a yogurt process. It’s all the same quality grade of milk!

As for current milk production growth. The truth is that the Northeast milkshed and the Southeast milkshed are not out-growing the needs of their areas. They are located in close proximity to consumer population growth, and their own milk production growth reflects an attempt to merely gain back some of their own formerly lost production that has weakened their infrastructure over the past 14 years for the farms that remain.

  • The Northeast milkshed and the Southeast milkshed are both deficit if just the milk within their borders is considered. My home state of Pennsylvania, for example, has lost 55,000 cows since 2002 and 100 million pounds of production.

Furthermore, leaders of states in the Northeast and Southeast milksheds — Pennsylvania, New York, Georgia, Kentucky for example — have implemented programs and incentives aimed at GROWING their respective states’ dairy small businesses.

The Governors and State Assemblies in these states have — in effect — said: “Our ag infrastructure of small businesses can’t stay in business here providing local jobs and revenue if you the local small business dairy farms don’t grow back to where you were!”

Now, the very dairy farms these incentives were implemented to uphold are cast aside as the milk is displaced from elsewhere.

The implementation of the Federal Orders has become short-sighted in the quest to simply “Assure an adequate supply of milk to consumers.” But what about the future when the small-business farms and infrastructure here in the East are so diminished they implode?

And look at the cost! Fluid milk consumption is down and we keep jacking up the price with all of these maneuverings. Maybe if a more localized model was respected and cMilkTruck#1onsidered, farmers and consumers would both benefit.

The purpose of the Federal Orders needs to be more considerate of the long term. It should not be declaring the winners and losers, but instead provide a level playing field where the real costs of transportation are factored into the value of local milk to local markets.

The large and powerful market movers take over the grid and push regional suppliers — mainly small businesses that are central to their own communities — to the side. These entities bring milk into the community and then drain local dollars out of the community.

As a result, small dairy businesses are going out of business at an alarming rate. Independent dairy farmers, small and mid-sized, as well as small cooperatives, are getting notices that they are being dropped by local bottlers in my home state of Pennsylvania and north into New York and in Ohio. Young Plain-Sect farmers are finding out in the Southeast they can’t just start milking cows like their fathers did before them. There is no market, they are told, even though the Southeast is a milk deficit area. The Northeast is as well.

The small regional bottlers are being squeezed by the large national co-ops who own or control the balancing assets (through both ownership and contracts) within the Northeast, and Southeast.

So, when milk from members of the national Big-Business co-op is produced in the rapid (double-digit) growth areas of Michigan and Texas, for example, that milk takes precedence at the national co-op-owned and controlled balancing assets in the Northeast and Southeast — effectively pushing the local small business independent shippers and small regional co-ops out of the bottling plants and into situations where they don’t have a market for their milk.

The Walmartization of food retailing has infiltrated its way to the farm-level because local small businesses have limited access to the dairy product processing plants where they once sold extra loads at a discount in order to balance the fluctuations of the fluid milk market. The set make allowance that is built into the manufacturing class milk prices also encourages large single-product plants versus a market-savvy and nimble processing class that makes for the market.

In Pennsylvania, some bottlers are working together with local food banks to balance the ups and downs of the fluid market so they can keep their longtime shippers instead of giving them up to the national Big-Business co-ops who in turn broker the milk back to the plants it went to in the first place.

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What do the Federal Orders bring to this mix or — should I say — mess?

First, It is currently too easy to move milk and get paid more for moving it the farthest!

As a result, dairy manufacturing plants are being built where there are not many cows. “If you build it, they will come.” But then they will also send their milk back East to get that juicy Class I utilization to boost their blend price and keep the cost of milk down for the large new manufacturing plants.

The small businesses of the eastern region need a method by which to have the local-ness of their milk count for something in this equation!! If the government is going to be so involved, then it needs to look at the big picture.

Currently, not enough incentive is built into the FMMO structure to give local-supply-arrangements and advantage in the fresh fluid milk beverage market based on the fact that milk flows in smaller circles and does not have to move so far.

While I am not an expert on how all of the pieces of the FMMO came to be, I do know that some of the fixes have created new and worsening problems.

My ask of the USDA AMS — as a small business and as a consumer — is 3-fold:

1) Please extend the comment period to allow for more time to comment. Dairy producers are waking up to some disturbing activity in the Eastern markets. More is becoming known about the current failures of the Federal Orders to uphold their intended purpose! Dairy farms — in increments of half-dozen to a dozen at a time — are getting notices RIGHT NOW that they must find another market or sell out their cows, their investment, their vocation, their family-living, their heritage.

More and more of these producers losing their markets are the highest quality milk producers! Their only fault is they are small businesses (40 to 1000 cows) or part of a small co-op (8 to 12 producers). A large iron fist is coming down in the eastern markets and blaming the bloodbath of farms forced to shut down, dump milk, and go out of business on “too much milk” in the East.

All the while, milk from Michigan in the north and Texas in the south is displacing local eastern milk in the balancing assets of the two large national-and-centralized co-ops that work together. Members first, locals last.

2) Before considering the addition of California to the current FMMO system, please hold national hearings to first evaluate and devise a new pricing formula. Consider basing it on 2-classes of milk: fluid and manufacturing as well as component values based on an array of products — and evaluate removal of the “set” make allowance. This could facilitate competition among various entities buying milk for a variety of manufacturing uses — instead of declaring the winners and losers via set make allowances that encourage large single-product plants that are not nimble nor responsive to changing market conditions.

This could also cut down on some of the gaming we see among balancing assets and lead to more actual marketing of dairy milk products rather than large output of products the market may or may not want because the set make-allowance assures a margin where pure scale is the key to profit and efficiency.

An example of this is the difference between skim milk powder – a uniform product with a standardized protein content – vs. nonfat dry milk (on which the make allowance for powder is based) which is a lower quality product and not uniform in that the protein percentage falls into a 4-point range. If the market wants SMP for its repeatability in a recipe but the make allowance is based on NFDM, the response in a downtrending market is to make more of the latter because the margin is guaranteed by a set make allowance, which further depresses the market.

3) Re-evaluate the purpose, relationship and actual function of transportation credits, touch-base provisions, diversions and other aspects of how milk is supplied so that a premium resides wherever local milk supplies local markets and wherever the regional infrastructure of dairy farms and businesses is upheld in the movement of milk within a Federal Order. Perhaps instead of using such credits and rules to facilitate the bringing of milk from far away, the fund would be better used to get local milk to local markets.

Local small businesses are being forced out of business rapidly. The Department needs to move quickly to establish a fund where processors pay in what would have been spent to bring the distant milk so those dollars are used in the local community or within the Order to offset the balancing cost of keeping local dairy farms on the rolls.

In short, perhaps it is time to use the Federal Orders for their intended purpose and break up the centralized stranglehold of the two national Big-Business cooperatives working together (even sharing attorney and milk accountant assets) by forcing them to stop painting their milk movements with a centralized broad brush – forcing them to more aptly consider local to local, regional to regional.

It is also worth mentioning here that some shifts in the gap between the USDA “all-milk” price and the “mailbox” price released months later are becoming apparent as the national mailbox price has been higher than the all-milk price while the Southeast, Appalachia, Pennsylvania, and New York mailbox prices are falling further and further behind the all-milk price than ever before. This may have something to do with the 6% reduction in Class I utilization in the Southeast in 2014 and the 4% reduction in Class I utilization in the Northeast in 2014. The national reduction in Class I utilization is 3% by comparison.

This reflects not only the raw milk movement but also the infiltration of packaged milk coming from outside of the Northeast and Southeast milksheds directly onto the shelves of large buyers like Costco and Walmart.

On a personal note — as a former milking employee, 34-year veteran ag journalist in dairy and beef, and an eater of dairy products and drinker of dairy milk in the Northeast — I have this to say about “free markets”…

Some are calling for the abolition of the “archaic Federal Orders.” I would be on that bandwagon in a heartbeat — favoring open markets over the continued use and misuse of rules and structure to supress a region’s own supply of dairy farms, small businesses and infrastructure — if I didn’t think the Federal Orders still have a purpose of accountability and to be a running record for what is happening.

However, if the current problems are not fixed to give local milk, supplied by small businesses a fighting chance, then perhaps the FMMO system should go. We have seen the loss of too many small business in the dairy industry where nationalized Big Business processors and co-ops used FMMO rules to their advantage to take over markets. Without a change in FMMO rules, this will continue and accelerate, and we will see more losses of small dairy businesses that sustain rural communities.

If the current problems are not fixed, small businesses may find they are better off in a totally free market, unencumbered by the structure and rules that are increasingly designed by the national Big Business operators to effectively put them out of business as they increase their own centralized national footprint.

Please do not add California until after the current issues with the FMMOs are fixed to a point where local is rewarded in the formula and small business is respected. Once California is added, it will be much harder to make new changes that benefit local small businesses fighting for survival in the East. Thus, the current areas controlled by FMMOs should have a chance to improve the rules before adding the state that has wanted to be state-regulated for decades and represents almost one-fourth of the total milk production in the U.S.

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Thank you for your consideration,

 

Sincerely,

Sherry A. Bunting

 

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