New PMMB consumer rep sees dairy crisis from outside-in

Dr. Carol Hardbarger is digging in and looking at all angles of PA dairy crisis.

Hardbarger9825 (1).jpgBy Sherry Bunting, from Farmshine, Sept. 7, 2018

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Solving problems, bridging gaps, making connections, bringing different interests together – these are skills Carol Hardbarger, Ph.D. has been using throughout her career in education. Today, she brings a unique combination of skills and background to the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board (PMMB). She was appointed by Gov. Tom Wolf in May and confirmed by the Senate in June.

“It is a tremendous honor for this to come at the end of my career, to be asked by Governor Wolf, to meet with Senators during confirmation, and to have this opportunity to do something for the state and the dairy industry I love,” Hardbarger said in a recent interview with Farmshine at the PMMB offices in Harrisburg.

She reflects on that call from the Governor’s office, telling her she had been nominated and asking if she would serve. She promptly began looking at the information on what the PMMB does.

“There is a crisis in the dairy industry,” says Dr. Hardbarger. “Oftentimes, when there is a problem, there is a solution that can be obvious to someone looking at the problem from the outside, to go back to what the objectives are of an organization or project at hand, looking at what has been done and why it hasn’t worked.”

She talks about the smaller steps that may be missed in trying to get to an end goal.

“That’s how my brain is wired,” the intense, but easy-to-talk-to Hardbarger says with a smile. She is a big-picture thinker with an obvious knack for process details.

In every job before retirement, she was brought in to help solve a problem and was able to deal successfully with those situations.

The dairy industry issues go well beyond the regulatory aspects of the PMMB. As the board’s consumer representative, Hardbarger seeks a broader role in marketing and advocacy that is refreshing.

She has rolled up her sleeves to dig in, confessing that she loves an intellectual challenge.

Her intention to spend one day a week at the PMMB offices in Harrisburg, quickly became two days a week and has now evolved into a full-time 40- to 50-hour work week.

Hardbarger serves on the board with dairy producers Jim Van Blarcom of Bradford County and Rob Barley (chair) of Lancaster County. They are also putting more time in their roles.

“That’s okay,” she says. “In order to accomplish what the Governor and Senators have communicated, that level of time and organization is necessary.”

She spends her time combing through records, meeting with government and industry entities, opening lines of communication, and being helpful to staff, which has been reduced in recent years by unfilled retirements.

Hardbarger sees external communication and a visible, accessible board on “advocacy things” as vital for developing the relationships that lead to solving problems.

She started the PMMB facebook page and twitter feed (@PAMilkBoard), as well as an email newsletter to legislators and industry that will eventually broaden to consumers. She also helped organize upcoming listening sessions. There is no need to pre-register or pre-submit comments, and the board urges those who can’t attend to send comments electronically to ra-pmmb@pa.gov.

The first listening session was held Sept. 26 from 6 to 9 p.m. in western Pennsylvania. The second will be Oct. 16 at Troy Fairgrounds in northern Pennsylvania, and another is being planned for southeastern Pennsylvania, potentially in Lebanon in November.

In the office with staff through the week, Hardbarger says Pennsylvania’s dairy industry is lucky to have these individuals, who are “highly capable and dedicated in jobs that are not easy.”

On the road forward, she sees a starting point is identifying where there is agreement.

“We have to start with what we all agree are issues to address. Otherwise, we are just putting on band-aids,” says Hardbarger, explaining that such a “holistic approach” is a way for deep-rooted past, present and future issues to be addressed for the long-term.

“I have some concern as I listen to the various constituency groups in the dairy industry — the farmers, the dealers, the retailers, the consumers — that when they speak, for the most part, I hear a lot of individual agenda,” she relates. “I believe strongly that we must be able to look at the agendas of all the groups and somehow integrate them to come up with solutions and prioritize them.”

When Hardbarger talks about “systemic solutions,” as she did in her Senate confirmation hearing, she means the longstanding parts of the system that are “built into how the industry operates.”

She gives the example that some are talking about “temporarily suspending” the minimum milk price, which would require changes in the law.

“We told the Senate that we want to look at some legislative items and see what makes sense for 2018 and 2019,” says Hardbarger.

Another example is some want the over-order premium to end.

“They believe it is not working the way it needs to,” she says. “We are not hearing many suggestions to raise the over-order premium. It will be interesting to see what comments and ideas we get at the upcoming listening sessions.”

The challenge is, according to Hardbarger, “how do we blend a holistic approach to a problem and how it developed systemically over the years with legislation and regulation that was implemented in a time very much different from today.”

She says the board is taking a neutral approach as they look at impacts.

“There are some misconceptions about what the board can and cannot do… so I hope the newsletter and outreach will develop good lines of communication with the legislature while correcting misconceptions and give us the ability to come back to the Assembly with information they need,” Hardbarger relates. “We obviously have the two laws we are responsible for with the associated regulations. But as our name implies, we are ‘marketing.’”

Through facebook and twitter, Hardbarger posts things she sees every day of interest to dairy. The newsletter will eventually include a calendar, an information piece from the chairman, questions and answers by staff, and the school nutrition aspect will be discussed.

Asked why the PMMB’s facebook and twitter profile picture is the PA Preferred logo, Hardbarger responded simply: “We want to promote Pennsylvania dairy products.”

She gave the example of a recent step — sending information to retailers and processors on how special milk promotions can legally be done, and suggesting such promotions be linked to PA Preferred milk.

Hardbarger says she wants PMMB’s communications to be an information clearinghouse between the industry and the legislature and ultimately the consumer.

In developing her role as consumer representative, she is already pursuing relationships with consumer groups and civic organizations to provide information about the nutritional benefits of consuming dairy products and what the industry means to Pennsylvania and its communities.

For example, Hardbarger has already reached out to school nutrition officials with ideas about how milk and dairy are nutritionally assessed within the USDA meal profile for school breakfast, lunch and after school programs.

“If milk and dairy products were separated from the nutritional analysis… we may see schools offer more milk and dairy in the morning and after school programs without having to fit into a total nutrition analysis,” she suggests, adding that this idea is being provided to Representative G.T. Thompson, who sits on the Congressional workforce and education committee as well as to U.S. Senators Pat Toomey and Bob Casey.

“We are also communicating with USDA on this issue of getting whole milk (unflavored) in the schools along with now flavored 1% milk,” she said.

PMMB also sent official comments to the FDA docket to enforce and uphold milk’s standard of identity, and sent emails encouraging others to do so.

Hardbarger understands the nutritional tightrope schools walk to serve foods and milk that students enjoy and will consume. She is aware of the steady drumbeat of scientific studies showing dairy as a complete protein and complete source of vitamins and minerals children today are lacking, as well as the positive dietary revelations about whole milk and full fat dairy, especially for children.

She remembers her youth and spending much time on her grandparents’ dairy farm in northern Maryland, of making and consuming everything from homemade cottage cheese, butter and farmers cheese to whipped cream pies.

And she reminisces about doing just about every chore on that diversified farm, pointing out a decades-old framed photo of her son as a child milking one of four Jersey cows the family kept at that time.

While her career has been in education and technology, she is quick to point out that she has been around farmers and agriculture all of her life.

“There is a passion people have for this life, this business. And the dairy industry is vital to the economy of our state and a big part of what defines us, of who we are,” the proud mother and grandmother two-generations removed from dairy farming explains.

Since her first day on the PMMB in early July, Hardbarger has encountered “no real surprises” but a fuller understanding of issues that have swirled for years.

What surprises her is “the differences of opinion among constituent groups and their differing opinions about what needs to be done,” and seeing how far the industry is from dealing with differences over coffee and a handshake.

“Now we have groups with lawyers and CPAs and very strong individual agendas,” Hardbarger observes. “That has surprised me. I wasn’t aware of how fractured it is. This is an observation, not a criticism, because each constituency has a business interest to protect.”

From staff development to planning a staff retreat, to emailing staff for their ideas, Hardbarger says the momentum is “forward,” even though it’s “frustrating” to learn that state bureaucracies do not move as quickly as desired and there are regulations for literally everything.

“We can’t” are words she does not like to hear.

“There are very few things in this world that cannot be done. It may be that we need to do them in a different or particular way,” says Hardbarger. “We have to fix this dairy crisis, and we can, if we get all the players involved.”

Toward that end, Hardbarger says her next goal is to have the PMMB work with other agencies in forming a “rapid response team” for dairy.

“We hear stories about how a vital bridge can be fixed within 40 days… how the state government made it easier to deal with regulatory processes and provided waivers to make something happen, fast, because it was economically feasible to do that,” she says. “Pennsylvania has a Dairy Development plan… and we need the same ‘rapid response’ in dealing with our dairy crisis.”

Looking ahead, she is most hopeful that, “We can get a working group together of one or two representatives of each constituency group… and start hammering out solutions to our problems, to talk honestly face-to-face about the issues and come up with a few solutions that will work, and that my time here will be productive.”

Adds Hardbarger: “The most rewarding thing so far is the people I’ve met. There is nothing like coming into the office in the morning and seeing smiles and enthusiasm among the staff and having positive responses and feedback from Senate and House staff, to see us moving in a direction.”

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PHOTO CAPTION Hardbarger9825

Retired education and technology expert Carol Hardbarger, Ph.D., of Newport, talks about the dairy crisis and her role as the new consumer representative on the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board during a recent interview at the PMMB offices in Harrisburg. She says the Bonnie Mohr painting behind her is a favorite reminder of youthful days spent on her grandparents’ dairy farm. “It also reminds me that the number of dairy farms throughout Pennsylvania help define who we are as a state,” she says. 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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