Change is needed, declares Rep. G.T. Thompson

Decline of Pennsylvania’s dairy industry noted

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, February 19, 2021

EAST EARL, Pa. – “We cannot continue to do what we are doing from a dairy pricing perspective and expect better results,” said Rep. G.T. Thompson (R-Pa.), named ranking member of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee in December. 

Known as an advocate for dairy farmers, Thompson cited the decline in dairy farms and Pennsylvania’s position in rankings, noting that in 2009, when he was first elected to serve central and northern Pennsylvania in the U.S. Congress, Pennsylvania ranked 5th in the nation for dairy production with 545,000 cows. 

A decade later, at the end of 2020, Pennsylvania slipped to eighth in production and has lost 67,000 cows since 2009. USDA reported 478,000 milk cows in the Keystone State at the end of last year with production in Michigan, Texas and now Minnesota leapfrogging Pennsylvania over the past decade.

In 2019, alone, Thompson took note of the 370 dairy farms that exited in Pennsylvania, with a huge impact on rural communities. He also observed the more than 10% loss in cows and production over 10 years during a telephone conference with members of the Grassroots Pa. Dairy Advisory Committee and 97 Milk, whom he thanked for all of their hard work on dairy issues.

He stressed that the decade of decline in Pennsylvania underscores how important it is to address the loss of milk check value at the farm level.

“Everyone in the dairy supply chain clearly can’t do what has always been done and expect different results,” he said, adding that a change is needed to benefit dairy farmers and that “the rest of the supply chain will have to adjust. We can’t sustain these decade long trends without further disruption. We have seen the impact already.”

Thompson said his dairy pricing initiative is straight forward, to look for “actionable measures that allow hardworking dairy farmers to earn a respectful living. Doing that will stabilize the economic circumstances so the other parts of the supply chain will adapt. If dairy farmers keep going down, we lose our industry, so serious steps must be taken toward economic stability.”

He talked about working as Ag ranking member to have Federal Milk Marketing Order pricing hearings, and he noted that the next Farm Bill offers an opportunity to modernize milk pricing, but it will take industrywide consensus, he said.

To get even a short-term fix for the losses due to negative PPDs before the next Farm Bill will be tough and will require action and agreement by NMPF and IDFA.

“Our best hope in the short term is to get the milk classes back into alignment (in regard to PPD), and work on building consensus for long term resiliency heading into the next Farm Bill,” said Thompson.

As for school milk, Thompson said he planned to restructure his whole milk for healthy kids legislation for reintroduction this session, with some tweaks that make it more workable for schools.

This is an important signature piece of legislation for Thompson because of the triple-impact he believes it will have on the health of children, the economics of dairy farming and the sustenance of rural communities.

Since the Senate ag committee has jurisdiction in school meals, where in the House, the jurisdiction lies with the education and labor committee, Thompson said he has already discussed the measure with the Republican leader in the Senate Ag Committee, Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas.

Thompson also believes there are members of the House Ag Committee who want to elevate this issue, which could include congressional hearings on the Dietary Guidelines. He said that process would start out with briefings to returning and incoming members about the DGAs so they have background on the issue.

With former Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack picked to return to the USDA post in the Biden administration, Thompson said he will be weighing in with Vilsack to encourage maintaining the 1% flavored milk waivers and about further school milk reform. He said he is hopeful about Vilsack’s support for a whole milk measure.

Thompson noted that reforms to milk offerings in schools could also come from the Senate side if Ag Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow opens the door with childhood nutrition reauthorization, but that, “Nothing will move out of the Senate that is not strongly bipartisan, so spending time on the Senate side building bipartisan support will be important,” he said.

While incoming House Ag Committee chairman David Scott (D-Ga.) has priorities and a history of bipartisan action, dairy is not among his biggest focal points, which leaves room for Thompson, as ranking member, to advance dairy as his priority working with the chairman.

Bottom line, the Grassroots Pa. Dairy Advisory Committee will be working to help build consensus for milk pricing reform, and many of the Farm Bureau ideas look promising. The challenge will be getting NMPF and IDFA to come together around shared priorities to benefit dairy farmers in the pricing system, but that effort has begun.

One thing is clear, the House Ag ranking member G.T. Thompson sees the farmer’s position in the current pricing equation as inadequate.

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Redner’s Markets lead with grassroots 97 Milk education

Dairy category sales are up, Whole milk is the star, up 14.5%

The Drink Whole Milk (virtually) 97% Fat Free dairy case stickers are up, and the “Whole Milk – School Lunch Choice – Citizens for Immune Boosting Nutrition” yard signs are being displayed at Redner’s Markets store locations. Bernie Morrissey (center) and Nelson Troutman (right) appreciate the way Redner’s and marketing director Eric White (left) are out in front as leaders in whole milk education.

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, December 18, 2020

SINKING SPRING, Pa. — “This is an easy message to sell, and sales of whole milk are way up,” said Eric White about the Drink Whole Milk (virtually) 97% Fat Free” grassroots milk education campaign.

White is director of marketing and communications for Redner’s Markets, headquartered in Reading, Pa. with 44 stores, 35 of them in central Pennsylvania, the balance in Maryland and Delaware.

He was not surprised by the grassroots marketing campaign for whole milk: The painted round bales started by Berks County dairy farmer Nelson Troutman, the banners promoted by retired agribusinessman Bernie Morrissey, and the social media and website promotion by 97 Milk. 

When Morrissey visited him some months ago, White was eager to join in.

The “Drink Whole Milk (virtually) 97% Fat Free stickers” are up on dairy cases at Redner’s Markets locations, White had them made with the signature red type on white background. Clover Farms Dairy, the milk bottler in Reading that supplies milk to all Redner’s stores, indicates they will be changing the case strips to promote whole milk too.

White is also putting up the “Whole Milk – School Lunch Choice – Citizens for Immune Boosting Nutrition” yard signs in the store above the dairy case and on the grounds as well.

Both the grassroots stickers and the signs include the 97milk.com website where shoppers can get more information and milk education. The Redner’s Dairy cases also include the Choose PA Dairy signs, featuring photos of local farms, and the chocolate milk refuel signage from the national and regional checkoff programs.

During an interview at the dairy case in the Redner’s Sinking Spring store this week, the impact was clear: Whole milk in the jug is very much the star of the show.

In fact, the Redner’s brand, bottled by Clover, has always been whole milk. Whole milk is the only milk that gets the Redner’s name. It has always been that way, says White.

He confirmed their whole milk sales have increased dramatically. Yes, the Coronavirus pandemic has had some impact, he said: “But when I look at January through March numbers, that is how it was tracking even before the pandemic.

“I pulled the numbers, and we have seen a 14.5% increase in whole milk sales, alone, which is tremendous,” White confirmed. “The consumer message has changed, and we see people coming back to whole milk, knowing that they don’t need to drink the lower fat milk. We give our own kids whole milk at home now. It’s better for isotonic replenishment.”

Sales of whole milk at Redner’s 44 stores are up 14.5%. The entire dairy category sales are up and milk is the star, especially whole milk.

White also reported that sales for the entire dairy case are up. 

“The whole dairy category is higher, with milk being the number one product selling from the dairy category, and whole milk the number one type of milk being sold,” he said.

White also sees how whole milk sales benefit local dairy farms. “There is a confluence in how these sales benefit local agriculture that we need to support more than ever. We are seeing the messages in the media. With digital and social media, the message spreads.”

“We want to thank Redner’s for being a leader,” said Morrissey. “They are pro-farmer, pro-education and pro-consumer. They are completely on the 97 Milk page of educating consumers about whole milk as immune boosting, like our sign says. Eric has been tremendous to work with. If every supermarket chain would start educating consumers about whole milk, we would see even more benefits for consumers and farmers. The secret is education, and Redner’s is the store that is out there in front of the pack, doing it.”

The Redner’s store brand, bottled by Clover Farms Dairy in Reading, Pa., has always been whole milk. 

Eric White has been with Redner’s for 22 years. He notes that they have long partnered with Clover Farms Dairy for their milk. They feature Clover milk in all of their stores, along with other local name brands, and of course, the Redner’s brand — whole milk — is bottled by Clover.

“It’s not that hard to do this,” said White. “We are a local family-owned company, and supporting this message brings it full circle back to the local dairy farms that are the backbone.

“We can underestimate why we are in business, and it is only because of the farms producing the food,” he observed. “Dairy and agriculture are the backbone of everything here in central Pennsylvania. A lot of businesses are here because of dairy. We are here selling food and feeding people because of the farms.”

White notes that as Redner’s expands, they are also expanding the reach of the farms shipping to Clover. More distant store locations also feature brands local to those sites as well. In fact, it is Redner’s practice to work with local farms on in-season vegetables and fruits as well as year-round products like yogurt.

Morrissey agrees, he notes that the Morrissey Insurance business he founded in the 1980s is in multiple states and appreciates grocers with stores in multiple states supporting their local and regional farms. He stresses that one of the best ways to do that is to educate consumers about whole milk.

When Troutman started painting round bales with the “Drink Whole Milk (virtually) 97% Fat Free” message in December 2018, he said he never thought it would go so far.

“This is a dream come true to know all that has happened in the past two years — from the stores to the signs to the website and social media — and how the message has gone to other states and around the world,” said Troutman.

He added that, “When people work with you and work together, that’s the key.”

Troutman recalled a Pa. Milk Marketing Board listening session in Lebanon in December 2018. “I went home frustrated,” he reflected. “I looked around at what I had, and thought, I’ll paint a round bale with the message and put it out.”

The rest, as they say, is history — and it’s a history still in the making.

Morrissey recalls the first time he stopped in at Redner’s main office. “I didn’t know Eric at the time, and I didn’t have an appointment. He saw the banner I brought with me and was eager to talk with me.”

White had seen the message on round bales popping up around the area, and he was seeing the impact on Redner’s whole milk sales.

“The 97 Milk message was not much of a revelation to me because I always knew it. I drank whole milk growing up and through college. But my wife was convinced on fat-free. Now that we know drinking whole milk does not condemn us to a life of Lipitor — especially for our kids — she is buying whole milk for our family,” he says, adding that even their pediatrician recommended whole milk.

White points out that in today’s age of marketing and new products (not to mention government edicts for schools), there are a lot of opportunities for people to get off track in healthy eating — especially for children.

Morrissey, Troutman and White all agree that the beauty of the 97 Milk effort is how it has spread, and the beauty of social media is when the truth gets out, it spreads fast.

While not present for the interview, Gn Hursh, president of 97 Milk LLC, added his voice of appreciation for Redner’s.  “Milk education is a win-win for everyone involved. The biggest winner is the consumer. Thanks to Redner’s for being part of the milk education team,” said Hursh.

“Without Redner’s, without Eric, we could not accomplish this,” added Morrissey. “Redner’s is the leader in educating the public and being very transparent about why whole milk sales are good for consumers and for farmers.”

The importance of whole milk to consumers is evident. During the height of the pandemic last spring, White said consumers showed how much it is a staple they rely on. Even during our interview Tuesday, Dec. 15, with the forecast calling for a record December snowstorm in the area for the next day, the dairy case was very busy with shoppers and constant re-stocking of milk, especially re-stocking the shelves with Redner’s Farm Fresh Vitamin D whole milk – in demand!

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Call to action: Grassroots dairy group seeks PA Senate leadership action to move House-passed bills forward

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By Sherry Bunting

HARRISBURG, Pa.  — The Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed two dairy bills virtually unanimously last December, but the Senate Ag Committee has failed to act.

On April 7, the Grassroots PA Dairy Advisory Committee sent a LETTER to Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati asking to bring new leadership to the Senate Ag Committee to move these bills forward.

The Grassroots group is now asking fellow dairy farmers and citizens to help by contacting Senate President Pro Tem Scarnati’s office at jscarnati@pasen.gov and/or 717.787.7084. Simply email or leave a message asking for new leadership in the Senate Ag Committee to move H.B. 1223 and 1224 forward for Senate consideration.

“Now, there is an opportunity of a lifetime for you to save our dairy industry from complete failure. With the COVID-19 pandemic, displacement and dumping of local Pennsylvania milk and a 35% milk income loss across our farms in one month and expected to continue for the next three, at least, you have an opportunity to get these bills out of committee and onto the floor,” the letter to Scarnati explained.

“The Pennsylvania dairy industry is at risk to losing it all — given our small and numerous herd size — the heart of rural PA. Rural Pennsylvanians are counting on this industry to survive COVID-19,” the letter continues. “Now is your time to act.”

“These two bills were overwhelmingly passed by the House, so why is the Senate Ag Committee stalling? For five months they have ignored these bills,” said Nelson Troutman, a Berks County farmer. “Pennsylvania dairy farmers put their income right back into their communities, but they get no help from the Senate on these issues that are critical for our farms to stay in business.”

“How does this happen? How can the House pass two dairy bills 196-0 and 194-2 while the Senate keeps them in a drawer? It doesn’t make sense. We can’t continue down this road,” said Potter County dairy farmer Dale Hoffman.

His daughter Tricia Adams and her brothers are all partners in the farm with a third generation now involved also. Like other dairies, Hoffman Farms is economically important in their community while providing wholesome nutritious milk and hosting farm tours for nearby schools.

“People in our community ask me all the time, what can I do to help? They want to know the milk they are buying is as local as possible, and they want to know they are supporting the farms in their community who provide it,” said Adams. “There is a point when we have to stand behind something and take action. Is it too much to ask that the premiums be returned to farmers as intended? Is it too much to ask for the Senate to consider these bills that the House passed in a bipartisan way?”

The two bills — H.B. 1223 and 1224 — were introduced early last year by Rep. John Lawrence (R-13th).

H.B. 1223 passed by a vote of 194-2. According to Rep. Lawrence, this legislation would establish Keystone Opportunity Dairy Zones (KODZ) to incentivize expanded dairy processing facilities in Pennsylvania to expand markets for milk from Pennsylvania farms. It is modeled after the long-standing Keystone Opportunity Zone (KOZ) program. To qualify, applicants would have to use private capital, create new jobs, and use primarily milk from Pennsylvania farms.

H.B. 1224 passed by a House vote of 196-0. According to Rep. Lawrence, the legislation would give the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board (PMMB) the ability to coordinate the collection and distribution of state-mandated milk premiums with the Department of Revenue, ensuring the premiums reach struggling dairy farmers.

“Pennsylvania’s family dairy farmers are struggling due to historically low prices and foreign competition. Taken together, these bills will positively impact every dairy farmer in Pennsylvania,” Rep. Lawrence observes. “I appreciate the bipartisan support these bills received in committee and on the House floor.”

According to Rep. Lawrence’s press release, both bills also received support from family dairy farmers across the state, the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, the Pennsylvania Association of Milk Dealers, the Pennsylvania Association of Dairy Cooperatives, and the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board.

“We are at a crossroads in Pennsylvania, where agriculture is our number one driver of our state’s economy, and dairy is the linchpin. We are losing farms every day, hundreds of them every year, and with them, we stand to lose other businesses, jobs and the economic vitality of our rural communities,” said Karl Sensenig of Sensenig’s Feed Mill, New Holland.

“Our farm families are being pressured from all sides by five years of economic stress and market losses as rapid consolidation accelerates production in other regions. Now the coronavirus pandemic is revealing how the system is starting to collapse and how easily these state-mandated premiums disappear in the system between the consumer and the farm,” said Mike Eby, a Lancaster County farmer and chairman of National Dairy Producers Organization. “These bills are following the same pattern we saw in three previous sessions where other transparency bills were passed by the House only to die in the Senate without consideration. What is Senate Ag Committee Chairman Elder Vogel afraid of?”

“The current pandemic shows how important it is for our state to have strong farms and vital processing for our citizens to be food secure. We see our farms being forced to dump milk, losing access to markets, and at the same time scarce supplies of milk and dairy products at stores and limits on purchasing,” notes Krista Byler, a farmer in Crawford County. “These bills help connect some of those dots between farms and consumers.”

For Katie Sattazahn, a dairy producer in Womelsdorf, these bills “offer hope as the dairy situation in Pennsylvania is deteriorating. We have the land, climate and young producers who have grown up on the farm, pursued degrees, and come back with knowledge, passion and talents to move family farms forward, but wonder if they’ll have the opportunity,” said Sattazahn.

Over the past decade, Rep. John Lawrence has introduced other bills aimed at improving PMMB over-order premium transparency. Previous bills also passed the House but were ignored by the Senate Ag Committee.

Now, this pattern continues as H.B. 1223 and 1224 languish without consideration by the Senate Ag Committee under the leadership of Chairman Elder Vogel Jr., representing Pennsylvania’s 47th district.

“This has gone on for too long,” said retired agribusinessman Bernie Morrissey of Robesonia. “Our farmers have been patient. They have been involved in working on these issues for more than 10 years. Our consumers pay a higher price for milk that includes these premiums that the law requires be paid to farmers. It’s time for the Senate to act on this legislation that helps make sure these funds get to our Pennsylvania farms.

“It’s time for Senate President Joe Scarnati to bring a leadership change to the Pennsylvania Senate Ag Committee,” Morrissey added.

The Grassroots PA Dairy Advisory Committee is chaired by Morrissey and is comprised of dairy producers and related agribusiness representatives from diverse regions of the state.

Their letter was also sent to Senate Ag Committee Chairman Elder Vogel and all members of the Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee on Tuesday, April 7, 2020.

To support action and leadership on these bills, farmers and citizens of Pennsylvania are asked to contact PA Senate President Scarnati at jscarnati@pasen.gov and 717.787.7084. Simply email or leave a message asking for new leadership in the Senate Ag Committee to move H.B. 1223 and 1224 forward in the Senate.

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