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.

-30-

‘This is the face of the dairy crisis’

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

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

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, March 23, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No one blamed Dean Foods.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-30-

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Lebanon5257(Graves)

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

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

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

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

Lebanon5314(Morrissey)

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

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

 

Lebanon9495(Signs)