Will ‘local’ focus stem tide of milk displacement?

PA-preferred (1).jpgHarrisburg Dairies, Schneider’s Dairy step up for milk from at least 9 of 42 dropped Pa. farms

 

(Author’s note: Farmers whose milk has been displaced in 8 states are in various stages of determining their futures. Some are exiting the dairy business, a few have been picked up by cooperatives, or as in the case of this story, by processors. Some are resorting to marketing milk with brokers at much lower prices. In addition to PA Preferred, Tennessee’s legislature is working on a state label for milk.)

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, March 30, 2018

BROWNSTOWN, Pa. — In the days following the “Save Pennsylvania Dairy Farms” town hall meeting in Lebanon March 19, some breakthroughs came for 9 of the 42 Pennsylvania farms notified by Dean Foods that their contracts will end May 31.

Harrisburg Dairies, based in Harrisburg, picked up 5 (possibly 9) of the 26 farms let go by Dean’s Swiss Premium plant in Lebanon.

Schneider’s Dairy, based in Pittsburgh, picked up 4 of the 16 farms let go by the Dean plant in Sharpsville.

Both Harrisburg Dairies and Schneider’s Dairy source their milk through direct relationships with local family farms, and they use the PA Preferred logo on their milk labels, signifying it was produced and processed in Pennsylvania, which also means the state-mandated over-order premium paid by consumers is passed back through the supply chain.

“It really made the decision for us, when it came to needing our milk supply to be independent producers that we can have a direct relationship, monitor and inspect ourselves,” Alex Dewey told abc27 News, Harrisburg about the PA Preferred label and their decision to add five of the displaced farms to their Pennsylvania-sourced milk. Dewey is the assistant general manager of Harrisburg Dairies.

Likewise, Schneider Dairy president William Schneider told Clarion news that, “We really didn’t need the milk, but… these people were going to lose their livelihood. I didn’t want people to be out on the street, so we did what we could.”

Both dairies appear to have chosen their 4 and 5 farms based on hauling routes and proximity to their respective plants.

Meanwhile, the situation is in limbo the remaining 12 farms in western Pennsylvania, along with the handful of Ohio and New York producers, affected by volume adjustments at Sharpsville and New Wilmington as well as 21 in eastern Pennsylvania affected by volume adjustments at Dean’s Swiss plant in Lebanon.

In addition, producers affected by these notices in Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and the Carolinas are also currently still seeking markets. A few in the Southeast have made plans to sell, but overall, there are still about 100 dairy farms displaced by Dean’s system-wide consolidation and Walmart’s new plant coming on line in May in Fort Wayne Indiana.

Some other marketing factors are emerging.

For example, the Dean Sharpsville plant continues to notoriously bring in loads of milk from Michigan. The company confirms that the 90-day notices sent Feb. 26 to over 100 dairy farms in 8 states, did not include Michigan.

The Sharpsville plant was referenced specifically in the December Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board (PMMB) hearing where the Pennsylvania Association of Milk Dealers and Dean Foods requested a significant reduction in the producer over-order premium to its lowest level in 17 years. This change to a 75-cent mandated premium went into effect for wholesale and retail milk price minimums January 1.

At the time of the hearing, both John Pierce and Evan Kinser of Dean Foods testified that retailers are getting accustomed to bargain-priced milk elsewhere with documented retail milk prices offered to consumers in other states as low as 87 cents per gallon. Kinser testified that this new reality made Pennsylvania’s high state-minimum retail milk price an increasingly attractive destination for milk bottled elsewhere.

Kinser had further testified that the pressure from the increasing influx of out-of-state milk was making it difficult for milk produced in Pennsylvania to compete for retail (and apparently farm level) contracts.

Kinser also indicated that the mix of milk sourcing at the Sharpsville plant, in December, was already much different than the mix at the Swiss Premium plant in Lebanon. With Sharpsville close to the Ohio and New York borders, the plant has been sourcing milk from Ohio and New York for some time, but also increasingly from Michigan and Indiana.

In fact, at the December PMMB hearing, Kinser’s much-redacted testimony warned of Pennsylvania milk becoming displaced and that the new and lower 75-cent over-order premium level is “already a compromise that represented the highest level the current economic conditions can sustain.”

Kinser warned that if the premium were any higher than 75 cents, Dean Foods would be forced to renegotiate its contracts with suppliers to change the mix of milk used at ALL of its plants within the state in order to compete for contracts with packaged milk coming into the state from plants beyond Pennsylvania’s borders.

Even though the PMMB granted Dean’s request to lower the mandated premium to 75 cents, it appears the mix of milk is being renegotiated anyway as part of the company’s milk supply chain consolidation process as the volume adjustments at Pennsylvania plants have fallen primarily onto Pennsylvania farms.

Also emerging in the marketplace is the increased occurrence of brokered milk. This trend began in 2013 as producers across the Northeast and Mideast have dealt with contract losses in the fluid market at smaller levels than seen today.

Great Lakes Milk Producers is an example of a recently organized group of producers from Ohio, Michigan and Indiana, which is organized “like” a cooperative but markets milk as single-source loads through a broker.

Part of the drill is getting the milk qualified with farm audits and certifications as single-source loads that can be matched up to spot needs from cheese and yogurt plants to even, at times, the Dean plant in Sharpsville, Pennsylvania, the Southeast in the summer, and potentially even the new Class I Walmart plant in Fort Wayne.

Marketing through a broker can mean a long haul in a long market with changing conditions. This option makes milk quality a mandate without a premium.

As 27 farms in Indiana continue to seek a market, it is unclear whether brokering with Great Lakes Milk will become an option. The size of the displaced Indiana family dairy farms fits the single-source criteria, ranging 300 to 1500 cows and collectively represent an estimated 20 million pounds per month of displaced milk volume let go by a Dean plant in Indiana as well as Louisville, Kentucky.

“This is a huge issue for our state right now with an overwhelming impact,” said Indiana Dairy Producers executive director Doug Leman at a recent annual meeting in Indianapolis about the 27 farms with displaced milk scattered around the state. “Conversations are starting to happen, and we are planning a meeting for these farms. But just because Dean is not buying this milk, does not mean that the consumer demand has gone away. We have to let the dust settle and go through the milk shuffle.”

Among the recently affected Indiana farms is the sixth generation Kelsay Dairy Farm, operated by brothers Joe and Russ Kelsay and milking nearly 400 cows near Whiteland.  Joe Kelsay was the milkman for last year’s Indy500.

“We are exhausting all contacts and connections with cooperatives and plants,” said Kelsay in a phone interview. “Several told us they are not in a position to take any additional milk, some are doing some checking, and we do have a couple meetings scheduled. We are cautiously optimistic.”

When asked if the new Walmart plant will pick up any of the Dean dropped farms, Leman said the plant’s supply has been locked up with a percentage coming from undisclosed dairies doing contracts directly with Walmart and the balance being single-source loads via third parties.

“We can’t tell Walmart where to get the milk, but we are letting them know to check with these farms,” said Leman. “Some are within 50 miles of the plant.”

Kelsay doesn’t blame either Dean or Walmart for the market loss his family and others are experiencing. “This is a difficult time, but we can’t fault one company or another for doing their best to run their businesses,” he said.

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, town hall meetings were held (and reported in last week’s Farmshine) to raise public awareness. Ag Secretary Russ Redding wrote to Dean Foods asking for contract extensions.

But Dean has indicated its problem with excess volume will begin before these contracts end.

“We explored all our options before we made this decision,” noted Reace Smith, Dean Foods director of corporate communications. “At this time, we can’t extend the contracts further. As a fluid milk processing company, we are unable to store milk long-term.”

The timing is difficult with spring flush and spring decisions around the corner.

“We’re all in limbo right now,” said Agri-King nutritionist Bob Byers in a phone interview. He works with 25 farms, serving in the affected area of western Pennsylvania for 20 years. He notes that affected farm families have only so much time to make decisions like what crops to plant, what fuel and supplies to order. These decisions revolve around whether or not they will be milking cows after May 31.

“There is a timeline involved to unwind a multi-generational dairy farm with inventories of cows and feed and with a team of employees to think about,” says Kelsay. “If there is no one to purchase our milk, how can we continue? What happens here has a significant impact on our team of employees, and their families, as well as our hauler, nutritionist, equipment and feed suppliers – our whole web of contacts. We do a lot of business with a lot of people.”

Byers notes that this is the worst of times in the dairy business that he has seen in his 20 years and that it definitely affects local jobs and businesses.

Lebanon9495(Signs)

“Local people want local milk,” he said. “That is the only thing that will help these local farms at this point. Media attention will help get that message in front of consumers, and in front of companies like Walmart.”

CAPTIONS –

PA-preferred

Alisha Risser of Lebanon posted this photo of Harrisburg Dairies’ milk displaying the PA Preferred label signifying the milk was produced on Pennsylvania farms. The Rissers were part of a town hall meeting in Lebanon reported in last week’s Farmshine, and they are one of five farms whose contracts were dropped by the Dean Swiss Premium plant in Lebanon that will be picked up by Harrisburg Dairies.

 

 

 

 

‘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.

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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)

Seismic shifts in milk supply chain ahead: New Walmart plant triggers Dean’s cut of over 100 dairy farms in 8 states

SwissDeanStory9468

By Sherry Bunting, from Farmshine, March 9, 2018

LEBANON, Pa. — He saw the mailman drive up and linger in the driveway, wondering if they were expecting a package. Moments later, his wife was standing there, holding a letter she had signed for.

The certified letter informed this Lancaster County dairy farm family that after 13 years of sending their milk to the Swiss Premium plant in Lebanon – along with decades of the farm’s milk in generations before them — the agreement with Dean Dairy Direct would end May 31, 2018.

The same story played out Friday among neighboring farms on the same hauling route to the same plant. And it was the same scene in driveways for approximately 120 dairy farms in eight states, including 42 in eastern and western Pennsylvania — around half of the Dean Dairy Direct shippers to three plants in the state.

Reace Smith, director of corporate communications for the Dallas, Texas-based Dean Foods, confirmed in a phone call Monday that against the backdrop of expanding raw milk production, and companies “asserting and expanding their presence in a market where consumers are drinking less milk (namely the Fort Wayne, Indiana Walmart plant where bottling begins this month) over 100 dairy farms in eight states received 90-day termination notices” from Dean Dairy Direct on Friday and Saturday, March 2 and 3 stating that their agreements will end May 31, 2018.

Smith confirmed that the over 100 affected dairy farms are in the states of Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina.

“This affects all size herds and is not a large or small farm thing,” said Smith. While she was unable to supply specific information about the farms that were terminated, she said the widespread volume adjustments at multiple plants across four Federal Orders was necessary due to the new Class I plant (Walmart) coming online this month and the loss of a contract through a competitive bidding process (Food Lion).

Both market losses for Dean indicating structural change to the dairy industry as more retailers move into milk bottling in more centralized distribution models.

Sources in the various states confirm the affected farms range in size from less than 100 cows to over 1000 cows.

“This was an incredibly difficult decision. We tried very hard to avoid it and regret this decision had to be made,” said Smith. She indicated that Dean Dairy Direct field representatives are serving as resources to these producers and can provide a list of contacts for potential milk buyers. They are also offering counseling.

DeanFoodsMap.jpgWhile the company will not provide a list of affected plants or a state by state break down in the number of farms or volume of milk affected, they have indicated that the state that may be hardest hit on a volume basis is Indiana.

In fact, the volume of displaced milk in Indiana, alone, has been estimated at over 20 million pounds per month, representing the under 100 to over 1000 cow size range but most of them milking 300 to 1000.

The affected Indiana farms shipped milk to the Dean plant in Louisville, Kentucky, which also terminated 22 Kentucky dairy producers, ranging from 50 cows to 250, according to Maury Cox, executive director of the Kentucky Dairy Development Council.

In Tennessee, Julie Walker of Agri-Voice near Knoxville has confirmed nine (now 10 confirmed) affected producers ranging 60 cows to 300, and numbers in the Carolinas are unknown at this time.

From the standpoint of the farms affected, Pennsylvania is hardest hit, and while the number of New York farms is unknown at this time, some may have shipped to Dean plants in Pennsylvania.

According to Jayne Sebright, executive director of the Center for Dairy Excellence, 42 Pennsylvania dairy farms shipping to three Dean plants in eastern and western Pennsylvania received notices Friday – representing half of the Dean Dairy Direct shippers in the state. This includes 26 producers in eastern Pennsylvania, including Lebanon and Lancaster Counties, as well as 16 in western Pennsylvania, where the Dean plants in Sharpsville and Erie also ended agreements with Ohio farms. The number of Ohio farms affected is unknown at this time.

“The (Agriculture) Department and the Center have been reaching out to other markets to see what capacity is available, but at this point we do not know of any with available capacity,” said Sebright. “We are working to support the affected farms as best we can. We are very concerned both about the future of the farms and the well-being of the farm families.”

Sebright noted that the Center is making additional resources available and recommending use of their Dairy Decision Consultants Program to evaluate options — both within and outside of the dairy industry. “This is a difficult situation to be in and we are concerned.”

Dean-Cows.jpgIn fact, the farm this reporter visited in Lancaster County Tuesday was already working to call every available market and neighbors who also lost their contracts were looking at everything they could think of. Four or five trucks go through the county picking up milk every day so they wonder if each one can find a market or if they are better off pulling their milk together to find a single-haul market.

The producer was thankful, at least, for being part of a dairy producer discussion group and thankful for folks like Dr. Charlie Gardner with the Center who leads the group.

Not only were the Pennsylvania dairy farms shocked to receive the letters, veterinarians, nutritionists, feed company and equipment maintenance folks are facing this loss with their farm customers as the news spread this week throughout farm communities and the greater dairy community.

In Indiana, where estimates are that over 20 million pounds of milk per month has been displaced, producers had already been on edge as the Walmart plant took shape in their state and they contemplated its milk sourcing.

“We are working with producers and contacting cooperatives and potential markets to try to work together to get through this thing,” said Doug Leman, executive director of the Indiana Dairy Producers. He has been in contact with affected producers, the Indiana Department of Agriculture, and the plants and cooperatives that provide markets for milk in the region.

“I’ve had calls not just from the affected producers, but from many other Indiana dairy producers sharing their concern and asking if there is anything they can do,” said Leman. “I’m encouraged by that, and I am encouraging our producers to keep their chins up through this difficult time in their lives, families and businesses in the hopes that we can work through this together.”

Leman said he does not want to blame Walmart because, wherever the first Walmart plant would have been located, this was coming. Indeed, Walmart has entered a trend among retailers to move toward bottling their own private label store brands (Great Value and Sam’s Club Member’s Mark) rather than contracting with Dean Foods.

“Walmart was coming to Ohio, Michigan or Indiana, and I still believe it is better to have the plant in Indiana because it offers opportunities,” said Leman.

While fluid milk consumption is on the decline for 15 years — although stabilizing with more consumption of whole milk last year — retailers notice that nearly every shopping basket going through their stores includes milk. They seek their own store brand loyalty as loyalty to their store and some of the retail price wars happening in states without loss-leader protection are evidence of this. As is the ability to pull premiums away from states that have loss-leader protection or a minimum retail price as in Pennsylvania, to “fund” price wars in other surrounding states without any loss-leader protection.

The dichotomy points to a need, perhaps, for a federal loss-leader threshold versus random state programs that can fuel the picking of winners and losers in today’s times of seismic structural change to the dairy industry from retail all the way through the supply-chain.

In short, the region would likely have been affected by Walmart’s decision to vertically integrate its Great Value and Member’s Mark milk brand for its stores in the region — no matter which state the plant had been located.

In fact, sources indicate potential sites to the south are being eyed for a second Walmart plant in the future, revealing a corridor strategy to this vertical integration of single-source, full-traceability, each-truck-one-farm model.

The Dean Dairy Direct letters of termination to dairy producers in the region were dated February 26, 2018, which was the same day as Dean’s 2017 earnings call where the company projected its strategy in brand and private label supply and to “right size” its milk volume and consolidate its supply chain to achieve a “flatter, leaner and more agile” company into 2019.

According to Smith, there are no official announcements of any plant closures at this time and none of the plants involved have released all of their shippers. Still, there remains concern that some of the plants that have released a larger portion of their farms are vulnerable.

“We still have a commitment to local milk,” said Smith about the volume adjustments. “There are many factors that impacted this decision. We are seeing surplus raw milk when the public is consuming less fluid milk, and we see companies asserting and expanding their presence in a market where consumers are drinking three gallons less annually, per capita, since 2010 while the U.S. dairy industry is producing 350 million gallons more milk annually than the year before.”

In addition to the overall imbalance Smith said that, “The introduction of new plants when there is an industrywide surplus forced us into the position of further adjusting our milk supply according to demand.”

As vertical integration of milk at the retail level leads to consolidation by the nation’s largest milk bottler – Dean Foods – the company has diversified into soft dairy product brands that are just starting out of the gate and were discussed in the Dean earnings call as well.

Specifically, the letter received by Indiana and Kentucky dairy producers shipping to the Louisville plant stated “two indisputable dynamics led to this difficult decision. First and foremost, a retailer’s new Class I fluid processing plant is coming online in the region, significantly decreasing our production as milk volume is moved away from our facility to this new plant.

“The second reason is bigger than all of us. The steady increase of raw milk production combined with the decrease of Class I fluid dairy consumption…” the letter stated.

Letters received by producers in the southern market as well as eastern Pennsylvania did not specifically reference the new Class I fluid processing plant built by a retailer (Walmart) as had the letter to Kentucky and Indiana producers serving the Louisville plant and western Pennsylvania and Ohio producers serving the Sharpsville plant.

Those letters received by farms further to the east and the south indicated the plants had “lost a portion of customer fluid milk volume to a competitor through a customer-bid process.” Sources indicate this may include both the Food Lion private label store brand and the Walmart Great Value private label in these areas as well.

The letters received by producers said further that Dean was “unable to lock-in enough new customer volume to offset this loss.” This is a function of the overall decline in fluid milk consumption and the new milk via large multi-owner, multi-site farms in surplus regions of the Mideast and Midwest.

One thing is also clear in speaking with producers, veterinarians, organizations and others in the industry, the farms that are facing this difficulty are largely well-managed and producing high quality milk. Many of them are young families representing the next generation. Many are progressive, with updated facilities and technologies as well as utilizing the resources available to them for continued improvement in all that they do to supply their communities with milk.

In these states affected, whole transportation routes were terminated, presenting both challenges and opportunities for a collective effort in dealing with these market losses.

Walmart will not reveal the farms they have secured to supply the plant, but it is widely known that some of the milk will come from the north, some from within Indiana, and that a processor in Wisconsin is handling contracts and in a position to balance the Walmart plant’s fluid needs that may or may not have involvement by cooperatives.

As in Indiana and other states, Cox said of Kentucky: “We, are contacting other potential markets for our producers and would like to meet with Dean Foods to see what more we can do for these producers and to have a better understanding about the future of the Louisville plant” (where both the affected Kentucky and Indiana producers shipped their milk.)

Some state dairy organizations, state departments of agriculture and other industry leaders indicate they want to let the dust settle and allow options to emerge as they adopt a patient mindset to look at potential options for their respective state’s producers.

In the meantime, all are reaching out to producers and urging producers to reach out to them, and to each other. In fact, right now, more than ever, the dairy community needs to be reaching out and talking about its future to higher levels of relationships beyond what has occurred in the past.

“We want to survive,” said the dairyman this reporter visited 15 minutes from my home in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, just four days after receiving the letter.

Like others this reporter has spoken to, they have done everything the industry suggests to make their farm competitive. While a small farm whose milk shipped for generations to the Lebanon Swiss plant serving local stores and consumers, this young farm family had invested in the latest technology, produces milk with very high components and very low somatic cell counts.

But here they are, facing what 120 of all sizes face throughout eight states as vertical integration from Walmart and other retailers sends a ripple effect and seismic shifts throughout the supply chain.

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Dumped. Desperate. Delivered. But is it over?

‘It will happen again if we don’t find a way to deal with this.’

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, April 17, 2015 Cover-041715

FULTONVILLE, N.Y. — Ray Dykeman does not want to see anyone go through what he and his cooperative of 8 producers did this week. He cites the feeling of not knowing where to turn as the worst part of the “bizarre situation.” But as the group began their phone-tree of calls last week, and the Albany television news cameras rolled at the 950-cow Dykeman Dairy Farm to produce what became the number one ‘shared’ story of the week… things started happening that led to a reprieve.

The co-op of 8 had lost their milk market. They were given notice 4 weeks ago that April 15 was the last day they would haul their milk to New York City’s only bottler — as they had for 13 years. Less milk was needed by Elmhurst Dairy, and another entity had stepped in to supply — and balance — that need.

“When we first lost our market, we spent 14 days thinking we were getting something lined up with another buyer,” said Dykeman. “When that fell through, we were faced with literally 7 to 10 days of hecticness. There’s not a tremendous amount of options. That is the other hard part.”

Dykeman served as the co-op’s point man communicating with other co-ops, processors, government officials and the media.

The 8 farms, totaling near 3000 cows, were down to 7 days to find a new home for their 110 million pounds of annual milk. Staring them in the face was the real possibility of selling their cows and shutting their doors.

“What do you do in 30 days, in that amount of time?” said Dykeman, who has ownership in 3 of the 8 affected farms, including the 500-cow Envision Dairy, Amsterdam, owned by a consortium of 23 people with expertise in different aspects of dairying and forage, along with young dairy startups from Cornell. Envision Dairy was accepted by another co-op 10 days before cutoff. That lightened the load a bit, but the rest of the milk was still a long way from home.

“Even today, our 42 employees are looking at me saying what are we doing Thursday?” said Dykeman in a Farmshine phone interview late Tuesday afternoon. “We are 24 hours away from having no home for our milk, and I still am not sure how to answer them.”

Hope and support…

But he had hope. Fellow dairy producers and community members were calling and emailing. People were reaching out. He had had countless meetings and secured two buyers to each take a little of the milk. On Tuesday afternoon, he was waiting for an answer from a third processor considering taking half.

By late that evening, that contract was signed for a 3-month reprieve in time to make the nightly television news.

“Trucking our milk to 3 different places will be new for us, but we are able to use the same hauler and we are accustomed to high trucking costs — having hauled milk into New York City for 13 years — so we are very happy,” said Dykeman with an audible sigh of relief.

“I hope, going forward, we don’t let this experience go by the wayside because I honestly believe if we do not come up with a plan for this area, it will happen again and be potentially devastating,” he quickly added. “Just look at the investment farmers have. All that we have put at risk.

“I would much rather have someone say to me: ‘We really need you to go out of business. You are not needed in New York anymore, and you have a year to get out,’ than to be told all of a sudden there’s no place to send my milk,” he said.

Dykeman stressed that they have “no animosity toward any of the companies.” This is business to business, they realize. But what amazed them was the amount of public support.

“Everyone worked so hard to find a home for this milk: Our representatives and senators, the Governor’s office, the New York Ag Commissioner, other co-ops and processors. Local people wanted to take the local milk. It was a very difficult situation in which to find a solution, but the people we have dealt with in this were very helpful.”

Dykeman could not say enough about Sen. Chuck Schumer. “He was kind enough without a scheduled meeting to meet with a couple farmers while in Johnstown for another reason,” he explained. “He and the Commissioner both called this morning to express their relief in how things turned out.”

No easy solutions…

The 3-month reprieve gives the co-op of now 7 farms the breathing time to secure an annual contract. And Dykeman feels certain there will be more discussion in the industry on how to handle these things better in the future.

“Farmers generally want to go back to being farmers,” Dykeman shared. “This is not what we do. This is one of the reasons we farm. We grew up on farms and this is what we want to do — not doing the kinds of things I’ve been doing for the past few weeks.”

Dykeman said the silver lining is “seeing your community respond and be very helpful. I can’t even calculate the number of emails and phone calls I’ve had. In fact, I’ve had 5 calls try to buzz through while on the phone with you today,” he said Tuesday. “People want to help. But there are no easy solutions and it will happen again if we don’t find a way to deal with this.”

One of the ideas being tossed around is to pair extra milk with efforts to supply food banks, or to ask the government how to use the “demand buying” in the Farm Bill to alleviate the supply pressure coming to roost on a region despite the fact that the “national average milk margin” is not even close yet to triggering the national government purchases for feeding programs.

Players and perspective…

In contacting the New York Department of Ag and Markets on their role and perspective, emailed questions were requested, and Dave Bullard, assistant public information officer provided this statement in response: “Ag and Markets is working with local elected officials, including Congressman Tonko and Assemblyman Santabarbara, to assist the farmers in finding alternative processors and manufacturers for the cooperative.  There is currently a surplus of milk due to strong production combined with lower sales as a result of reduced exports and a few other factors.  This supply/demand imbalance has created a very challenging situation for all producers and processors.”

Similarly, a request for an interview with DFA was met with a request for emailed questions. In asking what DFA would like to report in terms of taking on one of the farms in the Pennsylvania situation a few weeks ago and the New York situation currently while also gaining additional outlet for member milk in the process, the emailed response from DFA’s spokesperson was, that “Every milk marketing organization handles regional market dynamics differently.  One of the advantages of our cooperative system is that we work diligently to provide a secure market for our members’ milk.  Our goal is to market our members’ milk in the most efficient and cost-effective way as possible.  As we look to the future, the Northeast dairy industry is in an excellent position because of our proximity to major population hubs and our access to natural resources.”

Asked to define some of the biggest reasons for the oversupply of milk in the Northeast given that the Northeast has not grown by as wide a margin as the national average, DFA’s emailed response was: “For most of 2014 and into 2015, the Northeast marketplace has been in a challenging milk supply situation. Overall a generally weak demand and increased milk supply resulted in the need for additional milk movements around and beyond the Northeast. With plant closures (Farmland Dairies) and an overall weakening in demand from Class I and Class II customers, more milk than normal was placed in balancing facilities throughout our system and outside our geography. In the Northeast the loss of capacity in conjunction with the increase in supply resulted in the extra milk movements.”

Welcome to the squeeze chute…

When reviewing the larger decline in Northeast Class I utilizations versus the decline nationally — and seeing the effect as Eastern mailbox milk prices fall further behind their respective all-milk price while national average mailbox milk prices have atypically become higher than the all-milk price — it is obvious that the Northeast market is the new squeeze-chute when milk supplies nationally burgeon.

The yogurt-magnet that strengthened the confidence of Northeast dairy farmers over the past few years has led to small but steady increases in production, and then in 2014, New York increased by more than 2% to re-take from Idaho its former position as the #3 milk-producing state. Meanwhile the Northeast milkshed, as a whole, was up just under 2% in 2014 compared with the national increase of 2.7%, and has backed off in early 2015.

No reason to sour on yogurt…

Yogurt production is one of the primary fall-guys for the current supply/demand situation reversal of fortunes in the Northeast. But further analysis is less clear on that pointed finger. Yogurt production was 741 million pounds in New York State in 2013 and 692 million pounds in 2012. The 2014 figures for the state will not be available until late May. The 2012 and 2013 totals, however, show New York yogurt production used around 12% of New York’s growing milk supply in both years as both the yogurt and the milk production grew simultaneously.

On a national basis, however, the total U.S. yogurt production figures are available at this time, and yogurt production grew from 4.42 billion pounds nationally in 2012 to 4.65 bil. lbs in 2013 to 4.74 bil. lbs. in 2014.

Furthermore, the April 2 Dairy Products report indicated that nationwide plain and flavored fresh (not frozen) yogurt production was up in February by 7.2% over year ago and nearly 12% higher than for January.

Context and common denominators…

The yogurt industry is known to be highly secretive and competitive.

Interestingly, 2009 is the last year in which the USDA reported monthly yogurt production on a state-by-state basis. Since 2010, those monthly yogurt production figures are only available on a national basis. This reporting change coincides with the timing of when yogurt production began to rise in New York State; so now, when it counts, there are no free and public records of production by state until 6 months after a year ends. It’s not that way for other substantial dairy products, and prior to 2010, those figures were available monthly without having to pay hundreds of dollars for an insider yogurt market publication to read insider industry estimates and trends.

In April’s central New York situation, like western Pennsylvania in February, rumors fly about reasons for farms to be cut from the shipping rolls of processors and small co-ops. Some folks wonder about the milk quality of those producers, or they may believe producers were expecting to be paid more money. But that’s the thing with rumors, there is but a shred of quasi-truth.

While some producers may find themselves in this situation through nitpicking on an inspection report or somatic cell counts that are a little too far north of 200,000, others may find themselves in this situation for merely asking a higher pay price when milk is short, but then staying with their processor on a handshake without the requested pay increase during the short-milk times only to find themselves on the other side of that equation — losing their processor when milk becomes long.

The bottom line in talking to various folks who’ve been through this in Pennsylvania and New York, the common denominators are: 1) the lack of warning, 2) the inability to prepare or negotiate or help problem-solve in advance of being flatly cut off, and 3) the loss being driven, at least in part, by the independents and small co-ops’ lack of reliable access to balancing assets — either owned or simply a standby buyer that will take a little milk for cheese or butter or yogurt or powder as producers balance the diminished and diluted Class I demand.

Looking ahead…

“Everyone in the industry was helpful to us, and we want to continue to work with them on solutions for the future,” said Dykeman reflectively.

Running in the background is some loss of confidence as producers deal with permanent and temporary loss of markets. One of the producers who survived the western Pennsylvania cutoff in March said in a phone interview this week, “crazy things are happening and people are being let go. Everyone is afraid to invest. Some of us already invested in our operations and are on our toes about losing our markets, and then we go to a local meeting where the speaker from Elanco tells us we need to increase production with rbST even though we are clearly in a region where more processors are requiring affidavits not to use it and people are losing their markets because of too much milk.”

At the end of the day, from the outside looking in, it seems the good beef price and current status of processors wanting to label products rbST-free are two strong signals folks could pay attention to in stabilizing demand. It’s also important to gauge the market direction in planning phases of growth. That growth is necessary here to sustain the dairy infrastructure and make farms that are not quite as surrounded by other farms attractive as a pickup. However, the two market loss situations in Pennsylvania and New York illustrate vividly that size does not matter.

As long as the Federal Orders put all the marbles of high value, pooling and provisions into Class I while that is the milk class that is dwindling in sales, size won’t matter. When milk is long, the milk guns will continue to point East and all size farms are vulnerable in the business of dealing with the push of supply through the squeeze chute.

Look for more on the Northeast market situation in next week’s Farmshine.

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PENNSYLVANIA – Feb. 2015

Got Milk! But nowhere to go…Cover-022715

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, Feb. 27, 2015

WEST NEWTON, Pa. — What happens when no one will come for your milk? That’s a situation increasingly facing dairy producers in southwest Pennsylvania, given what has and is occurring in the proverbial tip of the iceberg: Westmoreland County.

It happened to Mike and Vicky Baker and six of their neighbors last May, and it is happening this week to 6 to 8 more producers in Westmoreland County, with the potential for additional shippers in surrounding counties to be affected as the calendar approaches the spring flush and schools letting out for summer.

For Doug and Janice Greenawalt, West Newton, Pa., the news could not be worse. On Saturday, February 28, the milk from their 40 cows will simply not be picked up.

Two other producers being terminated this week said they are selling or have already sold their cows. Two others said they have until March 31 to find new buyers for their milk. All received termination letters from Lanco-Pennland Quality Milk Producers Cooperative between January 30 and February 5.

“I’ve been on the phone all day, for days. I must have called dozens of dairies in the area since getting the notice on Jan. 30 that we were being terminated due to ‘hauling and marketing conditions.’ Our farm supports 3 families and we have 4 days to find a way to keep going,” said Janice Greenawalt in a phone interview with Farmshine Monday. As of Wednesday, they were still without a buyer for their milk come Saturday, and were looking at options for culling some cows and putting assets and energies to work raising cattle in a way that can yield some income for the farm and its families.

“All we know is that United Dairy has not renewed the contract with Lanco for our milk to be commingled, so Lanco could not sign for our milk after Feb. 28,” she explained. “Everyone we contacted to buy our milk says there’s too much milk around to take us. But some said they would have taken us … if we were larger.”

For Todd Ramaley, the story is similar. His farm is almost into Indiana County and about a 35 minutes’ drive (in a car not a milk truck) from the nearest Lanco shipper still shipping to Lanco. As of Tuesday, he said DFA was still looking at the possibility of taking the milk from his 40 cows “because it is really clean milk with SCC of 150,000.”

If his milk went to DFA, it would actually still go, physically, to the United Dairy, Inc. plant in Uniontown, several sources indicated, because United has a “swapping deal” with DFA, under which some of United’s milk goes to DFA’s plant in New Wilmington and some of DFA’s milk goes to United’s Uniontown plant.

When asked about the letters sent to six of its producers in Pennsylvania’s southwest corner, Lanco’s director of dairy operations Robert Morris explained how originally all the milk hauled by that hauler served Saputo Cheese in Hancock, Maryland.

“That plant closed in July,” he said. “But before that, those shippers ended up in our world when Saputo bought Jefferson Cheese. At that time, we were able to work an arrangement with United in Uniontown and hauler Wayne Harmon to commingle that milk on United’s independent routes. They were in charge of the Uniontown, Pa., Martins Ferry, Ohio and Charleston, West Virginia plants and would commingle some of our milk on the nearest truck.”

Morris noted the total milk of their six terminated farms is “roughly 250 to 275,000 pounds a month.”

According to Morris, United had apprised Lanco about losing a sizeable bottling contract through its system in January, and before cutting its own producers, would first stop receiving milk from outside sources. United set Feb. 28 as the last day they could commingle that milk. Lanco also received word through the St. Louis, Missouri milk broker that ran the commingling that United’s sizeable loss of sales would prohibit further commingling of Lanco milk in that region on their trucks.

Morris noted that Lanco is “still taking on new producers in areas where we have haulers close to our customer base,” and he noted the six producers they’ve let go are “small farms and out of our orbit, especially since Saputo closed the Hancock plant in July.

“Those farms were never charged the real cost of hauling their milk because United had picked up the trucking subsidy,” Morris stated. “With us losing the ability to commingle that milk, there is no way for us to haul it, or any market for us to send it to, where the hauling doesn’t eat up all the income.”

Requests from the affected producers to find a way to haul their milk for Lanco were denied.

Morris further explained that their milk from south of Williamsport, including Cambria County, Indiana County and Somerset County as well as Garrett County, Maryland — that had all flowed to Saputo in Hancock — is now going East to the Land O’Lakes plant in Carlisle. Some of it goes to Dairy Maid in Frederick, Md., and to HP Hood in Winchester, Va.

In areas where Lanco has hauling, they do commingle with the Maryland/Virginia co-op, but these fringe areas — like Westmoreland County — are an issue now without the Saputo cheese plant and considering the cut in volume needed by United at its Uniontown plant. Both Lanco and Maryland/Virginia have milk into Somerset County, plus Maryland/Virginia has milk in the Sugarcreek, Ohio region. The producers affected by the latest termination fall into a void — a pocket of milk between two higher-density dairy areas.

“We simply had too much milk at the Uniontown plant,” said Tom McCombs, milk procurement manager for United. “We had to cut back on the co-op milk, so we gave Lanco the notice.”

When probed further about the loss of Class I milk contracts, McCombs said that what United actually lost was its volume of sales that Save-A-Lot trucks would pick up at its Uniontown plant for their Pennsylvania warehouse “just down the road.”

“They did some redistricting with their stores, and that milk volume is now going to other warehouses,” he noted. This would include the warehouses served by United’s bottling plants in Ohio and West Virginia.

McCombs said the loss of volume going to the Save-A-Lot warehouse served by United’s Uniontown, Pa. plant leaves the company with the difficult task of deciding when and how to cut some of its own independent shippers that serve that plant as well.

“We have to make that decision in the next few days,” he said Monday. “It will be a tough situation to pick a load in an area that is not as flexible to get to our plants or other cheese plants.”

When asked about the milk swapping arrangement still ongoing with DFA, McCombs noted that, “We would not be accepting DFA milk, either, if we did not have the swapping agreement with DFA.”

He added that he expected the lost volume from the Save-A-Lot warehouse served by the Pennsylvania plant to come back in the fall “if things change.”

According to McCombs, United’s current 340 farms produce 36 million pounds of milk per month, and this total had increased by 850,000 pounds from December to January. “Our farms have not added cows, but they are producing a lot more milk per cow. It must be the good feed,” he said.

“Not only do we have more milk, but the Class I consumption is down. We have got to get milk back to consumers. The schools used to serve lowfat. Now they serve no-fat. They take the fat out of the milk, which takes the taste out of the milk, and people don’t want to drink it,” McCombs stressed, adding that the snow and low temperatures this winter are causing school closures. “We had five loads of school milk canceled and the balancing plants were all full. That snowballs on you.”

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture has received the quality records of the terminated farms, but not one of the producers has heard anything in terms of options from the state.

For shippers in Federal Orders 1 or 33, there are provisions for the market administrator to direct a cooperative to pick up the milk but be allowed to pass the full cost of marketing on to the producers. However, the shippers regulated under the Pa. Milk Marketing Board do not have those protections if their Class I market collapses.

That is what happened to Mike and Vicky Baker’s dairy and six others in the Westmoreland County region last May.

“We have a lot of independent processors in this western region,” she said in a phone interview Tuesday. She recounted her experience of losing their milk market last spring. In fact, her dairy and the others let go at that time were in the top seven for milk quality at the plant, and they lost their market anyway.

“We were able to get a good load of milk together at that time, so five of us are now with Land O’Lakes. It’s not cheap. We are paying $1.43/cwt in trucking costs,” she said.

The overarching problem, says Morris at Lanco, is that the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic market is “losing raw silo space” for weekends, holidays, and times of the year when Class I utilization is lowest. Add to this the 4% national decline in Class I sales to begin with, along with the reluctance of cheese plants to run at full capacity to build inventory, and the situation becomes one that producers throughout the region should be watching.

While some truckers report wait times at plants of 2 and 4 hours over the holidays, coop dispatchers note that was accomplished by dumping milk or just separating the cream and dumping the skim so that the trucks would not be waiting and so their turnaround times could be maximized on multiple routes.

Estimates of milk dumpage since last summer runs in the hundreds, but is anyone’s guess. DFA’s response to the question is to say it balances its member milk as it sees fit. Only certain types of milk dumping are reported to the Market Administrator, and that’s a story for another day.

For Todd Frescura, another of the six Lanco-terminated producers, the path forward will be different. He has talked with Horizon because there is demand for Organic milk that is reportedly in short supply. He is confident his fields will certify for three years of organic treatment due to the way his farm is operated for rotational grazing. But he will still have to wait one year for the herd to be certified.

“I guess I’ll cull the herd real hard, dry the cows I can, and maybe just milk 10 cows to feed calves for the neighbors and raise my heifers to be ready to produce organic milk in the future,” said Frescura.

But “going organic” is not an easy answer for most of the dairies affected now and in the future.

With the milk dumping last spring and summer and over the holidays, the concern is the independent bottlers will have a balancing problem once the spring flush hits and the schools let out in June.

Part of the problem is the reportedly large shipments of milk into Pennsylvania balancing plants from Michigan. DFA member-milk from Michigan takes precedence over non-coop milk, here, and DFA’s plants are full to the point where the cooperative is charging a 50-cent/cwt marketing fee. Land O’Lake’s fee also increased recently from 15 to 40 cents/cwt.

“My fear is that the producers losing a market this month are just the tip of the iceburg for what could happen in June,” Baker explains. “DFA has their own milk to fill their own plants.”

What will happen to the shippers for plants that are relying on 60 to 80% of their market in Class I? The verbal agreements bottlers have with DFA may not be good enough to carry their shippers through the loss of fluid sales at a time when balancing plants are full, production per cow is high and the schools are closed.

Baker notes that the annual Southwest Regional Dairy Days in Blairsville, Pa. next Thursday, March 5 will include a producer panel on this topic.

“We had already planned this on the agenda to talk about positioning our milk for the future,” said Baker. “But now we’re going to really talk about having good quality milk and how it may or may not matter in long run. Producers in that 40 to 50-cow and 100 to 130-cow range need to be aware of what they might have to do to make themselves more attractive.”

She said it matters beyond the farmgate because of the domino effect. “I am fearful for what this means for our infrastructure. As dairies leave, the service providers will have trouble staying for those that remain,” Baker noted. “Other pockets of milk in this state have more options than we have here because, here, we have an independent market, and DFA is the only balancer for that market, and DFA has more than enough of its own milk (from here and from beyond) to fill their plants.”

-30=

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

 

To file your own comments with USDA, click here

No ‘snow days’ on the farm

cows6781By Sherry Bunting, columnist, Register-Star, Feb. 21, 2015

There are no ‘snow days’ on the farm. “When it is this cold, the simple every day protocols become enduring days of work,” notes Cody Williams of Wil-Roc Dairy, Kinderhook, where some of the 1500 Holstein dairy cows are housed in new and modern barns, while others are exposed a bit more to the elements in older facilities.

“We change our teat dip when it’s this cold, for extra moisturizing to the skin,” Cody explains. “We also adjust the cow diets to keep our cows in a positive energy balance as they burn more energy to maintain themselves during weather extremes.”

Operating a dairy or livestock farm in the extreme cold is not for the faint of heart. Veteran beef producer Phil Trowbridge of Ghent observes: “We know how to take care of ourselves. We dress in layers and give each other breaks.”

Frozen pipes, pumps, waterers, and manure — as well as difficulty in starting equipment — are commonly reported concerns when the snow piles up and the temperatures plummet, and, of course, concerns about keeping rooftops clear of a too-heavy burden.

Last week the mercury hit -14 at Trowbridge Angus Farm, where it is calving season January through March. The family, and their over 300 beef breeding cows, are navigating two to three feet of snow cover.

Twenty miles away near Schodack Landing, temps of -11 went virtually unnoticed by the over 700 Jersey dairy cows at Dutch Hollow Farm. They are tucked away in their barns with retractable sidewall curtains that stay open more often than not for natural light and ventilation but remain closed when the wind chills get this low.

Cattle are cold weather animals, but they do not like wind or drafts. The difference between beef and dairy breeds is the way their centuries-old partnership with man has adapted through specialized breeding and care.

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Beef breed cattle are kept outside pretty much year-round, coming into the barn only at calving time. Dairy cattle, on the other hand, are typically housed in barns year-round. While beef breed cattle spend more time foraging for their food and seeking the natural and provided windbreaks to lay down, dairy cattle in freestall barns will amble short distances inside from feedbunks and waterers to the deep-bedded stalls that are groomed for them two or three times a day while they are milking.

Dairy cows are accustomed to constant human handling from the time they are calves. 10986660_10206244497857081_5937924373439440151_oThey have a different temperament about the whole calving deal.They aren’t worried about predators and trust the humans they work beside day in and day out to care for them and their offspring.

Beef breeding cows, on the other hand, are more self-sufficient and protective of their young. They raise their offspring for the more hands-off life as a non-milking breeding animal or to spend 80% of their life foraging on pasture with the last 20% of their life in the beef fattening phase.

One thing in common: Both beef and dairy producers focus on the newborns immediately at birth to make sure each calf gets a warm start and enough colostrum for the passive transfer of immunity from its dam.

“When we get real cold weather like we have seen this winter, we spend more time in the calving barn at night. We pretty much sleep here with them when it’s this cold,” says beef producer Phil Trowbridge, who has had 50 calves born since January 1. “The main thing is to get those calves dried off and warmed up as soon as they are born, and to make sure they get enough colostrum. In two or three days, they’re old enough and strong enough to go outside.”

Not only are they prepared for cold weather, they frolic in it. “I took a video with my cell phone of the calves the other day when it was minus-11. We were putting out bedding for the cows, and saw those calves were feeling so good, they were just running through the snow,” Phil relates. “I like seeing that.”

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Stockpiled pasture grasses make a nice winter forage as cattle can push off a few inches or a foot of snow to graze it, and they do well getting around in the snow outdoors. But with over two feet of snow cover this winter, the Trowbridge family cuts trails to help the cattle conserve energy. They also put down extra bedding, more often, in the areas with windbreaks and feed more outdoor hay and supplement.

Meanwhile, on a dairy farm, the cows calve year-round. Calving pens are watched through video monitoring or by walk-throughs. The immediate newborn calf care continues

Tricia Adams pictures one of the heated boxes for newborn calves at Hoffman Farms

Tricia Adams pictures one of the heated boxes for newborn calves at Hoffman Farms

through the first few weeks of life in the calf nursery or individual hutches. Newborns often get time in a heat box or wear calf jackets and sometimes earmuffs when it’s this cold, and they are fed more often for increased energy to maintain their temperature and to grow.

“Taking care of the animals is pretty much routine. The feeding is very consistent day to day, and the freestalls are bedded twice a week,” says Paul Chittenden of Dutch Hollow
Farm. “Clean and dry and plenty to eat are what we focus on — regardless of the weather. Cows always have dry sawdust with extra sawdust stored in the front of the stalls. This allows for plenty of dry bedding to stir around each time we groom the stalls when the cows go to the parlor for milking.”

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Water is critical for drinking and cleaning, so lines are buried underground and drinking tubs are equipped with heaters.

“Cold weather management is really not too complicated,” explains bovine veterinarian and dairy farmer Dr. Tom Troxel. “Cows need to have plenty of feed and water, be out of the wind, and have a dry place to lay down. If they have these things, they can survive an awful lot.”

“No matter the weather, we have our jobs to do here,” notes Cody of Wil-Roc Dairy. “That is itself the reward. Getting our everyday tasks done and looking to see how the stressors of weather and other events can affect our system… That is how we keep improving how we do things all year long.”

Sherry Bunting is a member of North American Agriculture Journalists and has been covering beef and dairy production for over 30 years. Before that, she milked cows and graded beef cattle for market reports. She can be reached at agrite@ptd.net

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Dairy and beef cattle are adapted differently, but they all depend on their people for great care during the weather extremes we have seen here this winter. Farming is not for the faint of heart. Everyday tasks take longer to complete but it sure is rewarding to see cows thrive and calves frolic after a good start – regardless of the weather! Photos by Sherry Bunting, Beth Chittenden and Evelyn Troutman.

Milestone reached by Shenandoah Family Farms

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By Sherry Bunting, reprinted from Farmshine March 21, 2014

HAGERSTOWN, Md. – “Every day we reach new milestones, and today is one of them,” said Tom Francis, production manager and VIP / media tour-guide Tuesday, March 18 at the dairy plant where Shenandoah Family Farms Brand milk and cream products are made.

The 142,000 square foot facility in Hagerstown, Maryland was idled by Unilever in 2012, then purchased in August 2013 by Valley Pride LLC, a dairy business owned by 21 dairy farmers from the Shenandoah Valley region of Virginia. This purchase, and the separate formation of Shenandoah Family Farms Cooperative, grew from seeds planted during a 2012 meeting of the five original board members at the Thomas House restaurant in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

“We are excited to be here and look forward to moving forward,” said Randy Inman during Tuesday’s pre-tour press conference. Inman, a Harrisonburg, Virginia dairy producer, serves as vice president of Valley Pride LLC and Shenandoah Family Farms Cooperative.BlogShenFamFarms104

Over the past 18 months, they have developed a media and social media presence as they prepared for the startup of milk and cream bottling operations at the renovated plant February 24. Soft-serve ice cream mix production began last week, and hard ice cream production will begin after new equipment arrives in April.

To this point, Shenandoah Family Farms has used social media to bring farm families, farm life, farm children — even farm calves, cows, cats and dogs — right to the computers and smart-phones of thousands of customers. Brilliant photography of life on the farm and scenes of the beautiful Shenandoah Valley bring a nostalgic feel to the marketing of natural dairy products prized for their quality, flavor and wholesomeness.

“Our web presence will grow in the next three weeks with the launch of a new website with store locators and profiles of our farmers and staff,” said Shenandoah Family Farms marketing director Jennifer Churchman.

The plant is currently just scratching the surface of the demand and production capacity. The equipment has the capability of bottling 32 gallons of milk per minute, and the largest single-day of production they had since Feb. 24 was 6000 gallons. But Francis said this can be doubled with more shifts, workers and equipment as the demand grows.

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To-date, Shenandoah Family Farms milk goes to 170 retail and restaurant establishments along the Route 81 corridor from Shenandoah Family Farm Cooperative’s home base in Harrisonburg, Virginia, through the plant location in Hagerstown, Maryland, and north and west into West Virginia and the Waynesboro and Greencastle areas of Pennsylvania.

“We’re adding 5 to 10 new customers per day,” Churchman confirmed, explaining how end-consumers can fill out product request forms at shenandoahfamilyfarms.com and take them to the stores and restaurants they patronize. The product-request forms have also been the key in developing initial leads for the sales team.BlogShenFamFarms110

“The more requests that are submitted, the easier it is to get our product on the shelves,” aaid Inman. He noted they are close to getting their products into the local Walmarts.

“We are beginning to reach out to the Washington, D.C., area, and getting a lot of interest there,” said plant manager Fred Rodes, who has 25 years of experience working for three creameries after jumping the fence from dairy farming to dairy manufacturing in 1988 for health reasons. Rodes also said they would be open to doing private label work, but are focused right now on working directly with customers and through distributors to build their brand.

Hagerstown Mayor David Gysberts and other local city and county officials were on-hand Tuesday showing their enthusiasm for the plant’s re-start. “We are happy to see the Virginia farmers bring jobs back to our region,” said Gysberts. One-third of the 44 full time and 4 part time employees worked at the Hagerstown plant under its previous owner, Unilever, which employeed 400 at its peak before idling the plant in 2012.

“The more the community supports Shenandoah Family Farms products, the more products we can make, and the more jobs we can create here,” said Inman. “It’s a snowball effect.”

He explained that Shenandoah Family Farms products come from a small group of farms. Right now that is 21 farms average 130 milk cows per farm.

“The close proximity of our dairy farmers to our market will give customers assurance of fresh dairy products,” added Inman. “We are focused on high quality milk production and the assurance of best management practices for environmental sustainability, heritage farming practices, humane animal care, involvement in our community and involving our customers in our decisions as we grow.”

Inman said the primary goal of this enterprise is to preserve small family farms for generations to come. “We saw this as a way to take some control of our product by building a relationship with our end-consumers and taking our milk from the farm to the consumer, and to see our farmers rewarded for their high quality production with a steady milk price.”

The investment runs deep here – beyond dollars. Inman explained that the farmers and staff “worked hands-on and side-by-side” to upgrade and renovate the facility over the past six months. USDA loan-guarantees helped the group of farmers get the financing to not only purchase but also upgrade the plant and build awareness for their brand.

The facility’s milk silos, large conveyors, pasteurizer, existing ice cream equipment, coolers, and in-wall freezers were all part of the plant purchase. The owners purchased a separator, homogenizer, bottling equipment and new ice cream manufacturing equipment as well as upgrading computers, software and the ability to track milk from farm-to-store. They also upgraded the coolers and chillers and adding other conveyor capabilities throughout the plant.

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“We’ve had some delays with equipment arriving and the challenges you would expect with a project like this, but we’re ready. The word is getting out about our products, and the support from the local communities has been quite encouraging,” Inman said, adding that he’s impressed with how his fellow farmers and the plant staff have worked together.

“I’m amazed by the super commitment of the farmers, and their families, to get this up and going, and by our staff as we’ve worked together,” he said.

To be bottling the Shenandoah Family Farms milk and on the verge of beginning ice cream production was described as “overwhelming” by board member and producer Dennis Trissel. “In any business like this, you always hope to put in place what’s necessary to get the product marketed,” he said. “Our farmers know how to make high quality milk and our plant managers know how to make quality products…”

Now the ball rolls into the consumer domain through product purchases and requests where they shop.

“Our store customers need to see that we are capable of being here five years and forward,” said Rodes. “We have good staff and a lot of experience. I grew up on a dairy farm and I enjoy the challenges of running a creamery. I’m willing to work hard for these guys (the farmers) because I know they care about putting out a quality product. Now the rubber meets the road in sales.”BlogShenFamFarms067

For the sales force Lyndon Jonson and Rich Muldoon, that’s a challenge they are meeting daily – “hitting the road and knocking on doors.”

“The most rewarding thing for me is getting a new account, that’s my high-point,” said Johnson, a former truck driver who is part of the Shenandoah Family Farms sales force.

When hard ice cream production begins next month, the plant will roll out vanilla, chocolate and strawberry and begin adding flavors with 11 flavors planned at this time. They will concentrate on volume packages for grocers and soft-serve mixes for restaurants before adding a line of other types of ice cream products.

“For the most part, our awareness building is getting farmers face-to-face with the end consumers,” Churchman explained how ‘engagement marketing’ is being utilized. “We will utilize all avenues such as radio, television and print advertising, but we are also sponsoring many local events and will have our farmers and staff there. They are important members of their communities and we want them right there with our customers so the customers can be part of how we grow our company.”

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The 21 family farm members of Shenandoah Family Farms are all located within a 10-mile radius of Harrisonburg, Virginia. Currently three farms’ milk is going to the plant. Once all 21 farms’ milk is being utilized by the plant, another 12 producers are on-board to be added.

Churchman said they are using “test-market-moms” as an advisory group of moms and families to advise, test, and decide what to put out. “They can use their social media circles to gain additional feedback for us,” she said.

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Ice cream lead Charles Evans is glad to be back to work at the plant under the new ownership. Asked what makes the Shenandoah Family Farms ice cream products stand-out in the marketplace, Evans said “the recipe. It was developed by the farmers and Fred Rodes our plant manager. It’s higher in butterfat content, making it rich and thick. Everyone who tasted our soft-serve today enjoyed it and we’re getting very positive feedback from customers.”

Rodes also stressed that the Shenandoah Family Farms ice cream (both soft-serve and hard) is 100% natural and contains no additives. “That’s kind of rare these days,” he said.

Inman said Shenandoah Family Farms is working with other cooperatives on milk supply balancing and they are working with other processing cooperatives and suppliers to combine additional products for their distribution contracts — including cottage cheese, sour cream and yogurt, as well as the full line of Turkey Hill teas.

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Micah Showalter, 2, is tasting Shenandoah Family Farms soft serve ice cream with brother Adrian, 8, and sisters Emily, 9, and Erica, 6. Micah and his puppy are the stars of the Shenandoah Family Farms Whole Chocolate Milk label, shown here in poster size (left) on the wall above him, and all four children with a newborn calf at the Showalter family’s Sun Dial Farm-2 are subjects of the Whole Milk label, shown here in poster-size above them (right). The Showalters are among the 21 farmers in a 10 mile radius of Harrisonburg, Virginia, who purchased and renovated the former Unilever ice cream plant in Hagerstown, Maryland. They started bottling Shenandoah Family Farms Brand fluid milk and cream products at the plant on February 24. They began making vanilla soft serve ice cream mix this week and will soon be doing chocolate. Hard ice cream production begins in April with vanilla, chocolate and strawberry and will expand to 11 flavors over the next several months. Photo by Sherry Bunting

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Shenandoah Family Farms milk and chocolate milk were served with homemade cookies at the tour of the creamery Tuesday. Photo by Sherry Bunting

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After Unilever idled the 142,000 square foot Hagerstown, Md. plant in the fall of 2012, it was purchased last August by Valley Pride LLC, a dairy business owned by 21 dairy farmers from the Shenandoah Valley region of Virginia. In addition to updating the ice cream manufacturing equipment, they have invested in milk bottling, which started February 24. Photo by Sherry Bunting

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Owen Trissel is “over-the-moon” with excitement as he suits-up for the plant tour with his parents Cory and Charity. Owen, 9, and his brother Ian, 4, are the stars of the 2% milk label. One of the features of the Shenandoah Family Farms brand is to engage consumers in farm life through brilliant photography and larger labels. Photo by Sherry Bunting

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Production manager Tom Francis served as tour-guide Tuesday. He said hard ice cream production begins in April. The Shenandoah Family Farms brand offers chocolate milk is offered in whole milk variety, and ice cream is a higher butterfat, simple recipe made with 100% natural ingredients. Photo by Sherry Bunting

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Dairy producers Dennis Trissel (right) and Randy Inman are two of the original five who met in 2012 at the Thomas House restaurant, Harrisonburg, Va., forming Shenandoah Family Farms Cooperative and planting the idea-seed for taking their milk straight from farms to consumers. They are pictured with Shenandoah Family Farms marketing director Jennifer Churchman who says “engagement marketing” is the hallmark of their campaign and plant manager Fred Rodes (left), who grew up on a dairy farm, then spent the past 25 years on the other side of the fence in the creamery world. He loves working with people, building teams, tackling challenges and tinkering with ice cream recipes. Photo by Sherry Bunting

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Shenandoah Family Farms Cooperative vice president Randy Inman welcomed media and Hagerstown, Md. officials to the grand re-opening tour of the plant purchased by the investment of 21 members of the Valley Pride LLC, where Shenandoah Family Farms Brand milk is bottled and made into ice cream. Photo by Sherry Bunting

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Hagerstown Mayor Dave Gysberts and Council member Don Munson were among the 35 suiting-up for Tuesday’s tour of the Shenandoah Family Farms dairy manufacturing facility. They are all smiles as 44 jobs have returned to the site of the former Unilever ice cream plant that once employed 400 people. Now owned and renovated by 21 dairy producers from northern Virginia, the plant began bottling milk last month, started making soft-serve ice cream mix this week and will be ramping up hard ice cream production as early as mid-April. Photo courtesy of the City of Hagerstown.

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The 142,000 square-foot plant has been updated to make Shenandoah Family Farms ice cream and fluid milk and cream products. Photo by Sherry Bunting

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“Want to see where your milk goes?” That was all the encouragement these children needed to check out the conveyor taking crates of bottled Shenandoah Family Farms milk to the cooler where it was being loaded for delivery to 170 retail and restaurant customers — with 5 to 10 new customers being added daily.

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A year of awareness-building through Facebook and other media brought daily photos of farm children, farm life, and farm calves, cows, dogs and cats right to the computers and mobile phones of thousands of consumers. Photo by Sherry Bunting

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Charles Evans is the ice cream lead for Shenandoah Family Farms. He served the soft-style ice cream to local officials and media Tuesday. (I must say it was tasty!) Photo by Sherry Bunting