‘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)

Dairy at a Crossroads Part I: 2018 Turning point?

dairycrossroadssherry4-e1519953486606.jpg

Number of farms, robust infrastructure are interdependent. The ripple spreads wide and the pain in rural communities, deep.

 By Sherry Bunting, reprinted from Farmshine, February 23, 2018

BROWNSTOWN, Pa. — Dr. David Kohl recently said he is still bullish on the small farms that populate the eastern dairy industry, that there will always be a place for them, but they will change their focus.

Still, lenders and industry participants confide they are concerned about a large number of dairy exits in 2018. They are encouraging producers to work with advisors, and urging the industry to work together in the embattled eastern U.S., because the whole infrastructure depends on the number of farms as much as — if not more than — the number of cows and amount of milk produced.

While lenders like Dale Hershey, director of ag lending for Univest Bank and Trust, say they have already seen many diversify and change how they operate, others are in the process of re-thinking their futures.

The biggest concern for Hershey is when farms decide to sell the cows, seldom do the cows come back to the farm.

“Some of those farms will stay empty. That, I do see,” he asserts. “Occasionally they’ll come back in and milk, but mostly they will go into something else, or if the farm is sold, we’ll see most of them stay dark in terms of dairy production.

“I think we’ll look back 10 years from now and see 2018 as a turning point.”

Mike Peachey of Acuity Advisors and CPAs agrees. He sees dairy at a crossroads similar to the hog industry in the 1990s: “My concern is that we will see a dairy industry 10 years from now that looks very different from how it looks today, and we are helping our dairy customers take stock of that.”

Peachey observes that as the number of farms decreases, “This puts a lot of pressure on the dairy infrastructure and the ag businesses that support the dairy farms. One of Pennsylvania’s competitive advantages is that there is a lot of infrastructure and support in the whole supply chain that is very beneficial for competitive pricing for our dairy farmers.”

He cites the region’s multiple feed companies, multiple points of expertise, nutritional perspectives and a bidding process, multiple veterinarians, the strong ag lending infrastructure, equipment dealers, and expertise in different specialties.

“My concern is that if the number of dairy farms decreases, and if the infrastructure goes away, then it changes that competitive advantage,” he says, observing that the number of cows or the amount of milk produced does not necessarily make up for what is lost when the quantity of individual farms is reduced by consolidation.

Yes, the dairy industry is at a crossroads, and no where is this perhaps more evident than in eastern states, like Pennsylvania.

The Northeast was a fluid milk market in the past, close to 50% of utilization. Today it is less than 30%. As more milk is produced — even if per capita fluid milk consumption stayed the same — not enough other products are made here, so mailbox prices are falling under the coinciding weight of increased hauling costs and losses in competitive and quality premiums.

Meanwhile, the Class IV utilization has increased as a percentage in the blend price, leading many to believe the Northeast model of dairy pricing may be broken.

In fact, so concerned are states and dairy organizations that state-wide analyses are being conducted in top tier “notably fluid” states like Pennsylvania and New York in the Northeast as well as in Georgia, in the Southeast. The states of Michigan and Wisconsin are also looking at their state’s production, processing and infrastructure to improve their future competitiveness.

In Wisconsin, milk prices are driven off the cheese market — a growing market that has been cultivated to generate variety, demand and competitive premiums — whereas the Northeast model is built off Class I, which is not competitive, nor is it growing. And, unlike cheese with its diverse growth in specialties and brands, the Class I milk at the store is treated like a base commodity against which all newcomers and imitations are compared and premium-priced.

Dairy producers and industry participants also say they are concerned about the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board’s role in terms of the costs associated with milk assembly vs. where the state premiums are going.

Meanwhile, store inventories are kept close to the bone. If they throw a gallon of milk away, the margin on every other gallon is affected, and so stocking depth is being reduced.

These are the kinds of issues that states like Pennsylvania, Georgia, New York and Michigan, among others, are actively looking at as they study capacity and market needs and trends.

Producers don’t control these decisions, but their input is vital.

From farm to table, technology and workforce are two other big pieces with immigration reform being a double-edged sword.

If the Congress and the Trump administration are able to legalize immigrant worker status, what will that really do for the dairy workforce? A National Milk Producers Federation study with Texas A&M reveals that 80% of the nation’s milk was harvested by immigrant workers — up from 60% in 2009.

With general unemployment now falling below 5%, which many economists consider to be full employment, a legalized immigrant workforce may be lost to jobs in industries with better margins.

Workforce issues are also affecting trucking and other infrastructure employment.

Labor is fast replacing environmental as the number one issue facing the dairy industry, and against that background, farms will do things differently over the next 10 years to systemize their production, say various experts.

Builders, lenders and others are seeing the emphasis for this in three areas: wet calves, dry cows and post fresh, as well as through investments in technologies that improve management, specifically by their impacts on cost of production because this is the criteria that will drive farm-level investments into the future.

Technologies may help solve it, but this requires investment. The right answer, policy-wise, is elusive, but for individual farms, the right answer comes, again, from knowing cost of production from which to weigh out the options and run projections and scenarios based on where the farm is now and where it wants to be in the future.

While some see opportunities to drive milk output per cow higher with more cow comfort and better heifer programs, pointing out that Pennsylvania lags behind other states in its milk output per cow, others in the industry point to imposed restraints pushing the focus toward managing risk.

Complicating the marginal milk model for improvement in Pennsylvania is the Land O’Lakes base program. When producers are over base — because they’ve improved their management — they take a penalty when the base is enforced, depending on the eastern region’s total production.

Learning to manage through this intermittent penalty seems to be affecting mainly the producers in the East, despite more substantial growth in the West. In addition, DFA has started a base program for portions of its membership in parts of the Southeast U.S., where milk is already regionally deficit.

How will this push-pull play out at the farm level?

Some producers will carry a lunch. Hershey is seeing a trend toward small farm operators finding seasonal off-farm employment to keep their dairy farms running.

Others have and will become diversified, which can reveal two pathways: Getting successful in another area and exiting the dairy, or seeing the dairy as a lifestyle to keep, and using other income streams to weather the storm.

In addition to diversifying, lenders note niche processing will be a path for some. There are a number of niche producers in this part of the country. Some have been doing this a long time, others are just getting in.

“The good economy has really helped those operations. Tourists are traveling, coming to our county, dining out, and packing the places we deal with,” Hershey observes about Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Some of our cheesemaking stores are flourishing right now, but that business is not for the faint of heart. It requires deep pockets to get into.”

Connecting dots for consumers is essential for eastern states, like Pennsylvania. For example, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, there is this dichotomy. The county — like other parts of the eastern U.S. — has grown in produce and other specialty crops to become a great hub of food. To some degree this includes dairy, but more stimulation is needed.

As will be further discussed in part two of this dairy-at-a-crossroads series, knowing the cost of production for the farm business and knowing where lie the passions, strengths and weaknesses of the farm family are keys to finding each farm’s own path — whether that means keeping the cows and diversifying, investing in niche marketing, getting more competitive on cost of production or giving the cows up and channeling that valuable positive experience and energy to new pursuits.

This industry is about the milk and the cows, but even moreso, it is about the people.

“We can do it here,” says Peachey. “When we know our farm’s cost of production, we know the weak spot in our model and can figure out how to compensate for that and find where our opportunities are.”

As these changing tides and issues sort themselves out, Peachey observes how dairymen are making these “tremendous strides to improve their operations,” and he believes the next wave of improvement is figuring out how to do risk management well, how to capture margins when they are available, and how to protect operations from downside risk.

“We can take an operation so far and continue to improve, but the next wave of significant profitability and improvement is in managing the top line price and the input costs and locking in those good margins when they are there,” says Peachey.

“A generation ago, with price supports, dairy farmers could work hard and do okay or very well. Now it is a business requiring an approach to management for the long run,” he adds.

In part two of this series, we’ll examine the map for navigating the dairy crossroads.

 

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