Senate Ag subcommittee hearing on milk pricing: Agreement that Federal Orders need reform, but how? That’s the billion-dollar question

By Sherry Bunting

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Federal Milk Marketing Orders, their purpose, performance, problems and solutions — including a recent change in the Class I fluid milk pricing formula — were the focus of a Senate Ag subcommittee hearing on ‘Milk Pricing: Areas of Improvement and Reform” Wednesday, Sept. 15 in the Capitol.

“We are in the midst of a modern dairy crisis, magnified by a Class I pricing change in the 2018 Farm Bill. The pandemic and economic downturn are not the only causes of this problem, but they did exacerbate it. This system cannot adapt to market conditions and thus is not fairly compensating our dairy farmers. The formula change is a symptom of larger problems in a system that is confusing, convoluted and difficult to understand,” said Gillibrand Wednesday.

She recounted the more than $750 million in producer losses when looking at the previous Class I fluid milk ‘mover’ formula that used the higher of Class III or IV manufacturing milk prices and comparing it to the current formula that uses an averaging method plus 74 cents.

The hearing was a first step Sen. Gillibrand had previously indicated in a press conference last June, when the full extent of dairy farmer financial losses was becoming known.

As the hearing got underway, Gillibrand observed that from 2003 to 2020 there has been a 55% decrease in the number of dairy farms in the U.S.

“We are using an almost 100-year-old system with the last reform 20 years ago, where dairy farms are not operating as they were then. We need to put the power back in the farmers’ hands.” said Gillibrand.

The power to make the issues known was in the hands of three dairy farmers making up the first panel — Jim Davenport, Tollgate Farm, Ancramdale, New York; Christina Zuiderveen, Black Soil Dairy, Granville, Iowa, and Mike Ferguson of Ferguson Dairy Farm, Senatobia, Mississippi.

This was followed by a panel with Dr. Chris Wolf, ag economics professor at Cornell University, Dr. Robert Wills, president of Cedar Grove Cheese and Clock Shadow Creamery, Plain, Wisconsin, and Catherine de Ronde, vice president of economics and legislative affairs with Agri-Mark cooperative based in Massachusetts with members in New England and New York.

One thing everyone agreed on, in differing degrees, is that reforms are needed in the Federal Milk Marketing Order System.

Testifiers agreed that a key purpose of the FMMOs is to make blended payments more equitable between producers supplying different classes and uses of milk.

All three producers agreed the FMMO system should continue, although they shared differing ideas about how reforms could improve it.

There was also agreement that the new Class I ‘mover’ formula is not adequate for changing and uncertain markets. They agreed that using the USDA rulemaking process is the way to make such changes to be sure all parties are heard.

However, the current change in the Class I ‘mover’, implemented in May 2019, was made legislatively during the 2018 Farm Bill, not through the USDA hearing process.

Ferguson, a 150-cow dairy producer in Mississippi said he supported bringing back the previous ‘higher of’ method while a longer-term solution can be considered through the USDA hearing process. He noted periodic reviews of the adjuster could also be helpful, and that the situation should be addressed in the short term.

He explained that the Southeast producers across FMMOs 5, 6 and 7, produce about 45% of the annual fluid milk needs of their growing population, and when supplemental milk has to be brought in, those Southeast producers pay the price to get it there. That was very difficult and costly when class pricing inversions happened last year for a prolonged period of time.

Davenport, milking 64 cows in New York observed that the Class I price was aligning better in the past few months, but “we’re not out of the woods yet,” on Covid-19, he said.

“The FMMO system has served farmers well but needs adjusted to reflect current product mixes and market swings,” said Davenport, adding that the fluid market is very important for smaller sized dairies and regional supply systems. He proffered the hope that Class I, long-term, could be stabilized by basing it on something other than the volatility of cheese, butter and powder prices.

“The rulemaking process USDA uses will work, it just takes time,” he said, adding that the Class I price should reflect how hard it is to supply the fluid market.

Zuiderveen, whose family has dairies totaling 15,000 cows in Iowa and South Dakota, said FMMO pricing for milk of the same quality should align and foster innovation and competition instead of consolidation. It should also be transparent and promote a nimble industry that can respond to changes, she said.

“Distortions can cause the system to become unglued,” she said, noting that if producers can’t anticipate which classes will participate in the pool and don’t know how that will drive their milk price, then they can’t manage their price risk effectively, losses become compounded, and this discourages risk management.

Zuiderveen and others noted a variance as wide as $9 per hundredweight was experienced in mailbox milk prices from region to region and neighbor to neighbor at intervals last year.

“That creates a sense of helplessness among producers,” said Zuiderveen.

Dr. Wolf noted multiple reasons for the negative PPDs and milk check losses under the new formula, including declining Class I fluid milk sales and increased milk components, but said the two biggest reasons for milk check losses under the new formula compared with the old formula were the large volumes of de-pooled milk that reduced FMMO pool funds as well as the Class I change itself.

Wolf explained multiple factors in the wide divergence between Class III and IV. A primary one was government purchases being tilted to cheese during that time. “This large divergence in butter and cheese prices meant that the Class I milk prices were lower than they would have been under the former pricing rule,” he said.

Ferguson noted that the government cheese purchases were intended to support dairy producers as well as the public during the pandemic, but it ended up having a “devastating effect on our fluid market,” he said, noting that a more balanced approach may have helped.

Through difficult times in the past, price alignments were more stable in large part because of the ‘higher of’ method keeping the Class I price above the blended price so no matter what was purchased, all farmers, supplying all classes of products, benefited more equitably.

Under the current formula, the pandemic cheese purchases helped support dairy producers, but also led to distortions that contributed to large differences in milk prices at the farm level.

Dr. Wills was the only processor testifying. He said the survival of dairy depends on being able to evolve on these pricing issues. “Farmers are only better off if the premium (shared in the FMMO pools) exceeds the value of other classes, and that’s inefficient,” he said, adding his opinion that FMMOs have outlived their purpose.

“The redistribution makes it appear that all farmers are winners, when the evidence shows pricing equity is being lowered,” said Wills. “I fear for the future of the dairy industry. The federally administrated milk pricing now functions opposite of its intent, resulting in higher prices for consumers and lower prices for farmers. It responds slowly, encourages inefficient trucking and promotes consolidation.”

Wills also mentioned the wave of competition from an array of plant-based and blended products as well as cellular agriculture and bio-engineered analog proteins, none of which are included in the FMMO pricing structure.

Wills brought home the reality for rural communities when small and mid-sized farms are lost. Near the end of the hearing, he responded to a question from Senator Roger Marshall (R-Kansas) asking what are his farmers’ biggest concerns, what do they talk about when he sits down with them for coffee at a restaurant?

“My farmers tend to be smaller producers,” said Wills, president of two Wisconsin cheese companies supplied by 28 dairy farms. “They are concerned about having continued access to markets as the industry continues to consolidate. Even in Wisconsin, where we have more competition than most places, it is hard to find homes for those dairies that are cut loose from big plants.”

As consolidation accelerates, he said, there is a trend toward plants not wanting to make multiple stops. “The impact of losing all of those producers … that 10% per year loss (over time) just hollows out our communities. There’s not a restaurant in town anymore to have coffee at,” said Wills. “We lost our hardware store, our grocery store. A lot of it has to do with our rural communities being hollowed out. The ability to maintain those small farms is also important for our communities.”

On program safety nets and risk management tools, Dr. Wolf noted that the Dairy Margin Coverage program has a very positive impact on small producers vs. large producers, and that the Dairy Revenue Protection and Livestock Gross Margin are aimed at bigger farms. He said farms with those programs in place were “in a better place” last year.

However, elsewhere in his testimony and in that of others, the risk management difficulties during the unusual price inversions were also mentioned, when the Class I pricing change was exacerbated by pandemic disruptions creating those misaligned conditions.

As for simply nationalizing the FMMO pooling rules or making them more rigid, Zuiderveen said this would lead to more processors staying out of the pool, and Wills said de-pooling is the pressure relief valve processors need.

With a nod to pricing delays that affect the transparency in sending market signals through the FMMO system, Wills said he found out that week (Sept. 13) what he will be paying for the milk he bought on August 1, and his producers who sold that milk to him were also just finding out what they would be paid. That’s six weeks after shipping the milk.

Wills said this kind of inefficiency makes it difficult to plan and compete in business.

Another positive to come out of the hearing was when Davenport brought up legalizing whole milk in schools, to which Chairwoman Gillibrand, Senator Marshall, a doctor, and a few other members of the Senate Subcommittee gave hearty verbal support.  

Here is the link to the recorded Senate Ag subcommittee hearing https://www.agriculture.senate.gov/hearings/milk-pricing-areas-for-improvement-and-reform

Look for more in a future Farmshine.

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Sen. Gillibrand’s plans for Dairy Subcommittee hearing are moving forward

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, July 9, 2021

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), chair of the Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Dairy, Livestock, Poultry, Local Food Systems, Food Safety and Security, told reporters in late May that she is working on milk pricing legislation and wants to have dairy pricing hearings in her subcommittee before the August congressional recess. 

According to a document obtained by Farmshine, the Senator has been granted the request to hold the hearing in her subcommittee. The American Dairy Coalition (ADC) reports their appreciation for Senator Gillibrand moving forward on this, noting her office has established the hearing scope and is contacting testifiers. A date is anticipated for late summer 2021, though not yet confirmed on the Senate Ag calendar.

“We cannot lose the ability to feed our own people,” Gillibrand said during her May press conference. “If you have a market that’s fundamentally flawed and are constantly leaving producers unable to survive in the industry, there’s a problem. So, I think we need a very thorough investigation of my concerns.”

At that time, Gillibrand also talked about a multi-part scenario where this hearing could be followed by an investigation. Since 2003, the U.S. has lost almost half its licensed herds with milk price returns declining 23% in the past five years, according to USDA.

In addition to pricing and competitive market concerns over the past decade, the billions of dollars in dairy farm losses due to negative producer price differentials (PPDs) and de-pooling are part of the hearing equation.

Of this, a documented $783 million in net losses have accrued over 26 months directly tied to the reduced Class I price for beverage milk under the new averaging method implemented by USDA in May 2019 (See Chart 1). 

That equates to a straight average loss of nearly $25,000 per farm or $83 per cow, but the Class I value losses would be greatest in milk marketing areas with a higher percentage of Class I use. Other types of losses were incurred by producers in milk marketing areas that have a lower Class I utilization but experienced large volumes of Class III milk de-pooled, making the much lower Class IV price a bigger portion of the blended price paid to farmers.

At the height of these losses being incurred, the American Dairy Coalition worked to bring dairy producers together through conference calls and emails, driving a letter signed by hundreds of producers and organizations to National Milk Producers Federation and International Dairy Foods Association. The March letter requested a seat at the table for producers to address the Class I method.

NMPF and other groups came out with statements about potential FMMO hearing requests, which did not materialize.

In May, ADC worked with Senators in supporting Senator Gillibrand’s letter to Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack, seeking use of available CFAP and PAP funds to assist dairy farm families with these losses. 

Secretary Vilsack recently responded to questions from Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) during an Ag Appropriations hearing to say USDA is working on a plan to compensate Class I and Class III differential losses, but no details have been forthcoming. Producers are also waiting for details from USDA about the enhanced Dairy Margin Coverage base payments approved by Congress in December.

Sen. Gillibrand has observed the extreme volatility in milk prices over the past decade of her service as a member of the Senate Ag Committee. Dairy farm revenues have steadily declined due to a combination of trade wars, increased production costs, and competition from non-dairy alternatives leading to reduced consumption of fluid milk.

Other seismic shifts have also occurred in the dairy market landscape over the past five years, including shockwaves of rapid cooperative and plant mergers, plant closings, farms and small cooperatives losing milk markets since 2015, Walmart opening its own fluid milk processing plant in 2018, and the bankruptcy filing in 2019 and sale of plants in 2020 by the nation’s largest milk bottler, Dean Foods.

Multiple factors have also converged around the pandemic to create further losses for dairy farm families operating on already razor-thin margins and struggling to attain equitable markets and revenue.

Even the risk management tools purchased by producers did not function as designed because they are based on market values that most farmers did not receive in their actual milk checks. That’s like filing an insurance claim for a fire, but the adjuster looks at someone else’s intact property to determine your damages.

The upcoming hearing will likely look at all of this in relation to the change in the Class I pricing method for fluid milk, which was added to the 2018 Farm Bill without being vetted through a hearing process. The hearing is also expected to look at ways to address the Class I change and the FMMO hearing process, as well as FMMO pooling and de-pooling rules and dairy cost of production.

FMMO revenue sharing pools are the mechanism for how the usually higher Class I base price and normally positive differentials are shared with producers across a milk marketing area, no matter what class of products their milk is used in.

However, when the Class I price — due to the new averaging method — fell below Class III for 16 of the past 26 months, an estimated 85 billion pounds of Class III milk normally associated with FMMOs was kept out of the revenue-sharing pools, dropping the Class III portion to less than half its normal size from May 2019 through May 2021, and ultimately depressing milk check returns to producers. Some handlers may have paid their own shippers a portion of this de-pooled value, most did not.

In effect, the equitable method became inequitable when pricing turned upside-down, and risk management, at a time when farmers needed it most, failed.

Additionally, the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box cheese purchase effects on markets in relation to Class I pricing, are also expected to be part of the hearing.

The Food Box program included cheese, milk and other dairy products to help struggling families and at the same time was intended to support struggling farmers that were having to dump milk and be docked further penalties by milk buyers and cooperatives as ‘balancing costs’ or ‘market adjustments’ to handle milk supplies during the disruptions of the Coronavirus pandemic.

These purchases prompted cheese market rallies, followed by intervals of higher Class III milk prices (see Chart 2). However, this support became inequitable in large part due to the Class I pricing change, alongside a record large spread between the Class III and Class IV prices of $5 to $10 per hundredweight. This spread was affected on one side by record-large butter imports and inventories (Class IV), a slowdown in milk powder exports (Class IV) and on the other side by cheese sales (Class III) rising because of active exports and government cheese purchases for food boxes during the pandemic.

Even though every food box contained a gallon of fluid milk, there is no way to determine the ‘market value’ of Class I fluid milk, apart from the manufacturing class and component values. This is because fluid milk is treated as a base commodity. It is present in 95% of shopping carts, and thus used by large retailers as a loss-leader on the one hand, while on the other hand, the USDA regulates Class I fluid milk handlers as the only class that must pay a minimum FMMO price to farmers.

The hearing is also expected to look at processor ‘make allowances’ that are built into USDA’s end-product pricing formulas for bulk surveyed commodities: cheddar and dry whey (Class III) and butter and powder (Class IV).

Make allowances and yield factors currently add up to $3.17 per hundredweight on the Class III milk price and $2.17 per hundredweight on Class IV, according to a 2018 presentation by John Newton, formerly the chief economist for Farm Bureau who was hired this year by the Senate Ag Committee, explained make allowances as part of a risk management conference in Pennsylvania.

In effect, the make allowances are deducted from the milk component values as a ‘processor credit’ per pound of product, and the yield factors are applied, determining the number of pounds of product made per hundredweight of milk. Processors are indicating the make allowances should be raised because of the “circular” nature of end-product pricing.

But there’s another way to look at that ‘circularity.’ While it’s true that 12 years have passed since make allowances and yield factors were last updated (2008), it also true that in those 12 years vast amounts of value-added manufacturing have been added that benefit from these make allowances but are not part of the end-product-pricing ‘circle’ back into the farm milk price. The cost of making those products can be easily passed up the supply chain instead of back to the farmers. 

For the plants making the four USDA-surveyed bulk commodities that determine class and component prices — cheddar, butter, nonfat dry milk and whey — the issue may be ‘circular’. However, if make allowances are too high and too rigid, then there’s too much incentive to make product for storage that further depresses raw milk prices through end-product-pricing. So make allowances can be circular in that way also.

Dairy pricing is complicated and intricate — a huge topic. But then again, maybe what can come out of a Senate Subcommittee hearing is a simple straightforward message about making milk pricing simple and straightforward.

Pennies per pound here and there across milk volumes mean millions for big players, and when they add up to nickels and dimes that turn into dollars per hundredweight in the farm milk price, the intricacies become something farmers should be able to see and understand.

In a word: Transparency.

As indicated in her May press conference, Senator Gillibrand is looking to have each part of the dairy sector represented to offer their unique perspectives in the upcoming hearing, which is expected to have two panels, the first being dairy farmers and the second panel bringing in cooperatives, processors and an expert on dairy policy and economics.

In May, Senator Gillibrand made it clear she wants to see a multi-part evaluation of current and longstanding dairy issues, with this hearing being a first step to get a look at the lay of the land.

Stay tuned.

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Time is short for short-term fix of failed Class I pricing change

FMMOs in disarray

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, April 2, 2021

The efforts continue in hopes of addressing and rectifying the hundreds of millions of dollars in Class I value losses to dairy producers (net) over the last 23 months — due to the new Class I pricing method. But the window for a short-term fix is closing fast.

While the overall problem of severely negative PPDs has multiple reasons and resulted in well over $3 billion in milk payment shortfalls across 11 Federal Milk Marketing Orders (FMMOs), the loss attributed solely to the change in Class I pricing method is pegged at $732.8 million, NET, from May 2019 through April 2021, and looks to continue through most of 2021.

That is, unless a change is made – quickly – before the May Class I price is announced in a few weeks.

Farmshine readers are aware that dairy producers from across the U.S., along with many state dairy associations and the American Dairy Coalition, came together in early March to compose a letter to NMPF and IDFA, addressing the impact of massive depooling in relation to large negative PPDs for dairy farmers across the U.S. The letter specifically identifies the change in how the Class I base price is calculated, which NMPF and IDFA put forward, Congress passed in the 2018 Farm Bill, and USDA implemented in May 2019.

Specifically, the Farm Bill language states that the new Class III / IV averaging method + 74 cents – instead of the previous “higher of” method – was to be implemented in 2-year periods. This suggests we are now at the point in time where it can be amended to tweak the formula before the next 2-year period of implementation begins.

Recall that this change was legislated without hearings, was implemented without a regulatory comment period, and was put through with very little discussion under the auspices of giving processors a way to “manage risk” even as the result has grossly interfered with producer risk management tools.

Considering that this policy has been a complete failure under the stress test of a major event, Congress and USDA should be on notice to fix it before the next 2-year period commences. But time is short.

Producers — through this letter and other efforts — are asking NMPF and IDFA to put their proposals on the table officially for how to remedy this failed change before the next 2-year implementation period begins in just a few weeks.

Discussions among producers and organizations have ensued for weeks now — talking about averaging vs. higher of. In fact, those with greatest firsthand knowledge of the purpose and workings of FMMOs state that the higher of method fulfilled the lawful purpose of the FMMOs, the averaging method does not.

Put simply, the FMMOs are in disarray during this time of market stress that pushed Class III and IV widely apart. A $2 to $10 spread between Class III and IV – along with the new “averaging” method for Class I – have together disrupted the function and purpose of the FMMOs.

NMPF and IDFA told the U.S. Congress that producers would be “held harmless” by the change when it passed in the 2018 Farm Bill. But, in fact, producers have lost hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in value out of their milk checks over 23 months. The averaging method was never “stress-tested.”

NMPF leaders have reportedly referenced the idea of adding $1.63 to the simple average, instead of 74 cents, but this reporter has not seen the proposal put forward as an official ‘ask’ of the USDA Secretary to be part of the next 2-year implementation that begins shortly. Probably NMPF and IDFA will have to agree on this as the Class I pricing change was their agreement in the first place at the time it was passed in the 2018 Farm Bill.

Dairy producers cannot afford to see the drive for a solution stall out until the next Farm Bill. They cannot afford to roll into the next 2-year implementation using the current average + 74 cents formula. Meanwhile, dairy farmers can contact their milk buyers or cooperatives and ask their leaders to encourage NMPF and IDFA leadership to bring the discussion forward for implementation of a short-term solution beginning with the May 2021 Class I price. If this doesn’t happen, producers will be stuck with a failed pricing policy for at least two more years.

A feature in the March 5 edition of Farmshine discussed the letter, the background, and included a copy of the letter, itself.

The deadline for dairy producers and/or their state, regional and national organizations to sign has been extended again until Mon., April 5, 2021. Visit this link to view and sign electronically through the automated short form.

In the letter, dairy producers ask NMPF and IDFA to work with them for a solution that is a fairer distribution of dairy dollars in the long term, but also want to support a short-term fix, now.

Time is running out for this to happen. Dairy farmers do not have two to three more years to wait for the 2023 Farm Bill as the formula losses add financial burden to their already distressed economic situation. They can’t afford to lose hundreds of millions, if not billions, over the next two years as has been their net loss over the past two years. Look for an update next week.

Check out this primer on understanding milk prices basics and PPD.

Hot topic: Understanding milk pricing basics and PPD

Gratitude to Blimling and Associates for this flow chart illustrating the complexity of USDA milk pricing

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, March 26, 2021

I challenge anyone to find a pricing system on anything in the universe as complicated as the pricing of a hundred pounds of milk (See Fig. 1).

The Federal Milk Marketing Order (FMMO) system goes back to the 1930s Ag Marketing Law.  In 2000, changes were made to use end-product pricing formulas for four base commodities – Cheese (block and barrel Cheddar average), Butter, Nonfat dry milk (NDFM) and Dry Whey.

Today, these four commodities trade daily on the spot cash market at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME), where less than 1% of volume, closer to 2% on butter, is sold. Since 2018, this 10-minute daily spot auction is done completely as an electronic auction.

The CME spot market sets the pace for actual sales reported weekly to USDA by around 100 processors. From these weekly-reported prices, a weighted average for each of the four commodities is calculated by USDA. The weighted averages are used in formulas that account for yield and deduct specific “make allowances” (See Table 1) to then calculate Class and Component prices.

But first, these weighted price averages for just the first two weeks of each month are plugged into a multi-step formula to determine an Advanced Skim Pricing Factor for Class III (cheese/whey) and Class IV (butter, NFDM). The adjusted butter price is also used to calculate the Advanced Butterfat Pricing Factor.

Effective May 2019 — as a result of a change agreed to by National Milk Producers Federation and International Dairy Foods Association and then passed by Congress in the 2018 Farm Bill — the 2-week Class III and IV Advanced Skim Pricing Factors are averaged together, plus 74 cents to calculate the Base Skim Price.

Prior to May 2019, the Base Skim Price was simply the “higher of” either the Class III or the Class IV Advanced Skim Pricing Factor.

(Author’s Note #1: The previous ‘higher of’ method was the way the FMMOs could make sure Class I always brought the highest price to fulfill the purpose of the Federal Orders – assuring fresh milk supplies – and to keep other handlers invested in pooling their milk. We can’t lose sight of the fact that the fluid milk sales (Class I) have no market transparency as to their value – at all. In some states there are loss-leader laws or minimum pricing provisions, but in most states, Class I fluid milk sales are treated as a base commodity by large retailers like Walmart and Kroger. They loss-lead the retail consumer price of fluid milk to extreme low levels, even as low as $1 per gallon, to win shoppers. They do this because supermarket data show fresh fluid milk is in over 94% of consumer shopping carts! Because it is treated as a loss-leader in some states, and regulated with minimum pricing in other states, it’s impossible to know the real market value of Class I fluid milk apart from the value of its components in making other products.)

Next, the Base Skim Price is multiplied by a yield factor of 0.965 and the Advanced Butterfat Pricing Factor is multiplied by a yield factor of 3.5 and then added together to become the Base Class I Price. This price, known as the Class I ‘mover,’ is announced before the 23rd of each month but is used in the following month.

The various location differentials throughout the 11 FMMOs are next added to this Base Class I Price.

Whew! Now back to those weekly-reported commodity prices, yield factors and make allowances… Announced around the 5th of the next month, the other class prices are a function of the component values based on average weekly prices for the four commodities for four weeks: Component Value = Yield x (Commodity Price – Make Allowance).

In Multiple Component Pricing FMMOs like the Northeast (FMMO 1) and Mideast (FMMO 33), a Statistical Uniform Price (SUP) is calculated from these Class and Component prices according to how the milk in the FMMO was utilized. The SUP is announced around the 11th of the next month before settlement checks are paid for the previous month’s milk.

(Author’s Note#2: Another wrinkle… did you know that an uptrending cheese and butter price can leave producers with a lower protein price? It happened in March 2021. Every end-product — butter, cheddar, nonfat dry milk and dry whey — was higher in March than February, and Class III, IV and II pricing were also higher, but the uptrending butterfat portion of the cheese price creates a ‘snubbing’ effect on the ability of protein to rise within the skim portion. Yes, it’s complicated, and the answer from USDA is a story of its own in the future.)

The FMMO SUPs are based on a 3.5% Butterfat test, but the FMMOs also report for information purposes a uniform price based on the average actual fat test. Your price will differ in your milk check based on your fat, protein, and other factors. In general, producing protein and butterfat above the statistical level nets a higher price, under normal conditions. Lately this has not held out because of negative PPDs.

What are PPDs? Along with the SUP, the FMMO calculates a Producer Price Differential (PPD). This shows how money remaining in the producer settlement fund is divided across the qualified hundredweights of milk, after all components are paid. Sometimes this is a negative number, meaning there was not enough money in the producer settlement fund to pay all of the actual component value after the location differentials on Class I were paid. A negative PPD represents spreading the shortfall across qualified milk in the pool. Severely negative PPDs represent unpaid component value.

The PPD is calculated by subtracting the Class III price from the average of all classes together: PPD = SUP – Class III. In the Northeast and Mideast FMMOs, this PPD has typically been a positive number but has been shrinking in recent years and has been negative for 13 of the past 23 months.

Negative PPDs happen for any or all of four main reasons:

1) When a rapid rise in commodity price(s) is not captured in the 2-week Advanced Pricing Factors.

2) When Class II and IV are far below Class III.

3) When Class I price falls below Class III because of the new averaging method when the spread between III and IV is greater than $1.48/cwt. Half of the months from May 2019 through December 2020 had a lower Class I Base price under the new method, representing a net loss of over $700 million on Class I pounds across all FMMOs. (See Table 2)

4) When handlers de-pool Class III milk because it is higher — to avoid paying into the pool.

Only Class I handlers are required to pool all of their milk. Other handlers can choose what non-Class I milk to pool or not pool based on what is financially advantageous. De-pooling is more likely when multiple months have negative PPDs because of wait times to re-qualify milk for the pool. Some FMMO pool-qualifying requirements are more stringent than others, and the rules have been loosening in recent years because handlers say they need more flexibility to meet fluctuating fluid milk needs.

Occasionally, when cooperatives or plants de-pool Class III milk, some will pass the higher value they withheld from the pool directly to their own producers. In most cases, however, this did not happen in 2020. Additionally, the severity of negative PPDs across FMMOs varied and this created a wide range of milk check pricing of $8 to $10 from top to bottom, when normally this range is $2 to $3, maybe $4. USDA relates that the value is still in the marketplace, so even when the PPD goes negative, some of that value is attributed to the All Milk price used in Dairy Margin Coverage margins because the value is in the market even if it is not in the “pool.”

In addition, for Pennsylvania dairy producers, all Class I milk from Pennsylvania farms that is bottled in Pennsylvania and sold in Pennsylvania stores receives the Pa. Milk Marketing Board (PMMB) over-order premium, which currently stands at $1.00/cwt. Processors can reduce this obligation by selling and sourcing milk from in and out of state as well as other methods.

Cooperatives are producers under the Pennsylvania law, so they collectively receive this premium also, where applicable, and have the ability to disburse the premium to members as they see fit.

Every farm’s mailbox price is further affected by premiums, such as quality bonuses, and deductions, such as trucking cost and marketing fees, which all vary across cooperatives and milk buyers.

This ‘primer’ just scratches the surface of current milk pricing issues. A related topic affecting many producers since May 2019 is how the new Class I pricing method, and the negative PPDs and depooling that can result when Class III and IV are so divergent, affect the way price risk management tools work, creating additional losses in many cases.

(Author’s Note #3: This article has been updated since it was previously published in R&J Dairy Consulting’s customer newsletter.)

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As depooling, negative PPDs and Cl. I formula change continue stealing value from milk checks, here’s what you can do

This table originally published in Farmshine last year, has been updated through March. It shows what the Class I formula change, alone, has collectively removed from all FMMO producer settlement funds and farmer milk checks in terms of Class I milk payment (NET loss of 91 cents / cwt net over Class I milk shipped from all FMMOs for all 23 months since the Class I formula change and 28 cents / cwt NET loss for ALL FMMO pounds of milk May 2019 through March 2021). The massive depooling that resulted has cost dairy producers more than three times this amount in negative PPDs.

Dairy producers and organizations are encouraging more to add names by March 12 to letter seeking equal seat at table for producers in regard to milk pricing policy

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, Friday, March 5, 2021

EAST EARL, Pa. — Dairy producers from across the U.S., along with many state dairy associations and the American Dairy Coalition, have come together to compose a letter to the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) and International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA). The letter addresses the impact of massive depooling in relation to large negative PPDs for dairy farmers across the U.S during the last three months in 2019, eight months in 2020, and is estimated to continue through at least the first four to seven months of 2021. 

Dairy producers and dairy advocacy trade associations are invited to add their names as signatories to this letter to the presidents of both NMPF and IDFA. Hundreds of producers and dairy trade associations have done so electronically within the first few days. 

The deadline to sign is March 12, 2021.

Farmshine has learned that allied industry persons can also sign and mention how they are affiliated — due to the many jobs, economic activity and livelihoods supported by dairy beyond the farmgate having a vested interest in seeing a price formula that is fairer to producers. Those signing who are not producers, but are affiliated with dairy production, will be listed separately as ‘allied industry’ when the letter is officially presented.

Multiple family members involved in a dairy farm operation may individually sign.

Click here or scroll to the end of the article to view the letter and sign electronically through the automated short form.

Or, read the letter as published in Farmshine. Then, email your name, phone number, city, state, and farm name or allied industry affiliation (veterinarian, nutritionist, lender, accountant, feed sales, custom harvester, heifer grower, etc.) to info@americandairycoalitioninc.com or text this information to 920-366-1880.

A photo example of the electronic form appears below.

Click here to open to add your name or organization name.

In the letter, dairy producers ask NMPF and IDFA to work with them to find a solution that can result in a fairer distribution of dairy dollars.

“Dairy farmers all across the U.S. were stunned to see the huge negative PPD deductions on their milk checks,” states the American Dairy Coalition (ADC) in an email about the letter. “We understand the need to better ensure that processors are able to utilize risk management. However, this came at a huge expense to dairy producers and eliminated their ability to utilize the risk management tools like DRP and DMC if they had already purchased them — leaving many producers with no way to shield themselves from significant financial loss.”

The new formula (average Class III and Class IV advance pricing factors + 74 cents), passed by Congress in the 2018 Farm Bill at the request of NMPF and IDFA, is not acceptable, says the ADC.

The goal of the letter to NMPF and IDFA is to ensure that dairy producers have the opportunity to truly be at the table to find workable solutions for milk pricing. 

Remember, NMPF and IDFA advocated the change in the Class I base price that is a key part of the problem — without any hearings. NMPF indicates in various press releases that they are working on this and have a plan to “fix it”, but their plan, as indicated so far, falls short according to available economic analysis. 

A recent Farm Bureau preliminary analysis of four Class I pricing scenarios (2019-2021), using USDA AMS data, shows this. Fig. 1 (above) compares the previous higher-of, the current average + 74 cents, the current average + $1.68 and Class III + $1.25. Dairy producers are looking to be part of evaluating the best solution using past and future pricing indicators, and it appears that Class III + $1.25 offers a fairer distribution of dairy dollars than the averaging method.

The central point of the letter, however, is to give dairy producers an equal seat at the table. While NMPF represents dairy cooperatives and IDFA represents dairy processors, there is inadequate representation of dairy farmers at the policy-making level on this issue.

The domino effect of the Class I formula change, negative PPDs and depooling, as well as impact on risk management tools, have been hardest on dairy producers in so-called “fringe” areas, and those supplying regional Class I markets. This tends to accelerate the consolidation trend toward ‘cow islands’.

In fact, dairy farm exits in 2020 represent a 7.5% loss in the average number of licensed dairies in the U.S. compared with a more typical attrition rate of 5% annually over the past decade. This, according to USDA’s annual milk production report released last Tuesday (Feb. 23).

Producers interviewed in multiple states recently indicated that while the USDA CFAP payments were helpful, they did not come close to covering losses incurred from negative PPDs and the cost of risk protection tools they chose to purchase but which did not protect against this depooling-negative PPD risk. In many cases, those producers using risk protection through futures markets, actually had additional costs in margin calls that were not recouped in the real milk check when the market went against the hedge.

In short, not only are milk checks not transferring equitable value, the risk management tools offered by USDA and privately, do not work as intended or expected.

Across all 11 FMMOs, the NET loss on Class I milk pounds, alone, due to the new Class I formula, amount to over $726 million. (Table 1). This translates to a 91-cent per hundredweight NET loss over 23 months (May 2019 through March 2021) on Class I utilized milk and a 28-cent per hundredweight NET loss over 23 months on all milk pooled across 11 FMMOs.

Normand St-Pierre, Ph.D., PAS, shows the losses in his 20-month chart May 2019 through December 2020. As director of research and technical services for Perdue Agribusiness, he broke down the amounts for each FMMO in his “Tiny change with unforeseen consequences” Perdue weekly dairy outlook recently.

“Cumulatively, since the new formula was implemented (May 2019), producers have suffered a (20-month net) loss of $714 million. If from here on the new formula would always produce a gain equal to the average gains that have occurred in the 10 winning months since May 2019 (i.e.,~ $0.40/cwt), it would take producers 50 months to recover the $714 million in lost income.”

In fact, with current futures markets projecting a continued divergence of Class III and IV advance pricing factors by more than the ‘magic’ $1.48 per hundredweight, this situation of negative PPDs, depooling and milk check value extraction will continue for at least another four months, digging the milk check hole even deeper for dairy producers.

Producers are often told that negative PPDs are ‘good’ because it means milk prices are going up. This used to be the case back when the ‘advanced pricing’ aspect of the Class I formula was the main reason for small negative PPDs occurring once in a while. 

The situation today is far different – largely due to the change in the Class I base price from ‘higher of’ to averaging Class III and IV pricing factors. The net losses over the past 23 months will not be ‘caught up’, and as St-Pierre points out, the situation is now at the point that it could take years to catch up or recoup even with a tweak.

St-Pierre also observed that producers in the Northeast FMMO suffered losses from the formula change that were the largest in total across all FMMOs, but nearly equal to the average loss per hundredweight across all FMMOs. The losses per hundredweight are largest in Florida’s high Class I milk marketing order, of course.

Now consider that the Class I shortfalls created by the lopsided Class III vs. Class I relationship prompted massive depooling. As previously reported in multiple Farmshine articles and Market Moos columns, only the milk directly associated with the Class I plants is truly regulated to be pooled. Handlers of Class III milk are accustomed to getting a check from the pool, not writing one to the pool.

This Class III over I situation creates collective shortfalls in Federal Milk Marketing Order producer settlement funds when massive depooling occurs. This has resulted in a collective net loss of well over $3 billion ($2.7 billion as of the end of November), as represented by negative PPDs across the 7 multiple component-priced FMMOs and the aforementioned Class I skim losses in the 4 fat/skim-priced FMMOs. 

Fig. 2 and 4, from American Farm Bureau based on USDA AMS data, shows the depooling / negative PPD losses just for June through November 2020, but the losses continue in the months since then for which data are available, and the futures markets suggest this will continue into at least July 2021.

In December, Farm Bureau economist John Newton wrote about the most severe negative PPD depooling losses as of the end of November — shown here for June-November 2020.

USDA AMS answered Farmshine’s question last year about these losses in relation to calculating the “All-Milk” price on which Dairy Margin Coverage is based. Their response indicated that some of this depooling / negative PPD loss is included as value in the All-Milk price. It is seen as value received by producers because the dollars are “in the marketplace” due to the FMMO end-product pricing formulas – even if these dollars are not passed on to producers after producer settlement funds are depleted by depooling.

Farm Bureau chief economist John Newton wrote in his December 2020 Market Intel analysis of the negative PPD impact June through November 2020: “To put this into a farm-level perspective, assuming a national average milk yield per cow of nearly 12,000 pounds of milk produced from June to November, a 200-cow dairy in western Pennsylvania would have experienced PPD milk check “deductions” of nearly $130,000. Similarly, for a 3,000-cow dairy operation in California, the negative PPDs would represent milk check deductions of more than $2.5 million.”

Newton goes on to explain in the article published in the December 25, 2020 edition of Farmshine: “What makes the situation even worse is public and private risk management tools such as Chicago Mercantile Exchange futures contracts, Dairy Margin Coverage and Dairy Revenue Protection were unable to protect against PPD price risk. Margin calls on Class III milk likely made the negative PPDs sting even more as milk prices rapidly rose.”

So back to what dairy producers can do! Read the letter and consider signing it. Share it with others. Talk to your local, state and regional dairy organizations and farm organizations. Ask them to sign as organizations. Both individuals and organizations can sign on.

The bottom line is that dairy producers need an equitable seat at the table where decisions are made that affect how dairy value is shared. NMPF and IDFA — as processors — wear multiple hats and do not wholly represent the on-farm producer interests. 

To view the letter (below) click here and look for instructions to electronically add your name, or the name of your organization. Or read the letter below and click here for the direct link to electronically add your name — or the name of your organization — to the letter.

Farmers send June milk check data and preliminary review is revealing

MilkCheckSurvey072920

UPDATED! By Sherry Bunting, Updated from the article in July 24 Farmshine print edition

BROWNSTOWN, Pa. — June milk check reports are pouring in after Farmshine’s previous article about negative Producer Price Differentials (PPD) included a request for milk check data from readers. Along with the data, we are receiving many comments.

One producer notes the PPD had typically averaged a positive $1.50 in his area of the Northeast, but for June, it was a negative $5.38, a loss he pegged at $15,000 for the month for his farm.

Another producer in the Mideast area noted a loss of over $60,000 in component value, which would not be covered in the way expected by the Dairy Revenue Protection (DRP) policy he had purchased. The negative PPD loss represents “basis risk”, whereas tools like DRP, forward contracting, even DMC, mitigate “market and margin risk.”

The “markets” did their thing. Demand went up, cheese prices went up, Class III milk contracts gained, but the de-pooling in most Federal Milk Marketing Orders (FMMOs) ate up most of the doubled protein value and other component value gains for farms across most of the country, as reflected in a steeply negative “basis”. There’s really no risk management tool for that, and we’ve received correspondence indicating that producers who opted to manage risk, had losses where they thought they would have coverage.

It’s difficult to make sense of it all, especially when FMMO Market Administrators explain all the workings of PPDs in terms of advance pricing, sudden commodity increases that are complicated by advance pricing of Class I, pooling and de-pooling of milk when Class I milk value is lower than the blend price. But these explanations leave out the fact that Congress changed the way the Class I Mover is calculated at the request of NMPF and IDFA in the 2018 Farm Bill, without holding a milk pricing hearing that so many have requested.

This is a big concern going forward. The spreads between the higher Class III price over the Class I Mover are $9.62 for June and $7.75 (estimated) for July.

From July, forward, the lagtime is less of a factor. However, the new way vs. the old way of calculating Class I is a much bigger factor in predicted negative PPDs because as Class III has been rising, Class IV has been falling, widening the divergence.

The final math equation for the Class I Mover is the same as it was: Class I Mover = (Base Skim Milk Price x 0.965) + Butterfat Price x 3.5). What changed in May 2019 is the way the Base Skim Milk Price is determined before it is placed in that calculation. It used to be simply the higher of the two Advance Pricing Factors — Class III or Class IV — that was plugged into that equation as the “Base Skim Milk Price. Now the two Advance Pricing Factors are added together, divided by 2, and 74 cents is added to that to produce the Base Skim Milk Price for the final equation above.

Under the previous way, using the “higher of,” the August Class I Mover would have been $24.36 — $4.58 higher than the $19.78 Class I Mover announced on July 22 for August. Also, under the previous method, July’s Class I Mover would have been $19.13 — $2.57 higher than the announced July Class I Mover at $16.56.

These new concerns in FMMO pricing bring new variables into how producers manage risk, so the market value that did not make it into milk checks or risk management tools cannot be blamed completely on Covid-19 pandemic disruptions. A convergence of factors have created a situation where the mechanics of risk management like Dairy Margin Coverage (DMC) and Dairy Revenue Protection (DRP) — as well as forward contracting — may not work as intended for all producers in all regions in a time of disrupted markets and extreme risk, with fairly recent changes to certain milk pricing formulas.

This market disruption, and the fallout in negative PPDs, should signal to USDA and the Congress that a National Hearing on Milk Pricing is overdue. Piecemeal changes have consequences. The de-pooling exacerbates the situation. In June, de-pooling contributed to removing hundreds of millions of dollars of value from milk checks across all Federal Orders. As one producer asked, who gets that money? The answer: It depends.

First, if the end-product “market” value found was paid to the plant or cooperative or handler, and if the handler consequently de-pooled the milk and didn’t pass that value back to the farms voluntarily or contractually, then we know who has the money. If the “market” did not pay what we see in the USDA end-product pricing or on the CME spot market and futures markets, then it’s not real money.

Given the wide range in milk check data with most of the nation coming in around $5 to $7 lower than the Upper Midwest — and a $4 range in FMMO uniform prices to begin with — it’s obvious the “market” is paying. But the calculations are not passing through to milk checks, except in the Upper Midwest Order 30 where 50% of pooled milk receipts were utilized as Class III milk, even though Class III volume reductions suggest significant de-pooling occurred.

Let’s look at preliminary data from Farmshine readers around the country (Table 2 above).

So far, over 150 Farmshine readers from six of the 11 FMMOs have provided milk check data. Since only a couple responses were received from California, we did not do any math for FMMO 51 yet, until we receive more data. At this writing, we have not received any milk check data from Orders 6 (Florida), 126 (Texas and New Mexico), 124 (Arizona) and 131 (Oregon and Washington).

What is evident in the preliminary review is the significant gap between the highest and lowest gross and net prices paid.

For each of the six FMMOs — where we had enough data to do some math — we see the difference of $7 between the FMMO with the highest average gross price paid (before deductions) of $20.81 in the Upper Midwest (FMMO 30) and the lowest average gross price paid of $13.77 in the Central Order (FMMO 32). When looking at the range of price data, the spread is $8 between some check data as low as $13.02 gross pay price in Pennsylvania to $21.05 in Minnesota.

The other FMMO average data fall into place $4 to $6 below the Upper Midwest with gross pay price averaging between $14.97 and $16.15 before deductions.

On the net mailbox price (after deductions), the difference is almost $7 between the highest mailbox average of $19.74 for FMMO 30 and the lowest average of $12.97 for FMMO 32. Average net mailbox price for FMMOs 1, 33, 5, and 7 trail FMMO 30 by a difference of $5 to $6. (See Table 2.)

Respondents for each of the FMMOs so far are a mix of mostly co-op members, but also some independent shippers, and a range of cooperatives — national and regional — are represented in the data.

In the Upper Midwest FMMO 30 for June, where PPD was least negative and Class III milk utilization was the highest (50%), the Uniform price already reflected the smallest negative PPD in the $3s compared to negative $5s and $7s everywhere else. At the same time, reports indicate the cheese plants and co-ops in that region even shared some of that smaller loss, knocking it back into the negative $2’s.

While large penalties for overbase milk still remain part of the pricing equation, it was not a major factor for most producers in June, perhaps because producers are reducing production as well as dumping, donating or utilizing overbase milk differently to avoid these penalties. This process is continuing into July. In the Northeast and Midatlantic region, reports of milk dumping were confirmed in July. Mostly this was due to producers wanting to avoid overbase penalties, but at least one report involved temporary “plant equipment issues”.

Of the milk check data shared with Farmshine, most showed producers were shipping 93 to 99% of their base for June. But some data includes producers seeing significant assessments on small amounts of overbase milk by both smaller regional cooperatives and larger national footprint cooperatives — except in the Upper Midwest. Also, in pockets of the Southeast, check data show some penalties were waived as a base / overbase blend was shown on checks, but then in another spot, the stub reported “revenues available to pay” a better price. In those instances, it appears the overbase penalty was eliminated and market adjustments reduced, which added 30 to 50 cents to what the location blend would have been.

Elsewhere, producers overbase deductions ranged $1.50 to $6.40.

Another variable was “market adjustments”. No “covid” deductions were seen in June check data, however, many had “market adjustments” deducted to the tune of 13 to 24 cents. In a few cases, the “market adjustment” was described in an earlier letter stating that the “covid” deduction for co-op costs incurred in April and May was being spread out evenly over several months forward.

The averages for the Northeast and Mideast FMMOs belie the wide range in prices. For Pennsylvania, alone, the range in gross pay prices before deductions was more than $4.00/cwt.  Even after adjusting for butterfat, the range was $3.50. The lowest net mailbox prices submitted by anyone in any FMMO came from Pennsylvania producers, with instances as low as $11.20/cwt mailbox for June. Overbase penalties and market adjustment deductions contributed to these lower nets.

In Pennsylvania, the Pa. Milk Marketing Board (PMMB) over-order premium (OOP) was set large for June, but was a small factor on most milk checks. It does appear that the western half of the state in Order 33 received at least some OOP benefit to make up for taking a more significant beating from negative PPDs.

Very few producer milk checks showed numbers other than zero in the PMMB OOP line item. However for Pennsylvania producers shipping directly to some Pennsylvania bottlers in the Mideast order, the benefit was $1.25 to $2.00/cwt listed as a line item and serving to simply pull them up closer to where the Northeast blend price sat. Remember, negative PPDs in the Mideast Order, which includes western Pa., were in the $7s. Negative PPDs in the Northeast Order, which includes eastern Pa., were in the $5s.

Meanwhile, out-of-state bottlers buying Pennsylvania milk and selling into the Pennsylvania minimum retail price market passed on about 10% of this floor-setting OOP in June at about 30 to 50 cents.

June’s PMMB OOP was over $4 per cwt because $3.68 was added to the normal $1 to make the difference between the USDA Class I Mover and a temporary $15 Class I floor. The PMMB used the OOP to temporarily accomplish this, but then became an island as USDA did not follow suit. The USDA had canceled a hearing requested by cooperatives petitioning it do the same nationally.

Looking at the milk check data we have received, it is obvious that USDA would have done well to have followed PMMB’s lead — as they were petitioned to do in April — to set a temporary Class I Mover floor at $15 through August.

At the time that the PMMB took its action, USDA AMS Dairy Programs had indicated in correspondence shared with Farmshine that a date was set to meet with petitioners to hear evidence for a national temporary Class I floor.

But, when word got out, certain dairy economists, such as at the University of Minnesota, along with Minnesota Milk Producers and other entities, including Walmart, protested that this idea of a temporary Class I Mover floor would “decouple” Class I milk and be unfair to the Upper Midwest where Class I utilization is low. Mainly, they complained that a move to stabilize Class I would “disrupt” milk markets and affect the Dairy Margin Coverage.

Well, folks, that disruption happened anyway — in reverse.

What we have seen, in the absence of a Class I floor, is total disruption and instability due to the inherent lagtime in Class I pricing reflecting market trends, and additional severity because of how the Class I Mover calculation was changed by Congress, with no hearing at all, just placed in the 2018 Farm Bill at the direction of National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) and International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA).

The so-called “markets” have not worked for any of the FMMO’s dairy producers except for the Upper Midwest where the complaints over flooring the Class I Mover arose.

The change in the calculation of the Class I Mover in the 2018 Farm Bill was implemented one year ago in May 2019. By using an average instead of the “higher of” to determine a base value for components or fat/skim, the Class I Mover no longer moves in concert with the highest value of components or fat/skim.

This is a problem because there is no way to assess market value on Class I in an of itself. Class I beverage milk is a designated loss-leader by the 800-lb retailer-processor gorillas like Walmart and Kroger. Also, in a couple states, the retail milk price is regulated to some degree.

Class I’s new “averaging” method is contributing to the removal of hundreds of millions of dollars from Federal Order pools through de-pooling.

It’s hard to predict what “reality” or “alternate reality” the USDA NASS All Milk price and Dairy Margin Coverage milk margin will reflect when they are announced on July 31.

This is a serious problem, given the widening divergence between Classes III and IV on the futures markets. This divergence is a warning that the current four-class system should be re-evaluated. When two manufacturing classes for stored products can be averaged to produce the basis of value for fresh products and beverages, it’s easy to see how large entities in the marketplace can make decisions that affect imports, storage, supply and demand to move one side of an “averaging” equation and create lopsided returns outside of FMMO pools. If milk moved to its highest value use and components were valued on multiple cross-class markets, a stable Class I base could be established as one piece of an overall value mix with less incentive to de-pool lopsided value.

For example, the July Class III contract stood at $24.41 on the futures markets as of July 27 — now $10.76 higher than the Class IV contract at $13.65. August Class III stands at $22.11, $8.39 higher than the Class IV contract at $13.72. September Class III, at $20.49, is $6.34 higher than the $14.15 Class IV contract. October Class III, at $18.90, is $4.51 higher than Class IV at $14.39. November Class III, at $17.53, is $2.95 higher than Class IV at $14.58. The gap narrows for December, but as of July 27, the difference between the two classes is still more than the $1.48 ‘magic number’ with December Class III at $16.60, $1.81 higher than Class IV at $14.79.

Creating even more value loss in every FMMO in June — whether priced by multiple components or fat/skim — is the amount of Class III milk that was de-pooled. Total volume pooled across all Federal Orders was 9.5 billion pounds in June, down 36% from a year ago and down 28% from May (May 2020 was down 13% from year ago).

While June milk production was reported on July 21 at 0.5% above year ago, milk dumpage in June was down considerably in terms of what showed up on FMMO pools. We know farms are dumping and diverting to avoid overbase penalties, but the pooled “other use” milk, including dumpage and animal feed, was down by 44% compared with a year ago in June. The only Federal Order to have more “other use” milk in June than in May was the Appalachian Order 5, and Central Order 32.

Table1_YTD_MilkDumped(Bunting)rTable 1 (above) shows the “other use / milk dumpage” pooling data. What is mind-boggling is that year-to-date milk dumped totals at 566.7 million pounds for just the first 6 months of 2020, is 125 to 150 million pounds greater than the 12-month annual totals for each of the past five years.

Dairy producers wishing to submit June milk check data as well as next month’s milk check data for July to broaden this survey geographically, please send: Gross price, net mailbox price, PPD, butterfat and protein, other deductions (especially ‘market adjustment’ deductions), overbase penalties if applicable, along with your location or the FMMO in which your milk is marketed and information stating whether you market with a cooperative or as an independent. There is no need to provide your name or your specific co-op or plant affiliation unless you choose to include that.

Please consider emailing me at agrite2011@gmail.com or text/call 717.587.3706. All information is aggregated anonymously by state, region and FMMO.

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Farmers wonder what happened? June PPDs ugly, pool volume down 36%

TableOne_FMMO_Statistics_June2020_Bunting (1)

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, July 17, 2020

BROWNSTOWN, Pa. — The negative PPDs are turning out to be whoppers as expected for June, and experts say the situation will repeat in July. In fact, by the looks of the milk futures markets, the wide spread between Class III and IV is projected to remain above the magic number of $1.48/cwt. through at least September and quite possibly through the end of the year.

That’s the big news. This divergence is messing with PPDs more than normal and changing the ‘basis’ for producers in a way that defies most risk management tools. While the Upper Midwest milk checks reflected some of the marketplace rally, other regions fell quite flat. The range in uniform prices among FMMO’s is $4 from the $13s in in California, the Southwest and Mideast (Ohio, western PA, Indiana, Michigan) to $15s in Northeast, Southeast, Appalachia to $16s in Florida and the highest uniform price in the $17s for the Upper Midwest.

In fact, depending what Federal Milk Marketing Order (FMMO) you are in, and depending upon how much of that higher Class III “marketplace” value makes it into payments by plants to co-ops and producers, this could alter how “real” the Dairy Margin Coverage margin is, as well as the workings of Dairy Revenue Protection (DRP) program insurance and other risk management options that play off Class III but settle out on an “All Milk” price USDA will calculate for June at the end of July.

Producers who purchased DRP policies and based them on components to stabilize their risk in markets that utilize a blend of classes, are realizing an indemnity they expected to receive as protein doubled from May to June is now deflated to a smaller number due to negative ‘basis’.

Experts admit —  There’s no good way to manage PPD risk (or as it’s referred to in the skim/fat Orders of the South “revenues available to pay”). Interestingly, Dairy Farmers of America (DFA), at its member risk management website, is touting it has “strategies” for members to “mitigate future negative PPD risk”.

(Read to the end to learn how to participate in the Farmshine Milk Market Moos milk check survey on this issue.)

So, what changed? Other than a pandemic disrupting things.

A big change is the new way USDA calculates the Class I Mover. This was implemented in May 2019 and is currently adding on to the largeness of the inverse relationship between Class III and the uniform price in multiple component pricing orders.

In fat/skim orders of the South, producers are seeing one price on their check but then “revenues available” to pay a different price. In some cases, the “revenues available” is reference to dispensing with “overbase penalties” in June because revenues were available to pay a better price on that milk.

There are no PPDs in the four FMMOs still pricing on a fat/skim basis. But those Orders are seeing a flat-out reduction in their uniform price as announced for Florida and the Southeast FMMOs being lower than May! Meanwhile the Appalachian Order gained just 13 cents over May. (See Table I above.)

During the formation of the 2018 Farm Bill, National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) and International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) agreed on this new way to price Class I so that Class I processors could find “stability” in their costs by forward pricing without having to “guess” which manufacturing class price contract would be the “higher of.”

Farm Bureau remained neutral at the time that this was going through, and their analysis showed, historically, this new way leveled out over time for dairy producers. In fact, supporters stated that the stability of averaging Class III and IV to make the Class I Mover offered stability in input costs to milk bottlers so they could forward price, which in turn would offer stability to farmers by keeping bottlers in a position of strength to invest for the future. These are the reasons we heard, and it wasn’t much debated at the time.

No hearings were held by USDA on this major change in Federal Order pricing for the one and only class that is actually regulated. It was done in the Farm Bill, legislatively, because cooperatives and processors agreed it was what they both wanted. (More information next week on what factors Covid and non-Covid-related that are contributing to these diverse trends between Class III and IV.)

Under the current method, instead of using advance pricing factors from the “higher of” Class III or IV to calculate the Class I Mover, the two classes are averaged together and 74 cents is arbitrarily added.

The reason this is such a big issue right now, and likely for months to come, is the size of the spread. Rapidly rising block Cheddar — which hit another record of $3.00 per pound on the CME spot market early this week – keep pushing the AMS end-product pricing higher, more than doubling the value of protein between May and June and pushing Class III milk futures further into the $20s.

In fact, Class III milk futures settled Tues., July 14 at $24.34 for July, $23.09 August, $20.23 September, $18.40 October, $17.44 November and $16.35 December. Meanwhile those months for Class IV milk futures settled Tuesday at $14.03 for July, $14.51 August, $14.85 September, $15.07 October, $15.31 November and $15.53 December. Not until December is the spread within the $1.48/cwt range where the new way of averaging the two classes returns from being so out of kilter to Class III.

Remember, these negative PPDs are the result of Class III being larger than the uniform blend price, and the large amount of depooling that resulted keeps that higher value from being shared in the pool. Class III handlers are accustomed to taking a draw, not writing a check, and there’s no requirement to be pooled unless a plant is a pool supplier or wants to stay qualified for the next month in most FMMOs.

A Farmshine article two weeks ago explained these price relationships in more detail.

Now the numbers are coming in. The recently announced uniform prices and PPDs range from nearly $4 to near $8 — just as leading dairy economists had estimated.

The least negative was the Upper Midwest FMMO 30, at minus-$3.81, where 50% of the milk utilization was Class III, and the uniform price gained a whopping $4.92 at $17.23 for June. In fact, producers in Wisconsin and Minnesota report $20 milk checks for June.

The most negative PPD was minus-$7.91 in California, where less than half of one percent of the milk utilization was Class III, and the uniform price gained just $1.18 at $13.13 for June.

The Southwest FMMO 126 wasn’t far from that at minus-$7.62 with a uniform price announced at $13.42 — up 41 cents from May.

In the Northeast FMMO One had a minus-$5.38 average marketwide PPD, but the uniform price gained $2.19 over May at $15.66 with 18.5% Class III milk utilization.

The Mideast Order PPD is minus-$7.05, and the uniform price gained $1.26 at $13.99 with just over 9% Class III utilization.

In the southern FMMOs, pricing is still on a fat/skim basis, not multiple components, but the inverse relationship of the Class I Mover to Class III pricing is keeping June uniform prices flat or lower compared with May. The Southeast FMMO 7 saw a penny decline in the uniform price to $15.38 in June, and Florida Order 6 uniform price fell 46 cents from $17.29 in May to $16.83 for June. The Appalachian FMMO 5 gained just 13 cents at $15.27 for June.

Nationwide, just over 9.5 billion pounds of milk was pooled across all Federal Orders in June, down 36% from 14.4 billion pounds a year ago and down 28% from the 13.2 billion pounds last month.

May milk production was down 1.5% compared with a year ago, but the pooling volume nationwide was already 13% lower than a year ago in May.

USDA confirms that handlers making just Class II, III or IV products are not required to pool the milk, and therefore, due to “expected price relationships,” some handlers decided to not pool some of their milk receipts in May, and most definitely elected not to pool in June.

“Only Class I handlers are required to pool all of their milk receipts no matter how it was used,” USDA Dairy Programs explained in an email response to Farmshine this week.

In Table I are the marketwide FMMO data for June from Market Administrator announcements on different dates over the past several days. Comparing Class III volumes reported to month ago and year ago, an estimated 45 to 94% of Class III milk was depooled in various FMMOs, with the exceptions of Arizona and the Pacific Northwest where depooling was less of a factor.

Looking at the Northeast FMMO, alone, the estimated 45% less Class III volume in the pool in June vs. May, kept just over $110 million in collective component value out of the Northeast pool.

The question is, since USDA confirms that money is “in the marketplace”, will that “marketplace money” make it to farm-level milk checks, 13th checks, reduced retains? And will the “Covid assessments” and “marketing or balancing fees” and “overbase penalties” be adjusted or eliminated in June?

Others wonder how this will affect the All Milk price for June as calculated by USDA NASS at the end of July. Will the erraticness of how this “value in the marketplace” could be handled make winners and losers in terms of the Dairy Margin Coverage? How will this situation translate to those margins as a national average?

USDA AMS Dairy Programs defined the NASS All Milk price in an email as follows: “The NASS U.S. All Milk Price is a measurement of what plants paid the non-members and cooperatives for milk delivered to the plant before deduction for hauling, and this includes quality, quantity and other premiums and is at test. The NASS price should include the amount paid for the “not pooled milk.”

USDA explained that, “The blend price (Statistical Uniform Price, or SUP) is a weighted average of the uses of milk that was pooled for the marketing period (month).  If some ‘higher value’ use milk is not in the ‘pool’, then the weighted average price will be lower.”

However, the USDA response also points out that, “It is important to note that the Class III money still exists in the marketplace.  It is just that manufacturing handlers are not required to share that money through the regulated pool.”

So, will it be shared at the producer level outside of the pool? From the looks of a few June milk check settlements that have been reported to Farmshine on the morning of July 15, it’s not looking like the higher Class III value is helping checks shared from the Southeast FMMO at this writing. How will that stack up to a margin that gets figured also looking at the Upper Midwest where the uniform price saw almost a $5 gain?

We’ll look at that more closely next week.

Dairy producers who want to participate in my Milk Market Moos survey of June milk checks, please email, call or text your June milk price, fat test and PPD, and the list of deduct line items, especially any “Covid-deducts,” and include any overbase penalties. Also, provide your location or in what FMMO your milk is marketed. All the information will be anonymously aggregated. Email agrite2011@gmail.com or call or text 717.587.3706.

The Jersey Cattle Association is doing a similar June milk check survey sampling across the country.

This is a big topic when risk management is based largely on components and Class III, even though Class III use is not regulated unless processors want it to be, and certainly not in a pricing scheme that no longer prices the higher of two divergent manufacturing price trends into the only truly regulated class — Class I fluid milk. 

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What will become of, us?

sunsetbarn.jpgGovernment’s cozy relationship with dairy lobby is problem no. 1

By Sherry Bunting, reprinted from Farmshine, October 19, 2018

These are tough times. The strain of a fourth year of flat-lined milk prices is wearing thin on dairy farmers and those who serve them.

And the folks inside the Beltway don’t get it.

Wait, maybe they do.

The Farm Bill has yet to be passed, the mid-term elections are over… and the question continues to be asked: What can be done about the fact that family dairy farms are dropping like flies?

This question has been asked and answered for the better part of three years and the whole decade before that… and still we find ourselves repeating the same words falling on the same deaf ears, pleasant nods, and ‘sincere’ handshakes.

Where does Washington go for the answers? The dairy lobby. In fact, members of Congress will say that nothing gets done without getting National Milk Producers Federation on board.

What’s the deal for the future? A better ‘welfare’ program for small farms to window-dress the rapid and deliberate consolidation that is running rough-shod over their markets and using the Federal Order and other regulated pricing mechanisms to do it.

For years, a decade or more, grassroots dairy farmers have told their legislators to please work on repairing the damage government has already done to dairy farming.

They’ve pleaded with those inside the Beltway to heed the truth on the decades of flawed dietary guidelines and to right the wrongs in our nation’s school lunch program and other institutional feeding programs that are forced to follow these flawed guidelines.

But alas, instead of real change, we get more of the same, while the dairy lobby cheers and applauds over a tiny change allowing schools to serve 1% lowfat flavored milk instead of the prior Obama-era mandate of fat-free.

Meanwhile, nothing changes for regular milk in schools. It’s been fat-free and 1% for a decade now, and we have lost a generation of milk drinkers and stand to lose even more, and all the while our school kids fight increased obesity and diabetes rates, and we wonder, why?

Heck, you can’t even sell whole milk as a fundraiser during school hours, and you can’t give it away to schoolchildren during school hours due to these dietary rules that –according to those who have done a decade of scientific investigation of the research –show are actually not healthy rules for our children in the first place.

Plus, we have the FDA, having looked the other way for more than 10 years, now talking about milk’s standard of identity within a greater framework of “modernizing” standards of identity to “accomplish nutritional goals” — goals that are guided by flawed government dietary guidelines.

Instead of acknowledging the past wrong and immediately setting it right, the FDA adds comment period after comment period to try to read the minds of consumers. They want to know if consumers understand what they are buying when they buy fake milk.

The short answer? survey after survey shows that an overwhelming majority of consumers are, in fact, confused about the nutritional differences between real milk and the imposters — some consumers even believe there is milk in the not-milk ‘milk’.

Meanwhile, more time passes. Farmers are asked to wait. Be patient, while more damage is done by counterfeit claims that steal market share from dairy milk’s rightful place.

And then there’s the regulated milk pricing. What are the odds that any member of Congress will heed the past 10 years of requests for a national hearing now that California has enthusiastically joined the Federal Orders? That was the death nell of more of the same.

“It’s a free market,” say the legislators, regulators and market pundits.

“It’s a global market,” they add further.

No folks. It is a regulated market, and believe me when I tell you, the USDA and the major national footprint cooperatives operate this regulated market in lockstep.

Processors can’t access the administrative hearing process, unless they are cooperative-owned processors.

Farmers can’t access the administrative hearing process, except through their cooperatives.

Ditto on the above when it comes to voting. Bloc voting on behalf of farmers by their cooperative leadership seals every deal.

At a meeting a few months ago in the Southeast with USDA administrators that was intended to talk about multiple component pricing, farmers brought forward their grievances about bloc voting and their concerns about how milk is qualified on their Orders to share in their pool dollars.

What was USDA’s official response? The same response we hear over and over from legislators. “You vote for your co-op boards and they vote for Federal Orders.”

The Federal Orders were implemented in the 1930’s to keep milk available to consumers, to keep producers from being run-over. Today, these Orders are used to move milk from expanding consolidation areas to regions that have small and mid-sized family and multi-generational dairy farms located near consumer populations and competitive markets.

This is not a size thing. This is not small vs. big thing. This is structural change thing that is happening in the dairy industry at an increasingly rapid rate while the lifeblood is sucked right out of our culture of dairy farming.

troxel-sale-2The storm is brewing. Since the beginning of this year, the financial experts have told us that one-third of producers are selling out or contemplating an exit from dairy, that another one-third are not sure where they even stand, and that another one-third are moving forward with plans for expansion within consolidating industry structures.

The thought occurs to me: When the other two-thirds of producers are gone, what will become of that one-third that is still moving forward expanding, undeterred? What will become of the fabric from which their progress emerged? What will become of the next generation with hands-on experience, passion and love of dairy? Who will be raised on a dairy farm in the future? What contributions will be lost when dairy becomes only a business and no longer a business that is also a lifestyle? Who will be the support businesses? How will our communities change? Will all of our dairies in the future be academically run? What will become of our cow sense, our deep roots, our sense of community?

What will become of, us?

GL 4736For years we have heard “there’s a place for every size dairy in this industry.” That phrase is how we get small and mid-sized farms to advocate with consumers about modern farming so they will accept a more consolidated dairy farming picture.

Now that we are reaching this point, will we hear the large consolidating integrators say the same in reverse? Will they slow down, push pause, and realize there IS a place for the diversity of farms that make this industry the shining star it is and could be?

While at World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wisconsin in October, the strain of now a fourth year of low prices was evident. Attendance “felt” lower even if the official numbers don’t totally reflect it.

Show entries were down. Traffic among trade show exhibitors was interesting and steady, but ‘off’ and ‘different.’

Dairy farmers are struggling. Large, small, and in between, these times are tough, and clear answers are elusive.

Dairy farmers remain paralyzed by three things:

1) the inability to have an effect on their circumstances or seat at the decision table;

2) lack of understanding of an incredibly complex regulated market; and

3) the innate desire to trust the establishment that handles their milk because they are too busy milking, managing and caring for cows, not to mention the land, to handle the milk marketing themselves.

Just think about this for a moment. In the past four years, National Milk Producers Federation has created and implemented the F.A.R.M. program where someone can come in and put you on a list for a subjective heifer bedding evaluation, where more is being not asked, but demanded, while at the same time, the pay price from which to do more is declining.

The milk checkoff programs continue to focus on partnerships. All kinds of efforts emerge to give away milk and dairy, and meanwhile supermarket wars by large integrating retailers push milk further into a commodity corner from which all imposters can brand their ‘more than’ and ‘less than’ marketing claims.

What we learned at some of the seminars at World Dairy Expo is that nothing will change in the milk pricing system, that it’s a free market, a global market, and that the best Congress can do is improve the margin protection program and other insurance options so farmers have the tools to deal with it.

I’m here to tell you that as long as this remains true, no farmer should be ashamed to use these tools even if it means receiving taxpayer dollars because it is the government’s actions and inaction over a decade or more that have created the problems in milk pricing and marketing today, and furthermore, the government shows no sign of wanting to let go of its stranglehold on dietary guidelines, how it enforces dairy’s standard of identity in fraudulent labeling, nor how it conspires with the dairy lobby — made up of the nation’s largest cooperatives — to regulate pricing in a way that further consolidates the dairy industry.

And by the way, all of the rhetoric on trade and NAFTA and Canada’s supply management system and Class 7 pricing has been nothing more than a smokescreen.

wGDC18-Day1-56Trade is important, but again, we have reached a point where 2018 is seeing the demise of dairy farms at rapid rates while exports continue to set new records. As of Oct. 5, 2018, U.S. dairy exports for the first 8 months of the year (Jan-Aug) accounted for a record-setting 16.6% of milk production on a solids basis. That’s the largest ever percentage of the largest ever milk production total – more of the more – in the history of the U.S. dairy industry’s recordkeeping.

In fact, traders will be the first to tell you that “more exports” don’t translate into “better farm milk prices” because the export markets are largely commodity clearing markets and they are fueling expansion of commodity processing in areas of the U.S. where it is easiest to export to Asia and Mexico. A global supply-chain is in the works.

The exports, in fact, are diluting the Federal Order pricing at the same rapid rate as declines in consumer fluid milk consumption, putting severe pressure on eastern markets in particular.

Meanwhile, the eastern milk markets are extremely tight on milk. This information is sourced to cooperative managers and the independent USDA Dairy Market News. Plants are seeking milk and not receiving it. Trucker shortages are complicating the problem. State regulated pricing mechanisms, such as in Pennsylvania, still interfere, making milk cheaper to bring in than to use what is here. In some Federal Orders to the south, this is also the case because of how their pools are administrated.

We are seeing the vicious circle of self-fulfilling prophecies. Producers who want to operate 50 cow, 100 cow, 300 cow, 500 cow, 1000 cow, 1500 cow dairy farms in the eastern U.S. within a day’s drive of the largest population are in jeopardy. They have lost their location advantage but continue to deal with the disadvantages. As milk tightens they are not seeing their premiums return, instead some farmers report getting docked by their co-ops for not making enough milk, or they are socked with incredible hauling rates because their milk was hauled out while other milk was hauled in.

What can Congress do? Hold that national hearing on milk pricing. Give farmers a seat at the table apart from the company-store. Learn what is happening. See government’s role in it.

Dear Congress, if you really want to know what to do, look in the mirror.

Before it’s too late, please right the fundamental wrongs government has done to our dairy consumers and dairy farmers as it controls what fat level of milk kids are permitted to drink at school, how milk is priced, how milk is marketed and how milk is allowed to be advertised and promoted with farmers’ own money – while at the same time still turning a blind eye and deaf ear to loss-leading supermarket wars that operate off the backs of farmers and the processing industry’s pillaging of milk’s market share with nondairy imposters.

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ReplyForward

New PMMB consumer rep sees dairy crisis from outside-in

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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PHOTO CAPTION Hardbarger9825

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

 

Changing of the guard: New PMMB chairman sees increased fluid milk demand as job no. 1

RobBarley6539 (2).jpgBy Sherry Bunting, Reprinted from Farmshine, August 3, 2018

CONESTOGA, Pa. — The number one problem needing solved for dairy is bringing back fluid milk demand. Good things are happening in the dairy industry, which makes now the critical time to seek ideas, think outside the box, and be open to seeing — and seizing — opportunities.

That’s what came through during a recent interview with Rob Barley in his office at Star Rock Farms. The Lancaster County farmer and dairy producer is having a busy summer as the new chairman of the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board (PMMB).

He is also the first dairy farmer to be appointed by USDA to the at-large general public seat on the National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Board, which funds the Milk Processors Education Program (MilkPEP) for educating consumers and increasing fluid milk consumption.

“For way too long, producers have been struggling with profitability. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to help bring back a positive atmosphere, that gives farmers hope, to know we have a product people want, that makes their lives better, while providing a return for our hard work,” says Barley. “In the long term, there are issues to address and to quantify, but in the short term, we want to find ways to increase fluid milk consumption because that solves a lot of our problems.”

In the farm business partnership with his brother and cousin, as well as in leadership roles through the years, what Barley says he enjoys most is “the people in this industry. They are good and hard working. I’ve been part of the dairy industry all my life, and I want Pennsylvania to remain a strong dairy state.”

July brought a changing of the guard and a fresh spirit of optimism and forward-looking energy to the PMMB with the June Senate confirmation of both Barley and Dr. Carol Hardbarger, who join Jim Van Blarcom on the three-member board.

While Barley wasn’t actively seeking the appointment, he was often been called upon to give a dairy producer’s point of view at House and Senate hearings over the past 10 years during his previous involvement with the Dairy Policy Action Coalition (DPAC).

“There was a clamor for change, and people were encouraging me to consider a PMMB appointment,” he says. People were vocal about it. Fellow dairy farmers asked Rob to get involved, and the support of Senators Scott Martin and Ryan Aument of Lancaster County, as well as the Senate leadership, was instrumental.

Once it became clear there were two openings for board terms that had expired without re-appointment, Barley had discussions with Pa. Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding and was honored when the Governor appointed him in May.

Now, just a month after being confirmed by the Senate, Barley says he is getting a feel for the PMMB’s regulatory function. At the same time, he wants the board to exercise a leadership role in the collective efforts underway to strengthen Pennsylvania dairy.

That process of idea-gathering began with Secretary Redding’s letter to the previous board in April, followed by the previous chairman, Luke Brubaker, holding several open hearings for public comment.

Barley wants to keep that momentum going. In addition to spending a day or two each week in Harrisburg with staff, he has been reaching out in person and by phone to talk with people from all facets of the dairy industry. He wants to understand the landscape of what’s being done now, and take-in ideas from others about what can be done going forward.

“We have opportunities, and a board and staff that really want to work on this. We’ve had discussions about many things, including how to support and encourage our schools where milk is concerned. Jim is really engaged in this and Carol has some ideas on the consumer side,” says Barley of his fellow PMMB board members. “Carol is a retired educator, and she really has a passion to get information to the consumers, and that’s in her purview as the PMMB member representing consumer interests.”

During the July 2 hearing and sunshine meeting, the first for Barley as PMMB chair, the enthusiasm was apparent among board, staff, industry participants and onlookers as the reorganized board is challenging everyone to bring forward ideas.

“We want all ideas on the table, whether or not they’ve been looked at before,” says Barley. “At this point, we’re focusing on putting anything on the table that will increase demand or bring it back. We’ve challenged the staff to bring out ideas, and they are very engaged.”

The PMMB is also engaging the Pa. Department of Agriculture, Center for Dairy Excellence and the PA Preferred program.

“There’s a limit to what we can do from a regulatory side, because our job as a board is fairly narrow, but we can show vocal support and leadership, and if we see something we can do that can help, we can consider it, or make suggestions to the legislature,” Barley explains.

In fact, the Senate Ag Committee encouraged Barley and Hardbarger to do just that during their confirmation hearing. Senators said they wanted to keep dialog going and see ‘marketing’ put back into the meaning of the Milk Marketing Board.

Barley sees real opportunity in Pennsylvania. And while the multi-part Pennsylvania Dairy Study shows the Keystone state as a good bet for new processing, he realizes new plants are costly, and attracting a new processing plant will take time.

“We are competing with other states that may have more incentives or more sites, but we have the milk and the infrastructure and the quality and the people, and we can overcome some of those challenges by looking at new opportunities with existing plants,” he suggests.

Discussions are already happening with existing fluid milk plants in the industry around ideas for expansion associated with re-tooling and innovation.

“The normal market for fluid milk is not expanding, but maybe we can offer other ways for consumers to enjoy milk,” says Barley. Working with businesses already located in Pennsylvania, with a commitment here, could be a less expensive and faster course of action to get accomplished versus attracting a new plant or new business to the state.

That’s how Barley thinks. He thinks in terms of opportunities and how to capitalize on them, and in these new roles, he is using those skills to strengthen an industry he cares about and bring that to the farm level.

“I’m excited to finally see some good things happening in dairy,” he cites the recent University of Texas Health Science Center published July 11 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It shows the clear health benefits of enjoying full-fat dairy products and whole milk. Barley is also is encouraged by FDA’s recent move to look at what actually is milk.

“Consumption of most dairy products is good, but we are losing fluid demand. With some of the good things beginning to happen, we have this opportunity right now,” says Barley. “All we ever heard for decades is that eggs are bad for us, and now they’re recommending two eggs a day. I see this happening with science supporting dairy.”

Barley looks forward to his first MilkPEP board meeting in Boston in August. Of that separate and voluntary, unpaid promotion board seat, he says “I’m looking to bring the farmer perspective.”

Of the PMMB chairmanship, Barley acknowledges that, “There are hurdles in the current system, and we’re finding out what the board can do, where we fit as the state looks at dairy processing and economic development and in what ways we can encourage innovation to increase demand.”

In both appointments, Barley is focused on fluid milk demand. Pure and simple, he considers it job number one. His bottom line is that doing the right thing is something no one should be afraid of.

“That’s really what I want to see — and what farmers want to see, and what everyone wants to see — is that fluid milk demand to increase. If everyone working on it can start bringing it back, that will help the profit margins the whole way through the chain,” he says. “If we continue to have fluid milk demand being destroyed, nothing will save our industry.”

As the board and staff engage with farmers, cooperatives, processors, retailers, and even consumers, Barley stresses that, “We want to hear as many ideas and meet with as many folks as possible. There’s more agreement in this industry than most people think.”

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RobBarley photo caption

Rob Barley at Star Rock Farms, where he is in partnership with his brother Tom and cousin Abe in the diversified dairy, crop and livestock business. As the new chairman of the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board (PMMB), and first dairy farmer recently appointed to an at-large seat on the National Fluid Milk Processors Promotion Board, he hopes to help make fluid milk demand job number one. “That’s really what I want to see — and what farmers want to see, and what everyone wants to see — is that fluid milk demand to increase. If everyone working on it can start bringing it back, that will help the profit margins the whole way through the chain. If we continue to have fluid milk demand being destroyed, nothing will save our industry.” Photo by Sherry Bunting

A story interview with the new PMMB consumer representative, Dr. Carol Hardbarger, appears in Friday’s Sept. 7 Farmshine, beginning on page 3. This one will also be posted at this blog in the future.