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

 

PMMB responds to Pa. Dept. of Ag with hearings May 2 and 16

Public comment must be pre-submitted by Apr. 30 and May 11 to speak at the hearings on May 2 and 16. Separate from the PMMB hearings, the Pa. Dept. of Ag is seeking public comment to improve the market for dairy in the state and invites the public and industry to provide suggestions or comments online to be considered moving forward.

cropped-milktruck1.jpg

By Sherry Bunting, @agmoos

HARRISBURG, Pa. — In responding to Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding’s petition for hearings and review, the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board (PMMB) announced April 18 that it will conduct the first of two public hearings on May 2 with an expedited process requiring testimony to be provided in advance by noon on April 30.

The first hearing is set for May 2, 2018 at 9:00 a.m. in Room 309 of the Agriculture Building across from the Farm Show Complex on North Cameron Street, Harrisburg.

A second hearing is set for May 16, 2018 at 9:00 a.m. in the Monongahela Room of the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex. The second hearing was announced this week, and like the first hearing, stipulates pre-registration with copy of comments provided in advance by noon on May 11.

PMMB states that the purpose of the first hearing on May 2 is to receive testimony and comments regarding the specific “Recommendations for Statutory Changes” found in the Ag Department’s April 5 petition.

The hearing will occur before the PMMB Sunshine Meeting already scheduled on that day, which sources indicate will address another portion of the PDA petition — asking PMMB to amend regulatory provisions dealing with termination of dealer-producer contracts. Since this portion of the petition involves a board-level action rather than a statutory change, steps to begin the regulatory review process will begin during the Sunshine Meeting that follows the public hearing on May 2.

(Author’s note: As you read on, please keep in mind that most Pennsylvania dairy farmers I speak with want transparency. They are not seeking a more complex system. They are seeking truth and a level playing field from which to compete. Pennsylvania is unique in having this lawyered-up state-level milk pricing system cohabitating with two Federal Order milk pricing systems. The state system (PMMB) sets a minimum retail milk price and minimum wholesale milk price for 6 regions of Pennsylvania, and the farm premium built into it only passes back to the farm IF the milk is audited to have met three specific criteria: produced, processed and sold in PA. However, the money is collected from all Pennsylvania consumers on ALL milk sold in Pennsylvania no matter where it came from or what pathway of logistics it utilized in getting to a PA store shelf. In turn, the very high per-gallon minimum price creates an uneven playing field for PA-produced milk as the state has become a magnet for increasing numbers of out-of-state dealer licenses as well as out-of-state milk usage, as well as out-of-state distribution warehouses and companies that specialize in logistics while the nation is overcome by supermarket loss-leading and price wars for customer acquisition).

In Wednesday’s hearing (May 2), PMMB will receive testimony on the following statutory items specifically mentioned in the Ag Department’s petition, many of which were suggested by PMMB staff as far back as 2009, but were never moved on, nor implemented!

LICENSING OF RETAILERS

In its petition, the Pa. Dept. of Ag mentions a recommendation by PMMB staff back in 2009 that was never implemented. It would have enabled the Board to require retailer reporting of volumes of fluid milk purchased and volumes sold in Pennsylvania “to track the amount of fluid milk sold at retail, the amount of consumer dollars being generated by the various components that make up the minimum retail price, and to identify the wholesalers and other sources of all fluid milk sold in Pennsylvania.”

The PDA petition notes that this is “a noted absence of data which prevented Drs. Novakovic, Stephenson and Nicholson’s study from being more conclusive on PMMB pricing’s impact on retail prices and Pennsylvania processing volumes. Such data is necessary for the continuation of credible, industry-supported and publicly-supported, PMMB pricing.”

TITLE TO MILK

Regarding Title to Milk, the PDA petition cites another amendment suggested by the PMMB staff in 2009, but never implemented, “to declare by statute, for the purposes of producer pricing only, that title to milk transfers to a milk dealer at the farm pick-up.”

In its petition, PDA notes that, “This (amendment) enables the Board to account for milk transported for out-of-state processing and to track that milk if it comes back in-state via wholesale or, coupled with the above, by a retailer.”

RETURN ABOVE COST OF PRODUCTION

The PDA petition also cites portions of the statute that result in “a return above the cost of production must always be guaranteed in the wholesale and retail price but not in the producer price.”

The petition recognizes that while the producer price under Section 801 must be, according to statute, “cost of production and a reasonable profit to the producer,” there is this exception stating that ‘the market for Pennsylvania-produced milk is threatened,’ which has “so permanently swallowed the rule that increasingly producers question the legitimacy of the entire PMMB pricing system,” PDA states in its petition.

“This is a major problem that must be addressed with transparency and clarity. This petition specifically requests that the PMMB staff be charged with investigating and recommending options to the Board for a statutory revision that has industry acceptance and equitably allocates the impact of market conditions across producers, milk dealers and retailers. If that is not deemed advisable, consideration of a statutory amendment nevertheless remains necessary to replace the existing language,” the petition states.

(Author’s Note: In other words, in times when the minimum price must be lowered to protect the market, the “pain” should be allocated to the other sectors and not taken on solely at the farm level. For example, when supermarkets loss-lead and get into price wars to acquire customers, should they not calculate that cost to their business rather than pass it back through the chain to the farm? It’s the retailer’s decision to use the price on a staple to acquire customers. It’s the processor’s decision to negotiate for large contracts. In the same sense, farmers cooperatives have admitted (in at least one civil proceeding) to doing the same by “sharing” profits gained by collective distribution efficiencies in the form of rebates to processors that are then passed on to retailers. Meanwhile, farmers are told the efficiencies of these collective distribution efforts are meant to reduce the cost of the hauling that is passed on to the farmer and that cost been steadily rising.)

RETURN OF BENEFIT TO PRODUCERS

Finally, the May 2 hearing will receive testimony on the point in paragraph 18 of the Pa. Ag Department’s petition concerning the return to producers of the benefit of minimum wholesale pricing.

The PDA petition explains it this way: “Much has been said over the years about the language of Section 805 of the Milk Marketing Law and whether the price increase built into the minimum wholesale price for payment of the over-order premium is being ‘given to producers’ as required.

“The allowed exception (‘ … necessary in order lawfully to maintain proper milk markets and outlets for producers and consumers’) has, again, permanently swallowed the rule. As with Section 801 producer pricing, consideration should be given to amending Section 805 to clarify the intended result. This is another area where positive perception of PMMB pricing appears to have been eroded by a perceived lack of clarity and transparency, the petition explains.

The PMMB hearing announcement states that intent to present testimony, and a written copy must be provided by noon on April 30, 2018 either electronically at  deberly@pa.gov or by filing at the PMMB office, Rm 110, Agriculture Building, 2301 North Cameron Street, Harrisburg, PA 17110.

For the May 16 hearing, the purpose is to solicit and consider suggestions for statutory changes to the Milk Marketing Law as requested by the PDA in its petition.

Those wanting to give testimony or comments on May 16 must provide notification and a written copy in advance to the PMMB by noon on May 11 either electronically at ra-pmmb@pa.gov or by filing at the PMMB office, Rm 110, Ag Building, 2301 North Cameron St., Harrisburg, PA 17110.

Announcements for the May 2 and May 16 public hearings indicate that both will be listening sessions with no examination or cross examination by interested parties.

A copy of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture Petition can be found at the Board’s website and drafts of the proposed amendments may be obtained on the Board’s website at http://www.mmb.pa.gov/Legal/Documents/Petition%20for%20Hearing%20MMB.pdf.

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