By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, June 12, 2020
HOUSTON, Tex. — Dairy producers who ship milk independently to any of the former Dean Foods’ 57 milk plants began receiving their final payments for April milk on Monday, June 8. These were the payments due from Dean debtor in possession (DIP) in mid-May that became part of the administrative expenses in the post-sale proceedings of the Southern Foods Group (Dean Foods) bankruptcy in the Southern District Court of Texas.
Several dairy producers in several states confirmed to Farmshine Tuesday that they received these payments. Furthermore, their May advance payments were timely made by the new owners of the former Dean plants — namely DFA and Prairie Farms.
The Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board (PMMB) staff also confirmed late Tuesday that, “All Pennsylvania independent Dean producers have been paid what was due them for April.”
For its part, the PMMB staff had initially begun the process of auditing non-payments in preparation of filing bond claims. Seven of Dean’s plants are licensed and bonded in Pennsylvania – a requirement to buy milk from farms in the state. This includes four plants in Pennsylvania, one in New Jersey, one in New York and one in Ohio.
The PMMB quickly shifted gears early this week from auditing non-payments to auditing the payments to independent producers, and as conveyed, found that producers received what was due.
The PMMB staff also indicated they are completing their auditing of what is still owed to milk cooperatives. If payments to cooperatives are not received, PMMB will file the necessary bond claims for any Pennsylvania cooperative milk that remains unpaid by the Dean bankruptcy estate.
Nationwide, independent producers have been paid, but cooperatives are still owed for April milk as of June 10.
In addition, USDA AMS Dairy Programs in Washington replied Tuesday, June 9 that, “USDA has not received payment from Dean (DIP) for April producer settlement funds owed.”
USDA had previously indicated that not only were the pool funds outstanding, Dean had also not paid the FMMOs for producer marketing services, transportation credits and administrative service in nine Federal Orders. Dean Foods is fully regulated in all Federal Orders except for the Pacific Northwest and Arizona.
In mid-May, USDA reported that, “handlers were notified via memorandum of the non-payment and the pro-ration of the available producer settlement monies.”
The loss of Dean’s Class I contributions to Federal Order settlement funds from 57 plants regulated in nine Federal Orders would decrease the blend price paid to all producers in those areas — under normal conditions — by reducing the pool funds drawn by handlers for other class uses. Several cooperatives are handling the loss of pool funds from back in Oct./Nov., and potentially April, by way of milk check deductions that will continue until the pool shortfalls are covered.
In an email response this week to Farmshine, USDA AMS Dairy Programs confirmed that, “No claims for these April producer settlement funds have been filed with the bankruptcy court because the April Federal Milk Marketing Order (FMMO) obligations are post-bankruptcy debts and are recouped through the post-bankruptcy process.”
The post-bankruptcy process involves the Dean estate’s plan being filed with the court outlining how it will pay its vendors (including USDA producer settlement funds) as it winds down operations of the estate. According to USDA, Dean has notified the court that it will file the payment plan by August 3.
How much is owed for April milk to the USDA FMMO producer settlement funds across the U.S. is deemed proprietary information, according to USDA, and “it has not yet been aggregated with appropriate redactions and cannot be released at this time.”
However, some milk cooperative sources handling only manufacturing class milk in the Northeast and Mideast are pegging their losses from these unpaid April settlement funds to be upwards of 30% of the blend price.
In addition to the missed payments to FMMO settlement funds for April, USDA confirmed in an email that it filed proofs of claim in the bankruptcy proceeding for monies owed prior to the bankruptcy filing for October and mid-November 2019 milk marketings.
“Those proofs of claim (for Oct./Nov. 2019) totaled $13.8 million for monies owed to producer settlement fund, marketing service, administrative, and transportation credit funds, as well as the Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Program. The proof of claim documents were filed on April 21, 2020 and can be viewed on the Dean Foods Restructuring website,” USDA stated in an email response this week.
With more than 3000 documents on the Southern Foods Group bankruptcy docket, a search of claims did yield more than two dozen separate proof of claim filings by USDA on April 21, including information showing that Dean owes $3.1 million for Oct./Nov. 2019 to the Fluid Milk Processor Education and Promotion Program (MilkPEP). Fluid milk processors are obligated by USDA to pay 20 cents per hundredweight into this fluid milk promotion fund.
It is unclear how much of what was due the cooperatives back in Oct./Nov. 2019 is also upaid, but proofs of claim filed in March 2020 by milk cooperatives peg the largest amounts owed from last fall at $103.4 million to Dairy Farmers of America (DFA); around $14 million to Southeast Milk (SMI); and over $7 million to Land O’Lakes. The link to claims documents on the Southern Foods Group bankruptcy docket can be found at https://dm.epiq11.com/case/dnf/claims
As for what is owed to USDA for April 2020, it is difficult to estimate an amount based on the proof of claims filed for Oct./Nov. 2019 because COVID-19 disruptions completely altered the milk marketing landscape in April.
While Class I sales were much higher in April 2020 compared with October and November 2019, the Class I base price was $5.00 per hundredweight lower in April vs. Oct./Nov. Also, the amount of milk diverted to the lowest class “dumpage and other use” category for April was enormous – at 350 million pounds across all Federal Orders, this was up 960% from a year ago and represented almost 2% of the entire U.S. milk supply in April (see related story in next week’s edition of Farmshine).
These factors would most assuredly reduce the Dean settlement fund obligations to the FMMOs for April 2020 as compared with “normal conditions”. However, the marketing, transportation credits and MilkPEP checkoff obligations were likely higher in April than last fall.
Producers and state and federal sources indicate that the remaining skeleton staff for Dean Foods, post-sale, has been helpful in keeping lines of communication open. Each step of the way, independent producers, producer groups, state boards and others received information about the process and its potential timelines.
In the case of the independent shippers, at least, the Dean estate paid them the first week of June after letters were sent the week prior, indicating potential payment by mid-June.
State and regional organizations, such as Farm Bureaus, milk marketing boards, state departments of agriculture, and others had written letters to the bankruptcy court and the Dean estate, and articles about the unfolding situation had also been provided, leading up to Dean’s communication with producers and ultimately these payments to independent shippers being made.
As well, the bankruptcy court docket, hearing process, and bidding process seem to have been transparent, for the most part, albeit extremely complex.
In spite of this transparency, bidders other than Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) were not privy to details needed about payables for some of the Dean plants – information that was critical to putting together financing for potential bids. Furthermore, the 44-plant lump-bid by DFA provided an edge to win plants that had multiple contending bidders by lumping them together with plants that had no contending bidders.
What remains unclear is how the more than $100 million dollars, Dean owes to DFA will be handled in relation to DFA’s purchase of substantially most of Dean’s plants and assets at a price of $433 million. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) approved the sale, with the stipulation that three plants located in Wisconsin, Illinois and Massachusetts be divested.
Through the Chapter 11 bankruptcy sale process, which was consummated the first week of May 2020, 44 of Dean Foods’ 57 milk plants (including all seven licensed to buy milk from Pennsylvania farms) were acquired by DFA, the nation’s largest milk cooperative, headquartered in Kansas City, Kansas accounting for one-third of the U.S. raw milk supply with members nationwide and sales nationally and internationally. DFA was Dean’s largest milk supplier and the Dean accounts represented DFA’s largest milk buyer, according to court documents.
Eight Dean plants and other assets were acquired by Prairie Farms, a milk cooperative headquartered in Edwardsville, Illinois with members as far south and east as Kentucky to as far north and west as Minnesota, marketing products in at least 14 states. Several years ago, DFA and Prairie Farms jointly purchased and incorporated the previously family-owned Hiland Dairy Foods, headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri, with its 17 fluid milk and dairy plants and 51 distribution centers that together stretch through the Heartland from Texas to South Dakota.