Checkoff cites ‘uncontrollable circumstances’ bringing shelf-stable milk to schools
By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, Aug. 12, 2022
DALLAS, Tex. — Last week, yet another round of plant closures was announced by Borden, well-timed as a factor said to be driving shelf-stable milk into schools and other venues in affected regions like the Southeast; however, an industry “innovation” shift to the convenience, “experience ” and reduced deliveries (carbon/energy cost and intensity) said to be associated with lactose-free extended shelf-life and aseptically-packaged milk has been gradually in the making for months, if not years.
The Dallas-based Borden, owned by two private equity firms, will close fluid milk plants in Dothan, Alabama and Hattiesburg, Mississippi “no later than Sept. 30, 2022, and will no longer produce in these states,” the company said.
The Aug. 3 announcement represents Borden’s fifth and sixth plant closures in as many months.
A string of sell-offs and closings since April have occurred under “the great consolidator” — former Dean Foods CEO Gregg Engles. Engles has been CEO of ‘new Borden’ since June 2020, when his Capital Peak Partners, along with Borden bankruptcy creditor KKR & Co., together purchased substantially all assets to form New Dairy OpCo, doing business as Borden Dairy.
“While the decision was difficult, the company has determined that it could no longer support continued production at those locations,” Borden said in the Aug. 3 statement that was virtually identical to the statement released April 4 announcing previous closures of its Miami, Florida and Charleston, South Carolina plants by May 31, including a stated withdrawal from the South Carolina retail market as well.
In addition to ending fluid milk processing at six of its 14 plants — four in the Southeast, two in the Midwest — Borden announced in late June its plans to sell all Texas holdings to Hiland Dairy, including three plants in Austin, Conroe and Dallas, associated branches and other assets.
Hiland Dairy, headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri, is jointly owned by the nation’s largest milk cooperative Dairy Farmers of America (DFA), headquartered in Kansas City, Kansas, and Prairie Farms Dairy, a milk cooperative headquartered in Edwardsville, Illinois that includes the former Wisconsin-based Swiss Valley co-op.
DFA already separately owns the Borden brand license for cheese.
Also in June, Borden announced an end to fluid milk operations in Illinois and Wisconsin at two former Dean plants the company purchased jointly with Select Milk Producers in June 2021 after a U.S. District Court required DFA to divest them.
Borden closed the Harvard (Chemung Township), Illinois plant in July, and local newspaper accounts note the community is hopeful a food processing company other than dairy will purchase the FDA-approved facilities. Borden also ceased bottling at De Pere, Wisconsin on July 9, but continues to make sour cream products at that location.
The combined plant closures and sales by Borden now stand at nine of the 14 plants, leaving an uncertain future for the remaining five plants in Cleveland, Ohio; London, Kentucky; Decatur, Georgia; Lafayette, Louisiana; and Winter Haven, Florida. The sales and closures, including announced withdrawals from some markets, having combined effects of funneling more market share to DFA and to some degree Prairie Farms and others against a backdrop of additional Class I milk plant closures and reorganizations during the 24 months since assets from number one Dean and number two Borden were sold in separate bankruptcy filings.
“Borden products have a distribution area which covers a wide swath of the lower Southeast, including the Gulf’s coastal tourist areas. The Dutch Chocolate is a favorite of milk connoisseurs, and their recent introductions of flavored milks have received great reviews,” an Aug. 6 Milksheds Blog post by AgriVoice stated. A number of Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi farms may be affected by the most recent closures.
Meanwhile, the closures are affecting milk access for schools and at retail. According to its website, Borden serves 9,000 schools in the U.S.
In recent weeks, photos have been circulating of empty dairy cases in the Green Bay, Milwaukee and greater Chicago region with signs stating: “Due to milk plant closures, we are currently out of stock on one gallon and half gallons of milk.”
School milk contracts in that region are also reportedly impacted.
However, most notable is the impact on school milk contracts in the Southeast as students begin returning to classrooms.
According to the Aug. 5 online Dairy Alliance newsletter to Southeast dairy farmers, the regional checkoff organization confirmed the latest round of Borden closures are plants that “currently provide milk to 494 school districts… and use around 95 million units a school year.”
The Dairy Alliance reported it is working with schools “to keep milk the top choice for students… We do not want schools to apply for an emergency waiver that would exempt them from USDA requirements of serving milk until they find a supplier.
“These uncontrollable circumstances will lead to more aseptic milk in the region, but this is better than losing milk completely in school districts that have little or no options,” the newsletter stated.
Southeast dairy farmers report their mailed copy of a Dairy Alliance newsletter in July had already forecast more shelf-stable milk coming to schools as part of the strategic plan to protect and grow milk sales by ensuring milk accessibility and improving the school milk experience. In addition to the Borden plant closures, the report cited school milk “hurdles” such as inadequate refrigerated space requiring multiple frequent deliveries amid rising fuel and energy costs and labor shortages.
Southeast dairy farmers were informed that the Dairy Alliance School Wellness Team was already working to mitigate bidding issues with shelf-stable milk for school districts in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia.
Diversified Foods Inc. (DFI), headquartered in New Orleans, was identified as the main supplier of this shelf-stable milk to schools in the region, reportedly sourcing milk through Maryland-Virginia, DFA and Borden.
In addition, DFI is a main sponsor of the Feeding America conference taking place in Philadelphia this week (Aug 9-11), where it is previewing for nutrition program attendees their new lactose-free shelf-stable chocolate milk. DFI also sponsored the School Nutrition Association national conference in Orlando earlier this summer, and social media photos of the booth show the shelf-stable, aseptically packaged versions of brands like DairyPure, TruMoo, Borden and Prairie Farms, along with DFI’s own ‘Pantry Fresh’ shelf-stable milk in supermarket and school sizes.
Coinciding with the flurry of Borden closings and shelf-stable milk hookups for schools, DFA announced last week (Aug. 1) that it will acquire two extended shelf-life (ESL) plants from the Orrville, Ohio based Smith Dairy. The SmithFoods plants will operate under DFA Dairy Brands as Richmond Beverage Solutions, Richmond, Indiana and Pacific Dairy Solutions, Pacific, Missouri. A SmithFoods statement noted the transfer would not affect the farms or employees associated with these plants.
This acquisition aligns with DFA’s similar strategy to “increase investment and expand ownership in this (shelf-stable) space… and create synergies between our other extended shelf-life and aseptic facilities,” the DFA statement noted.