Class I is at a tipping point, will future FMMO strategies strengthen or exploit it?
By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, October 28, 2022
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The precarious future of Class I fluid milk was an underlying concern expressed in different ways at the AFBF Federal Milk Pricing Forum in Kansas City recently. Some have written off the future of fresh fluid milk and have turned sights elsewhere. Others recognize federal orders don’t fulfill their purpose when fresh fluid milk doesn’t get to where the people are. And then there’s the wedge product — aseptic milk — in the mix as some changes have already been made to promote investment in it.
Since the federal orders are based on regulation of Class I fluid milk, its future is most definitely at the core of the Federal Milk Marketing Order (FMMO) discussion.
A critical point made by panelists is that more money is needed to get fresh milk to consumers in high population areas. Also mentioned was the restoration of higher over-order premiums to farmers in milk-deficit areas to keep these areas from becoming even more deficit.
But at the same time, Class I sales are declining relative to a growing dairy pie of other class products, and the flurry of fluid milk plant closures near population areas has caused further disruption.
On day three of the forum in Kansas City, Phil Plourd of Ever.Ag attributed most of the fluid milk sales decline to the fact that “milk lost its best friend – cereal.” When asked, he did acknowledge that about one-third of the problem facing fluid milk is rooted in the low-fat school milk requirement. He also pointed out how the entire food industry is changing, and he warned about the lab-created dairy proteins made in fermentation tanks that can be ‘turned on and off.’
Bottom line is the growth markets are in other products, he said. The declining fluid milk sector can no longer shoulder all of the responsibility for the federal order system.
He showed a bar-graph depicting the decline in the share of total U.S. production participating in federal or state revenue sharing pools. Using estimates of California’s pre-federal order mandatory state order, the percentage of U.S. milk production that was pooled exceeded 80% in 2018. In November of 2018, California became a federal order. Pooled volume vs. total production fell to just over 70% in 2019, the first year the new Class I mover formula was implemented. In 2020, during the pandemic, pooled volume fell to just over 60% and ticked a few points lower to 60% in 2021.
Several panelists, including Calvin Covington, confirmed that cooperatives, especially DFA, own the majority of the fluid milk plants in the U.S. today. This evolution has only increased with plant closures over the past 18 months, and cooperatives have payment and pooling flexibilities not enjoyed by proprietary plants.
As the Class I sector consolidates to roughly 80% owned by cooperatives and the balance owned by grocery chains and independents, there is another problem with federal orders that is easily overlooked. Who is it regulating? It does not regulate what cooperatives pay their members, therefore, it is regulating a declining number of participants in a growing global industry.
A milk bottler from Pennsylvania used the open-microphone between panels to address this 800-pound gorilla in the room full of consensus-builders doing their level-best to ignore it.
“I am sort of an ‘odd duck’ here. Probably some of you have never recently met an independently owned fluid milk bottler. We are the only prisoners in the Federal Order system,” said Chuck Turner, a long-time Farm Bureau member and third-generation milk bottler from Pittsburgh.
“Everybody else can opt in or opt out. Even now, with recent developments, our cooperative competitors don’t have to pay their member producers a minimum price — but we do,” he confirmed.
Turner asked the room of consensus-builders to “take into consideration not just what we can get from Class I — but let’s think more about what we need to do to sell it. We are on a 13-year losing streak with Class I — 13 years that fluid milk consumption has declined on a total basis. We are at a tipping point,” said Turner.
While half of the forum’s table groupings agreed Class I differentials need to be increased, others wondered how much more money can be extracted from Class I without killing it?
Joe Wright, former president of Southeast Milk Inc., laid out the problem as a “downward spiral” — making it more difficult to attract milk to populated areas in the Southeast. He said it started with the Dean and Borden bankruptcies and continues with more plant closings announced every few months.
In the Southeast, said Wright, it’s to the point where school kids won’t get fresh milk in some areas because no one will bring it.
He noted that the over-order premiums in Florida have decreased by $1.50 per hundredweight. Some 30 years ago, it was $3.00. “We don’t have that now,” said Wright, noting this makes it difficult for farms to continue producing milk for the Class I market in the face of encroaching subdivisions and other pressures to sell.
“There are 9 million people just from Miami to Orlando,” said Wright. “But if we don’t do something soon, we’ll have no dairy farms left in Florida. Do we want the answer to be a push to aseptic milk? Total milk consumption was stable until 2010. That’s when the government gave us low-fat, low-taste milk in schools. Now, we’re going to start them with low-fat, low-taste, aseptic milk? That is going to kill fluid milk.”
He also noted that fluid milk sales are not helped when dairy shelves are empty, showing slide after slide of empty Walmart dairy cases in the same town in Florida in December – three years straight (pre-Covid, during Covid, and post-Covid). When he asked attendees if they have seen this in their own areas, many hands were raised.
He pointed out that when the fresh milk is completely missing on store shelves, it is the aseptic or ESL milk – and plant-based alternatives – that are available. This has a cumulative effect on fresh fluid milk sales.
Again, the topic of aseptic, shelf stable, warehoused milk was brought up with feelings of ambivalence as milk producers are both drawn to it as a hedging mechanism to even-out the supply and demand swings in areas like the Southeast, but on the other hand offended by the prospect that this product can be considered by bottling retailers like Kroger as an innovative “value added” growth category, while the original fresh fluid milk is treated like the Cinderella sister – a low-margin commodity non-growth category.
As more aseptic packaging comes on line, and as schools go without milk and stores short customers on the availability of fresh milk, a transition is being signaled toward packaged milk that is capable of moving farther without refrigeration cost — from anywhere to anywhere – right along with Coke or Pepsi for that matter.
“How do we fix the empty case syndrome that has gotten worse over the years? It’s all about being accountable,” said Wright, giving some history on how this was handled in the past and voicing his hope that having the Dean plants under DFA and Prairie Farms ownership could help.
“Can they push back on Walmart on stocking? I don’t know. There has to be margin in that relationship, but these are correctable problems that affect milk sales,” he said.
For its part, Kroger also closed a plant last year that was running half-full, according to Mike Brown, senior VP of Kroger’s dairy supply chain.
Milk bottling is consolidating rapidly to run the remaining plants at or above capacity to capitalize on throughput and improve margin.
“The reality,” says Wright, “is we are seeing a downward spiral, and milk is not always available where the people are. The question is, what are we going to do about it?”
Brown noted that the Class I mover formula change, which was an agreement by IDFA and NMPF in the 2018 farm bill, was intended to make fluid milk pricing “more predictable.” This was deemed necessary to attract investment to make fluid milk “more durable and transportable.”
In short, the Class I change was done to attract investment in expensive aseptic packaging to make shelf-stable milk and milk-based high protein beverages.
Going forward, said Brown: “Risk management is important and especially for specialty products such as extended shelf-life and aseptic milk, which are growing more than the plant-based beverages for Kroger. We have to be sure we nurture these new products because they are value-added growth markets for fluid milk.”
On the other hand, farmers in Kansas City voiced their concern for what happens to fresh fluid milk, that it matters for consumers and it matters for their dairy farms, and it also matters for the continuation of the federal orders.
Aseptic milk is experiencing growth, but why? Is necessity the mother of invention or is the investment driving the necessity.
After all, it is the regional and perishable nature of fresh fluid milk that led to the development of the federal orders in the 1930s. Aseptically-packaged and warehoused milk is not fresh enough — and may not be local enough — to be the product that helps extend the viability of the federal orders.