Dean Foods (Estate) Fails to Pay FMMO Producer Settlement Funds in Florida, Southeast, and Appalachian Orders

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Payments to Farmers Late at Best, in Question for the Future

A May 13, 2020 memorandum from USDA-Agricultural Marketing Service, Appalachian Order, reads as follows:

TO:  Regulated Handlers

FROM: Harold H. Friedly, Jr., Market Administrator, F.O. 5

SUBJECT: Producer Settlement Fund Non Payment

On May 12, 2020, Dean Foods, DIP (debtor-in-possession), a regulated handler on the Appalachian Order, did not pay its obligation to the Producer Settlement Fund (PSF) as required by Federal Milk Marketing Order regulations. USDA recognizes the significance of this non-payment and is continuing to work with the Department of Justice to attempt to recover these monies as part of the Dean Foods, DIP, estate.

When payment is not made to the PSF, Federal Milk Marketing Order regulations prescribe procedure for how the remaining marketwide pool monies should be distributed to handlers (1005.72).  When PSF monies are not sufficient to make full payments to handlers, the Market Administrator shall reduce uniformly such payments to handlers due a payment from the PSF.

Accordingly, for milk pooled on Order 5 during April 2020, payments to handlers from the PSF have been reduced pro rata.  Should the PSF payments be recovered from Dean Foods, DIP, Estate at a later time, full payments will be distributed.  In the meantime, Federal Milk Marketing Order regulations provide for reduced payments to producers from regulated handlers who did not receive full payment from the PSF (1005.73(c)). Consequently, the enforced minimum payments to producers will be at the pro rata amount.

USDA will continue to monitor the situation and work to assist the dairy industry. Additional information will be provided as it becomes available to all market participants. Please feel free to contact Jason Nierman, via nierman@malouisville.com, or (502) 499-0040, ext. 222, if you have any questions.

The memorandum also had this addendum included:

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This schematic explains workings of a Producer Settlement Fund:

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News could not have come at a worse time:

From an industry viewpoint, this non-payment could not come at a worse time for the farmers themselves.

When monies are received by the Producer Settlement Fund, they in turn are paid back out to handlers (co-ops or agents), who then distribute the money to farmers, paying them for milk sold (see the diagram above).  This process is highly regulated by FMMO rules, and has proven to be predictable, and reliable for decades.

Farmers then use their money to pay bills to any number of agribusiness and service firms with whom they do business.   Since this process has been so reliable, most farmers have set-up automatic withdrawals to pay supply companies.  Farmers will now be dealing with any issues related to those automatic withdrawals and any repercussions due to lack of funds. Agribusinesses will lose money as well, and incur any number of extra costs.

Ravaged by a myriad of challenges due to Covid-19, farmers are facing financial stress of an untold magnitude, and many multi-generational farms with long histories of serving consumers are at risk of being lost. The mental health and fortitude of those farmers is a prime concern across the country, due to the stresses which were already in place. Many fear that this news could catalyze additional health issues in farm communities.

An industry insider, who asked not to be identified, said this Dean Foods payment to the PSF could normally be in a range from $160-$250 million, affecting dairy co-ops, individual farms and the communities they serve in many states.  (Note – this figure will be verified and updated if needed – Covid 19 has changed almost everything.)

 

PERPLEXING:  WHY did this happen given Chapter 11 processes?

This payment, which is a regular course of business in both a predictable amount and timing in getting farms and co-ops paid for milk,  had regularly been made by Dean Foods during the course of the Chapter 11 proceedings.

Therefore, it stands to reason that attorneys, accountants, and consultants representing Dean Foods should have budgeted and accounted for these payments as Dean Foods books were closed out over the course of the next few months. In the last months of the process, fluid milk sales were up substantially according to many sources, which should also have added to Dean Foods income.   (An email inquiry to an attorney representing Dean Foods in the proceedings has not received a response as of this posting.)

This gets even more perplexing since farmers were named as critical vendors in the early days of the Chapter 11 process.  Dean Foods officials filed motions, which were granted by the Court, to ensure that those payments were indeed accomplished. It was believed those financial obligations to farmers for products delivered would have been honored until the last payment was due.

Impact on an individual farm:  During this payment cycle, any single farm would be due payments from thousands of dollars to even hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the size of the herd.

POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS OR HOPE AHEAD?

At this time, this is a profound question with unknown answers.  Some of those answers might be:

  • Payment to Settlement Funds in all FMM Orders might come at one of the later dates in this payment cycle, being only a few days late
  • Payment to the Producer Settlement Fund might come later, as accounts receivable from product and property sales come into the Dean Estate
  • Payment to farmers might not come at all, which is a bitter pill to swallow at this juncture in history.

Whatever the answer is, farmer co-ops and individual farmers deserve that answer, and deserve it quickly.  Perhaps a projected payment schedule could be stated by the Dean Foods Estate officials.  Even if it’s a worst case answer, to know what that answer is will honor the dignity of earnest farmers who deserve an answer so they can make some possibly excruciating decisions,  instead of ‘the system’ tap dancing around farm families like performers on a Broadway stage.

According to the Dean Foods / Southern Foods Group, LLC Chapter 11 website, two additional Omnibus Hearings are scheduled for May 20 and June 24. 

One dairyman has often said “The dairy industry at the grass roots level is a dairy community full of really good, decent people who want to earn an honest living and contribute to their communities. However, those good people often have to endure some very wicked events.”

Dean Foods has historically paid its ‘independent producers’ well, which is much appreciated.  It is sincerely hoped that Dean Foods closes its chapter on a better note than this non-payment, and quickly rectifies this payment shortfall to farmers.  For the sake of the mental and physical health of many farmers and their families, lets hope they do just that.

 

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Beringause, Dean Foods: “It is time we stood up for the Dairy Industry, for our nation’s Dairy Farmers . . .”

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In a bold move, the largest processor and direct store distributor of fluid milk in the United States has decided to leave its membership in the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), due to differences of opinion with the organization on the labeling of plant-based beverages.

Announcing their decision, Dean Foods issued the following statement: 

“Dean Foods has been a strong supporter of the International dairy Foods Association (IDFA) for many years, however, we have reached a point where one of our key priorities is no longer shared by the entire IDFA organization.  More specifically, as one of the largest dairy processors in the country, we are proud of the role we play in providing one of the most nutritious products in the grocery store – milk – to consumers around the nation.  With this in mind, we believe it is wrong that many plant-based products are currently marketed using milk’s good name, yet are lacking several of the inherent nutrients of their dairy counterparts. Unfortunately, IDFA has been unable to reach consensus and take a stance on this important issue.”

“As a result, we have decided that we can no longer financially support an organization that is not behind one of our core priorities We’ll instead divert our advocacy resources to pursuing accurate product labeling for the benefit of the dairy industry, including farmers, processors, and consumers around the country. We have appreciated IDFA’s support over the years and wish the organization and its member companies the best.”

 

Eric Beringause,  Dean Foods President and CEO, stated the following:

“There are plant-based products called “milk” on grocery store shelves today that don’t include a single drop of dairy.  Even worse, consumers are being misled into believing that these imitation products are as healthy as their dairy counterparts. It is time we stood up for the dairy industry, for our nation’s dairy farmers, for the integrity of our milk products, and for the families who rely on them for adequate nutrition.

We’re exploring every potential avenue for ensuring imitation products are labeled properly, and we welcome others to join us in this effort.”

 

Beringause, who assumed the reins as CEO of Dean Foods on July 29, came with the reputation of having a record of transformation.  In an industry crying for a renewal of sales for ‘nature’s most nearly perfect beverage,’ this decision may be a step in restoring real milk’s identity and reducing consumer confusion.

This move should be well-received by thousands of dairy farmers and industry stakeholders who have been demanding proper labeling of dairy products for years, and who have been seeking a ‘big-player’ advocate with an even bigger voice.

Dean Foods, on behalf of the nation’s dairy farm families, we look forward to working with you to advance the cause of proper labeling in keeping with standards of identity.

 

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3 Southeast Dairy Events: Networks Working Together to Find Solutions

A Compilation of stories and news about 3 challenges affecting Southeast Dairy Producers:  Dean Foods, Maryland-Virginia and Piedmont

 Southeast Dairy:  In the News. Pushing Forward.
 
Introduction:
In the past two weeks, in a time of already depressed milk prices, there has been a three-fold challenge to dairy farms in the southeast.  Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and North Carolina all have farmers affected, with varying degrees of uncertainty about their milk buyer futures.
To say these past days have been painful and a flurry of concern, high emotions, and rumor mills have resulted is an understatement, but yet, as the dust settles, some activity has encouraged some hope, and herd owners are beginning to look forward. Many are making decisions based on faith, and in a calm fashion based on what they believe best for their farm. Some of those farms are being public, while others are remaining cautious and quietly seeking answers behind the scenes.
Bright Spot? Yes!   One farmer asked if there was going to be any good news to share about this whole mess, and yes, actually, there are two:
First, phone calls, texts, and Social Media outcries have indicated loudly and clearly that consumers, government officials, fellow farm organizations, and economic development personnel are indeed concerned about preserving ‘local’ or ‘regional’ milk in their areas, and appear to be eager to learn how they can help accomplish that.
Hopefully, this newfound energy can be channeled for long-term purchases of local milk, from local farms.  Time will tell. Consumer outreach is going to have to continue.
The second is this:  We still have upwards of 40 herds (at least in TN) shipping to Dean. The company is still the largest volume buyer of ‘local’ milk in TN at its three plants.  Putting that in perspective, every Dean Direct herd in Indiana,  with the exception of one, received letters of notice. Several were herds well over 1000 cows.
Background:  The three part challenge:
1.) Dean Foods:  On Friday, March 2, news broke of upwards of 115 (tallies still underway) farmers in 8 states receiving 90-day termination notices of their supply agreements to Dean Foods plants.  10 Tennessee herds and 22-25 Kentucky herds were affected, with 25-27  in Indiana, 42 in Pennsylvania, 6 in the Carolinas, and a yet unknown number in New York.  Three plants in our area – at Athens, TN, Spartanburg, SC, and Louisville, KY are involved in the contract termination decisions.   Herd sizes in all states range from under 100 to 1000 cows; 20 Million pounds of Indiana milk will need to find a new home, or be removed from the already overabundant nationwide supply.
The herds involved were Dean Direct producers, meaning the farm itself had a purchase agreement with Dean Foods plants, instead of gaining access to the plant through a milk co-op. Farmers who were members of co-ops did not receive these termination letters.  All of this activity followed a Dean Foods Earnings Announcement on Monday, Feb. 26 in which the phrases such as ‘rescaling the supply line’ foretold of company wide cuts to come.
2.)  During:  the week prior to the Dean Foods announcement, rumors began to circulate that Piedmont Milk Producers, based in Blountville, TN and serving farms in TN, VA, and NC,  was restructuring their business. (Story below with a video link)
3.)  MD-VA Milk Cooperative with 1,500 members from Pennsylvania to Florida, and some in Kentucky and Tennessee, sent a Feb. 27th letter to all of its members that their advance milk payment checks, expected at the end of the month, would fall to levels of $12.62 cwt in FO 5 & 7, and $10 in FO 1 and $33. The company said it was working on financial restructuring and was renegotiating credit facilities. Over the weekend, sources have begun to indicate that the problems may have been resolved to some degree, but the company has not made any official announcements. With settlement checks expected within a couple of days, some direction will be known.
In the days since, there has been a flurry of activity following the first notices: meetings of  farmers, meetings of farmers and agribusiness personnel, meetings of dairy organizations, and frequent phone calls between many parties in positions to help chart a future course.  AgCentral has been busy assisting producers in a variety of ways in a three-state area. While we have yet to have a formal working group to address what can be done and how to approach a dairy future, a tremendous amount of contacts have been made information gathered.
Following is a “Digest” of some the best information available, in no particular order – stories mentioned include stories of the Watsons and the Stooksburys, as well as a couple of stories from Ohio which further outline the far-reaching affects of the Dean announcements:
1.) Dave Natzke, an experienced and respected dairy industry reporter, now with Progressive Dairyman, published a broad perspective view of the Dean Foods story, and puts it in context with the dairy industry and events across the country. In his article, Dave reports that the Walmart plant was originally announced as a $165 Million Dollar venture, and provides a glimpse into how the Walmart plant may source their milk.
2.) Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, reports with a focus on PA, where 42 herds lost Dean contractsShe notes hauling routes were a factor in terminated Pennsylvania herds, and reports the loss of a Food Lion contract, which was a factor which triggered a decision regarding 5 TN herds in Greene and Hamblen Counties.
From the article: “This affects all size herds and is not a large or small farm thing,” said [Reace] Smith, [of Dean Foods Corporate Communications.]  While she was unable to supply specific information about the farms that were terminated, she said the widespread volume adjustments at multiple plants across four Federal Orders was necessary do to the new Class I plant (Walmart) coming online this month and the loss of a contract through a competitive bidding process. (Food Lion).” 
It is the loss of that Food Lion contract, previously filled largely through a Carolina plant(s), which created a shift in milk hauling from plant to plant, and created an excess at the Dean/Pet plant at Spartanburg, SC, which had to be eliminated.  The milk from five (5) producers in Hamblen and Greene Counties in TN was being hauled to Spartanburg. Those producers are now searching for new markets or making decisions to sell cows.
Dewey Morgan, of the Daily Post-Athenian, in the hometown of the Mayfield plant,  cites these significant stats:
Regarding declining consumption and increased production: “Americans are drinking about 3 gallons less per person since 2010, and 11 gallons less than 1975, while every year, 350 Million more gallons of milk are produced than the year before.”
Amount of local milk: The Dean Foods plant in Athens ‘still sources 90% of our milk from Tennessee.’
The Watson Family: their stories on WVLT-TV and on the Knoxville News-Sentinel website:
The Watsons, who farm near Sweetwater, TN, were one of the southeast TN farms who received 90-day notices.  The senior generation is Robert and Rosemary Watson (mom and dad), who farm with their sons Josh and Caleb.  The family is known for being extremely generous members of their community.  Both Josh and Caleb have been featured in news stories in Knoxville, TN media:
  •  Josh: From WVLT-TV, a story and video clip: Josh states that he doesn’t entirely blame Dean Foods. He adds: “there’s a lot of jobs that revolve around the dairy – it will hurt them.”
  • Caleb: Both a video and a photo album have been posted at the Knoxville Sentinel website. Caleb notes the family will continue to look for a milk buyer, and will look at other options to diversify, he says they will survive.
  • Front Page: The Knoxville News Sentinel published a front page story featuring Caleb on Tuesday, March 13.
Piedmont considering new business structure and how the company operates: story on Knoxville WBIR-TV
  • Brant Stooksbury, and his father Brian in Jefferson County, currently ship their milk through Piedmont Milk Sales, with offices at Blountville, TN. Piedmont, who represents farms in Northeast TN, Virginia, and North Carolina (the great majority are in NC) is making business changes.
 
Farm & Dairy:  Provides additional details on  WalMart distibution
WKBN-TN at Waynesboro, Pennsylvania – a video story describing some of the trickle down effects.
Ongoing:  This story will continue to evolve over the next few weeks, and spring crop work is already cranking up.  We know this challenge is great, but this region has overcome challenges before: at this time 25 years ago, many of us were digging out from a record blizzard, and some went without power for days. 27 years ago, in February of 1991, 400 herds received notices of a Pet bankruptcy, and lost a month’s worth of milk payments, along with having to scramble to find new milk handlers – there were no 90-day notices.
No doubt, our dairy industry is changing, but we have proven we can survive.
P.S.   Rod Carmichael has scheduled a complete herd dispersal for April 27.  Please mark that date on your calendars and keep Rod and Donna in your thoughts.