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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Borden Files Chapter 11; Moves to Protect Farmer Payments for Pre-Petition Milk; Interim Motion Approved on Jan. 8th

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UPDATE: Jan. 9th:  The Court issued an Order, posted late on Jan. 8th, which did indeed authorize Borden to pay independent farmers and co-ops, but there is some leeway as to the amount those producers and handlers might be paid.  Independent producers especially are encouraged to read the full 7 pgs. of the Order found here (you may also download and print), and perhaps consult with an attorney for interpretation and clarification.  Some situations may differ per state laws and milk bonding statutes.

Dave Natzke, Progressive Dairyman, has also published a report of the hearing with added information from the courtroom, which may be read here.

 

Borden Dairy Company, et al.,  now becomes the 2nd major dairy company within two months to file for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy to reorganize their financial structure.  Dean Foods, the nation’s largest processor of fluid milk, filed for Chapter 11 protection in November.

The Borden Chapter 11 filing caught many grass-roots dairy farmers off guard, especially due to renewed optimism due to recent new product introductions under the leadership of Tony Sarsam.

Progressive Dairy published an informative report written by Dave Natzke, Editor.

Borden Dairy  issued the following press release about the filing, which can also be accessed on the web:

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When a milk-purchasing company announces bankruptcy, the first question that grass-roots farmers and rural communities is concerned with is “Will those farmers get paid for ‘pre-petition’ milk?”  (That is the milk delivered in the period prior to the filing for which the farmer has not received payment.)   Payment for milk delivered from the day of filing forward is generally protected by the Court.

Normally, independent farmers, those who sell milk directly to a plant or company, and who are not members of a milk cooperative, are left holding the bag, and don’t get paid, because they are generally considered ‘unsecured creditors.’  Some states, but not all, have ‘milk bonding’ statutes, which protect payments to farmers to some degree; some states may protect payment for all or a significant portion of the milk delivered, while others may have bonding statutes which cover only a tiny portion.

In this Borden Dairy Chapter 11 process, the company has filed a Motion with the Court to ask that the Company be allowed to complete those payments to those independent farmers and five milk cooperatives. This Motion was scheduled to be heard as part of the “First Day Hearings” on January 7th, but at the writing of this blogpost, (midnigh/early am, Jan 8th) an Order has not been entered which will actually permit that to happen.  An Order must be entered on the Court’s Docket which will finalize payment.

The documents below, on page 3, paragraphs 7 and 8, note that Borden purchases raw milk from ‘approximately 262 independent family dairy farms’ and ‘five farmers’ cooperatives; collectively, those farmers and cooperatives are called ‘Milk Vendors.’  They also detail the normal times of payment.

The Borden Chapter 11 proceeding is legally known as Case 20-10010-CSS, and is being heard in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware.    Below are the 7 pages of Document 11 in the above captioned case, titled “Declaration of Jason Monaco in Support of Debtors’ Motion for Authorization to Pay Critical Vendors,” which is the Motion asking for payment to farmers.

Affected parties residing in or operating farms in the states of Mississippi or Texas likely need to pay special attention to a Footnote (3)  at the bottom of Page 3. Such parties may need to have this Document 1, along with other documents in this case reviewed by an attorney for interpretation, and have such a qualified attorney determine how this footnote may affect their farming operations.

NOTE:  The author of this blog is not an attorney, and any information posted SHOULD NOT be considered legal advice, only observations. These public documents are posted for information purposes only; it will be up to individual farms affected in this matter to consult attorneys to review their legal rights.

 

Here are the pages of Document 11, the Motion requesting payment to farmers:

 

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Any updates of significant events and/or official rulings by the Court will be added or noted when they are available, as will additional information related to this process.

NOTE:  The AUTHOR of this blog IS NOT AN ATTORNEY, and any information posted SHOULD NOT be considered legal advice. These public documents are posted for information purposes only; it will be up to individual farms affected in this matter to consult attorneys to review their legal rights per their individual situations.  The author has experienced a milk company bankruptcy as a producer, so therefore is familiar with the process from a farmer/producer perspective

 

ON A PERSONAL NOTE:  As Borden now joins Dean Foods in Chapter 11 proceedings, this is the second Financial Reorganization/Bankruptcy filing of a major purchaser of fluid milk in the United States within two months.  Many, many family farms will be affected to some degree by these proceedings, no matter if a farm is an ‘independent’ or a member of a cooperative. In turn, the rural communities across the country in which those farms are located will be affected as well.  May I ask that anyone who is a Believer in a Higher Power please join me in keeping the entire US Dairy Farm industry in your collective prayers?  Thank you for doing that!

May God Bless our Dairy Farms, and our Farming Communities!!

 

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