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Hoard's Dairyman:

The Class I Mover Needs to Move

March 6, 2024

By Paul Bleiberg, Executive Vice President, Government Relations, NMPF

Even as an election looms on the horizon, USDA will soon develop its Federal Milk Marketing Order (FMMO) modernization recommendations after months of proceedings. Meanwhile, Congress is preparing to advance a farm bill. U.S. dairy farmers and their cooperatives have a stake in both. But regardless of the policy landscape of the moment, one pressing priority that unites producers from coast to coast in every way, shape, and form is the need to restore the “higher of” Class I mover.

Since it was implemented five years ago, the current “average of” Class I mover has cost dairy farmers nationwide more than $1 billion in Class I skim revenue, with losses continuing to pile up monthly. This, of course, was not intended — but neither were the repeated price inversions that upended decades of data and showed the new mover is poorly adapted to dairy’s present and future in a variety of economic climates.

Congress changed the mover during the last farm bill to respond to fluid processor requests for risk management, but that was with the expectation that it would be revenue neutral for the dairy producer. Unfortunately, the new mover has been anything but revenue neutral, and it’s been so in a way that has overwhelmingly favored processors, who are not the epicenter of the FMMO system. The new mover has underperformed repeatedly, to the detriment of dairy farmers, in 2020, 2022, 2023, and again, month by month, in 2024. The current formulation has harmed farmers so consistently that it would have been nowhere close to revenue neutral even setting aside the calamity of 2020.

In an attempt to remedy an intolerable situation (everyone, even processors, agrees on that point, at least), several concepts have been put forth that are bandages to the problem but aren’t true solutions. Modifying the current formula, for example, to retroactively recoup producer losses would still fail to send timely price signals to farmers. The argument that this modified version would have paid more to farmers at some point just yet again exposes the problem with the “average of,” which is that it causes farmers to suffer losses when they should have been paid based on market signals and instead distorts the true market by paying them back later. That approach also provides little help to the many family dairy producers who don’t have years to be made whole, a fact underscored forcefully by continued trends toward farm consolidation.

The solution to this problem comes down to priorities. The current mover may have been a fair experiment to test, but with its performance now having been assessed, continuing the “average of” formulation can be to nothing except the detriment of dairy farmers who have lost more than $1 billion dollars of ongoing disorderly marketing of milk.

The right solution is the previous “higher of” mover. That tried-and-true approach, one that served farmers well for decades, responds quickly to and accurately reflects the marketplace, encouraging the orderly marketing of milk that provides the rationale for the FMMO system, and it helps dairy farmer cash flow when it counts. The “higher of” Class I mover must be reinstated.

This column originally appeared in Hoard’s Dairyman Intel on March 4, 2024.