Dean Foods skips milk commission meeting

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(Host) The Vermont Milk Commission has asked dairy processors to help farmers struggling with low milk prices.

But there were no clear solutions that emerged from this week’s meeting. And the main player in the market – Texas-based Dean Foods – didn’t show up.

VPR’s John Dillon has more:

(Dillon) The milk commission has the power to set prices for milk in Vermont. But it was public pressure, not price regulation, that the commission was hoping to bring to bear on the processors that buy milk from Vermont farmers.

The commission, which is chaired by state Agriculture Secretary Roger Allbee, met with representatives of dairy co-ops and milk buyers. Allbee said the aim of the closed-door meeting was to brainstorm ideas about how processors can get more money to farmers who have seen their milk checks plummet this year.

(Allbee) "We need to raise some funds for two purposes. One is to have funds in the future that can deal with these downturn situations. And the other is to have funds that can deal with future investment opportunities … to keep the dairy industry in Vermont."

(Dillon) But the talks are at a very early stage, as commission member Chris Bray learned when he pressed for details.

Allbee and Diane Bothfeld, the Agriculture Agency’s dairy policy specialist, told Bray that there are no firm proposals on how to set up the emergency fund.

(Bray) "So, is this basically a counter-cyclical fund? I mean, or how are you envisioning it?"

(Bothfeld) "Really, really very, very preliminary discussions. Those discussions of how much money is needed, how do you get the money…"

(Allbee) "I guess the discussion was that this is a priority, and we ought to begin on it immediately to see how it could be done. There wasn’t any parameters on whether it’s counter-cyclical or not."

(Dillon) Represented at the meeting were a variety of processors and milk buyers, including Ben & Jerry’s, the Agri-Mark dairy co-op, and Thomas Dairy from Rutland.

Dean Foods, the nation’s biggest milk company, was a no-show. The Texas-based company buys 70 percent of the milk in this market. Allbee invited the company, and said he didn’t know why officials skipped the meeting. Allbee said he’s concerned about the lack of competition in the market.

(Allbee) "I think Dean should be investigated by the anti-trust division of the U.S. Justice Department, and that’s what Senator Sanders is calling for."

(Dillon) Richard Stammer, the president of the Cabot Cooperative Creamery, said he’s also concerned about Dean’s market clout.

(Stammer) "I think it’s never good in any market to get any one person controlling too much of the market, whether you’re talking about milk, oil or whatever. And so, yeah, that’s a pretty high percentage. It gives sellers in the market of the product less options of who to sell to."

(Dillon) But Dean Food says that for the most part the federal government sets the price of milk. And the company said in a statement that although it buys milk from Vermont farmers, it has no processing facilities in the state. It said it was represented at the Milk Commission meeting by the Northeast Dairy Foods Association.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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