Milk Producers Hope to Help Themselves by Helping Needy

7/13/2013 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

EPHRATA, Pa. — Mike Eby is a man of seeming contradictions.

He is a dairyman in Gordonville, Pa., who also has a full-time career in radio. He is a milk producer who buys back some of his milk from his bottler and gives it away.

Eby and other farmers send their milk to Blessings of Hope, an Ephrata-based ministry that ships the milk to needy people in Lancaster County, Harrisburg and Virginia.

Eby is part of two related organizations — the National Dairy Producers Organization and the Dairy Pricing Association — that work to reform the dairy industry and coordinate the donations. Dairy Pricing has 146 members in nine states.

The programs are supported by voluntary deductions from farmers’ milk checks: a 9-cent-per-hundredweight membership fee to National Dairy and a 10-cent-per-hundredweight cut to buy the milk.

The partnership between Eby’s organizations and Blessings of Hope was a natural fit. The food ministry, led by Aaron Fisher, has the capacity to distribute large volumes of food, but most of its donations had been canned and baked goods donated near their expiration dates by retailers.

Fisher said lots of food recipients were asking, “Where’s the milk?”

Fisher also noted that many of the people getting food have trouble affording nutritious products.

“They want some wholesome stuff,” he said, and the whole milk from Dairy Pricing fit into that mission.

Blessings of Hope rents a 6,000-square-foot section of a warehouse in Ephrata. The ministry is working on an expansion that would double its square footage and make space for a cooler and big freezer for the milk. Currently, the milk is stored in a refrigerated trailer.

Sixty to 80 volunteers often help pack food boxes there, but only four or so volunteers are needed for the milk distribution.

On July 2, Blessings of Hope delivered its third shipment of 5,000 gallons of milk in a five-part, 30,000-gallon push from Dairy Pricing. The ministry kept 600 gallons for distribution in the Ephrata area and sent the rest to other organizations that help the needy.

Among the groups receiving milk are Water Street Ministries in Lancaster, Factory Youth Center in Paradise, Bethesda Mission in Harrisburg and Bread of Life Outreach in Perry County.

Two food ministries in Virginia will also get milk. Because Dairy Pricing is a national organization, members in Virginia were able to suggest ministries in their area to receive milk, Eby said.

Some organizations split their milk shipments with other local food ministries, Fisher said.

Since August 2011 the Dairy Pricing Association has bought and donated 15 shipments of milk, including a shipment of 6,000 gallons that Blessings of Hope trucked to Lakewood, N.J., and Staten Island and Queens, N.Y., after Hurricane Sandy last year.

Farmers involved in the donation program send their milk to the Dairy Maid Dairy bottling plant in Frederick, Md., and the farmers purchase the milk and send it back to Ephrata for Blessings of Hope to distribute.

The system sounds convoluted, but Dairy Maid is the closest processor the farmers could use. Laws designed to prevent price-fixing require that milk be bought from processors and only allow producers to buy their own milk.

The relationship between National Dairy and Dairy Pricing can also be confusing, Eby acknowledged. National Dairy is the larger trade group, while Dairy Pricing is a co-op National Dairy uses to buy the milk.

Eby, who owns 60 cows, has full-time help on his farm and works as a marketing consultant for WDAC, a Christian radio station near Buck.

The station has been helpful to Blessings of Hope’s mission, Eby said. He gives a daily briefing on the dairy industry, which he sometimes uses to promote Dairy Pricing Association initiatives.

Mostly, though, Eby sells airtime to the station’s advertisers, and some of the advertisers sponsor spots for Blessings of Hope.

Eby said these sponsorships help the ministry get publicity but also gives positive attention to the advertisers. According to Federal Communications Commission rules, ads must mention the sponsor’s name.

Dairy Maid has also been “extremely generous” to Blessings of Hope, Eby and Fisher said. The dairy waives Blessings of Hope’s crate deposit, usually around $2.50 a crate, as long as the crates and skids are returned to the bottler. That policy saves the ministry several thousand dollars per shipment.

While Dairy Pricing has donated more than 50,000 gallons of milk in its two-year existence, Eby said the less fortunate are not the only people he is helping. He hopes the success of Dairy Pricing will launch a major reform in the dairy industry by encouraging producers to purchase excess milk off the market.

Because milk producers are often paid $4-$5 less per gallon than it takes to make the milk, a national program is needed to help balance the nation’s oversupply with consumer demand, Eby said.

Currently, he said, milk processors are driving prices down, which has put some smaller dairy farms out of business and has even hurt the large dairy operations in the West that have withstood the market pressure the best.

“No dairy farmers are winning in this race to the bottom,” Eby said. “We need a cleaner that can move the excess off the market fast.”

Eby does not see insurance or government programs as effective price-management strategies. The government proposal most favorable to dairy producers would only increase prices by 50 cents a hundredweight, which “falls way short” of compensating for the cost of production, he said.

That policy proposal would also cost taxpayers half a billion dollars, while the Dairy Pricing Association uses no public money, he said.

Eby favors a producer-run pricing system because “the farmers themselves would regulate it” and have greater say over their products.

Donating the milk is much better than quota systems, which profit-hungry farmers ignore, or dumping the excess milk in protest, as sometimes happens in Europe, Eby said.

“Instead of doing something negative to influence our price,” Dairy Pricing wants to serve other people, he said.

The association tries to pick organizations that serve people who would not buy milk without the donation. The producers don’t want to undermine milk sales, he said.

Eby also sees the milk donations as a chance to reverse the declining consumption of milk in the United States. Eby is concerned that new school lunch regulations that force skim milk — or “chalk water,” as he calls it — into children’s hands will lead to a “generation of nonmilk drinkers” who are turned off by the poor taste of their elementary-school drinks.

Giving away more nutritious whole milk with more protein and solids could be a way to proselytize consumers about the qualities of milk, he said.

Eby also hopes to put a “100% USA” sticker on the donated milk to distinguish it from milk products brought in as powder from China to undercut U.S. dairy prices.

Eby recognizes that the Dairy Pricing-Blessings of Hope partnership is “child’s play” compared with the national program he would like to see manage dairy prices.

Nonetheless, he said, the program fills community needs and is a step toward a healthier industry.

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