By Geoff Vanden Heuvel
Director of Regulatory and Economic Affairs
With a smile, The Honorable Judge Jill Clifton ended the Federal Milk Marketing Order Hearing (FMMO) on Tuesday, January 30, 2024, at 10:18 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. The hearing started on August 23, 2023, and consisted of 49 days of testimony and over 500 exhibits numbering well over 10,000 pages of written material.
While the schedule did allow for a full week of testimony this week, by Monday mid-day, sentiment was strong that the hearing was close to finished. There was a little drama right at the end of the hearing. Danny Munch, an economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) took the witness stand to read a letter from AFBF to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack with the heading: “Request for Emergency Return to “Higher-of” Class I Mover.” Immediately, both processor groups’ attorneys objected to having Danny read the letter. Their objection was based on it coming into the hearing at the last minute with this “emergency” request. Other participants did not object and the USDA staff did not object and the Judge allowed the letter to be read into the record. You can read it here.
It was interesting that Danny Munch was the last witness. He is 27 years old and represents the next generation of dairy industry leaders. He had some very nice and appropriate things to say about the Judge and the staff of USDA that sat through this marathon process. He mentioned how much he respected and learned from the other hearing participants.
There certainly was huge effort put in by the professionals. Nicole Hancock is the attorney for National Milk Producers Federation and did a terrific job. Ryan Miltner represented Select Milk Producers and added much to the quality of the cross examination of witnesses. Steve Rosenbaum represented the International Dairy Foods Association, the national processor group very professionally, and Chip English and Ashley Vulin represented the Milk Innovation Group well. Roger Cryan, senior economist for the AFBF, although not a lawyer, added much to the hearing. Also, behind the scenes, but always present, was long time producer cooperative leader Jim Sleper who came out of retirement nearly three years ago to coordinate NMPF’s huge effort to put a unified producer position together for this hearing. Jim was also there for all 49 days.
While the hearing testimony phase is over, this process is far from over. The participants have until April 1 to file post-hearing briefs. The Judge has to certify the transcript of the hearing sometime over the next month or so. And then USDA has about three months to make a recommended decision. There is then a comment period on that recommended decision. USDA has some months to respond to those comments and issue a final decision that the producers must then vote on. We are probably about 10-12 months away from the results of this hearing actually taking effect. It does take a long time to make this kind of major change in the FMMO system. But the time and the opportunity for everyone to participate and have their views known and tested does give stability to the rules when they are finally established. If you have any interest in digging in further, you can check out USDA’s hearing webpage here.