Pull up a chair and get very comfortable, because the official USDA hearing to gather testimony about establishing a Federal Milk Marketing Order (FMMO) in California is going to be a marathon. Or a better analogy might be an ironman triathlon.
What became obvious on just the first day of the no deadline process is, it isn't going to end anytime soon. The current record for an FMMO hearing is 43 days. I will be shocked if this doesn't set a new one. Will it end before Christmas, though, is a question that is too close to call.
My biggest takeaways from the opening two days on September 22 and 23 in Clovis, Calif., were:
- This boils down to a high-stakes war between producers and processors, in the form of vastly different FMMO proposals that were submitted to USDA by California's three dominant cooperatives, and by the organization that represents the state's dairy processors. Both have teams of attorneys that are tremendously experienced, profoundly knowledgeable, highly talented, and, above all, deeply committed to their perspectives.
- The intricate and highly detailed nature of many pricing-related questions amounts to a foreign language that is spoken by only a few. It does not make for a producer-friendly listening experience, which was obvious in the size of the attendance on opening day. Before lunch, it was approximately 125, including perhaps two dozen producers in the back of the room. After lunch, it was half as much, and the back of the room was almost deserted.
- Nothing is going to be hurried or cut short in terms of either testimony by or cross-examining of presenters. Everyone is encouraged to take his or her time. This will make the proceedings long and tedious to a degree that is sure to become painful. It will be a small fraternity of people who wind up being present every day of the process and there may be none who are not attorneys.
- Administrative Law Judge Jill Clifton has established an atmosphere that is extremely relaxed and accommodating to anyone who wants to go on record with a statement or to ask questions of a presenter. However, it is also likely that some presenters will be at the podium for multiple days at a time, including questioning from individuals who wish to ask them, when the producer and processor sides get into their proposals.
- The judge is going above and beyond in accommodating dairy producers who want to speak for the record. They automatically go to the head of the podium line, and the judge asks multiple times each day if there are any present who wish to speak.
- While this hearing is for a California FMMO, there is interest in it from all corners of the U.S. On day one, this included an attorney who is representing producer interests in Maine, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia. The nation's entire dairy industry is more than just watching this hearing; they are here.
California's dairy industry has never seen anything like this before, and the rest of the nation may not have either.
(c) Hoard's Dairyman Intel 2015
September 28, 2015