Earlier this year, both The New York Times and National Public Radio reported that Chinese retaliatory tariffs in Trump’s trade war were accelerating the loss of U.S. dairy farms. In the first half of 2019, dairy exports to China were down 54 percent from the previous year, at a time when dairy farmers rely on exports to market a surplus of milk that’s driven milk prices below most farmers’ break-even point for nearly four years.
Meanwhile, Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture has told dairy farmers that the only way to stay afloat in these tough times is to get big, or get out, while promising new markets for U.S. dairy products in the yet-to-be-ratified U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement.
These declarations reflect a powerful conventional wisdom about the plight of America’s farmers, namely, that agricultural consolidation is inevitable, and that American farmers must export their way to profitability. But that conventional wisdom, which is shared even by some leading voices in the Democratic Party, is seriously out of focus. Although trariffs and technology play a role, they are hardly the main factors in the dairy crisis.
One critical reason dairy farms feel pressure to consolidate is because milk retailers, buyers, and, processors have spent years consolidating around them—and neither the Trump nor previous administrations have done much to stop it. Now, a merger between major milk monopolists threatens to deal another blow to ailing dairy farmers, and its not clear if federal enforcers will do anything to stop it.
Last week, America’s largest dairy processor, Dean Foods, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and announced that it was in advanced talks to sell to America’s largest cooperative, Dairy Farmers of America (DFA). These two goliaths are a case study in how unchecked mergers beget abusive monopolies that harm both farmers and consumers. But because Dean has filed for bankruptcy, this otherwise questionable union could avoid antitrust scrutiny under the failing firm defense, which allows for mergers when one firm would otherwise go out of business. In other words, two monopolists may soon join forces to create an even bigger monopoly.
DFA is the amalgamate of a three-way cooperative merger in late 1997 and Dean Foods rose to prominence by buying up regional milk brands since the 1980s. Today, DFA has a near monopoly in many regional markets, and controls roughly 30 percent of all raw milk in the U.S., handling more than two and a half times as much milk as the next largest co-op. At the same time, Dean sells 12 percent of all fluid milk and claimed to be five times larger than its next competitor in 2013.
As detailed by Leah Douglas in the Washington Monthly last year, these giants have been accused of colluding against the interest of dairy farmers and consumers for years. Two groups of farmers have settled multi-million-dollar antitrust claims with DFA, and another has spun-off a case to seek more damages in court. On the consumer end, Dean Foods reached an antitrust settlement with grocery chain Food Lion in 2017 over allegations that the firm avoided competing with DFA-owned National Dairy Holdings to raise retail milk prices.