Dairy farmers seek facts in monopoly suit
ADDISON COUNTY — Dairy farmers in the Northeast are searching for more information in a lawsuit charging Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) and its affiliate, Dairy Marketing Services (DMS) with price-fixing and monopolization of the regional dairy market.
On March 24, U.S. District Court Judge Christina Reiss in Burlington declined to make a decision on a request by attorneys representing Northeast dairy farmers to release a number of sealed court documents pertaining to the case.
The documents in question are related to an antitrust suit against DFA and other defendants currently under way in the Southeast.
Although DFA and DMS have opposed the motion to open case records, the Associated Press reports that Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell is seeking to open the records in order to educate the Vermont Legislature and Department of Agriculture on the merits of the case.
According to a press release by Washington, D.C.-based law firm Cohen Milstein, which is representing the dairy farmers in the case, a federal judge in the Southeast case stated that the defendants are insisting on the protective order that “shields a large volume of documents related to the issues raised by this case from public view and from the view of the putative class members.”
The district court judge on March 24 told the parties that they would have to resolve their differences concerning the documents among themselves.
The plaintiffs are also currently seeking preliminary approval by the court to send out notices to regional dairy farmers disclosing details of the $30 million settlement offered in December by Dean Foods, the other defendant in the class-action suit.
If the court approves the settlement, dairy farmers will be advised that they are eligible for a piece of that settlement, calculated on a pro-rata basis among those who choose to receive the settlement. While farmers must choose to opt into the settlement, the initial terms of the class-action suit covered an estimated 9,000 farmers in 11 states.
Dean Foods in December also stated that, as part of the settlement, it would purchase between 10 and 20 percent of the raw milk that supplies its three Northeast processing facilities from independent suppliers — that is, not through DFA or DMS — at a competitive price for 30 months.
But DFA in January released an objection to the proposed Dean settlement, stating that it would unfairly disadvantage some of the plaintiffs rather than helping all of them, as the purchase of more milk from independent markets would cut demand for producers who are members of DFA.
At a recent legislative luncheon in Bridport, Jenny Nelson, agriculture policy advisor to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said that getting the court documents released and gathering all of the information possible is especially important to the DFA farmers.
“There’s concern (in the case) especially from farmers in DFA,” said Nelson. “They feel like they’re fighting themselves.”
At the same time, she said that Gregg Engles, chairman and CEO of Dean Foods, received his largest salary ever in 2009, a year when all regional dairy farmers were grappling with record-low prices.
“We’re just trying to understand where the money’s going,” said Nelson.
In connection with the antitrust suit, Nelson said Sanders’ office is also closely following the work of the antitrust division at the Department of Justice, which spent time last year conducting workshops around the country examining lack of competition in various areas of agriculture, from pork to poultry to dairy. That investigation is continuing.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at andreas@addisonindependent