America's Biggest Milk Producers Are Going Bankrupt

Borden follows Dean Foods in filing Chapter 11.

When Tony Sarsam became the CEO of Borden Dairy almost two years ago, one of the first things he did was to re-establish the company's marketing department, which had disappeared at some point during its previous CEO's tenure. He also gave Borden's iconic mascot, Elsie the Cow, a gentle 21st-century glow-up, and OK-ed a new advertising tagline, “Glass Half-Full Since 1857."

But despite the well-meaning optimism, Borden's glass is decidedly half-empty now, if not entirely empty. On Sunday, the Dallas-based dairy company filed for bankruptcy, becoming the second major milk producer to file for Chapter 11 in less than two months.

"Despite our numerous achievements during the past 18 months, the Company continues to be impacted by the rising cost of raw milk and market challenges facing the dairy industry," Sarsam said in a statement. "These challenges have contributed to making our current level of debt unsustainable."

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The company currently has 3,300 employees, and other than saying that it will be "business as usual" during these "voluntary reorganization proceedings," it has not yet specified its long-term plan. Borden's decision to file for bankruptcy was, in part, because it can't afford its current debt load and also can't meet its employee pension obligations.

In November, America's largest milk producer, Dean Foods, filed for Chapter 11. Dean Foods, whose 50 brands include TruMoo, Meadow Gold, and a licensing deal with Land-O-Lakes, also cited the "continuing declines in consumer milk consumption" as one of the reasons for its downfall.

Dean and Borden aren't wrong: we are drinking less (cow) milk, and plant-based alternatives are increasingly chipping away at conventional milk's market share. According to the Associated Press, the amount of milk that Americans drink annually has fallen 40 percent since 1975. In 1996, annual milk consumption was roughly 24 gallons per person, a number that dropped to 17 gallons per person in 2018.

Meanwhile, sales of oat milk increased by a whopping 636 percent between 2018 and 2019, while cow's milk sales fell by 2.4 percent during those same 12 months.

On top of that, major retailers could be moving toward operating their own facilities, cutting out companies like Borden and Dean entirely. In June 2018, Walmart opened its own milk processing plant in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where it will produce Great Value-brand plain and chocolate milk for roughly 500 Walmart stores in five states.

Despite Borden's bankruptcy filing, the company insists that it has a better chance of bouncing back than Dean Foods does. "These situations are very different. We believe that, from an operational standpoint, we are in a much better position than Dean Foods," Borden wrote on its newly launched bankruptcy-focused website.

"Borden is EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Tax, Depreciation and Amortization)—positive and growing, which means we have solid earnings and are healthy. Dean Foods is not profitable. Borden intends to continue operations and strengthen our position to achieve long-term prosperity, whereas Dean Foods announced its intention to sell substantially all of its assets. We are confident that, once we fix our balance sheet, we will be equipped to win together in the market."

Of course, that's assuming the market won't continue its shift toward alternatives while that balance sheet is sorted.

Maybe this isn't a bad time to start exploring plant-based milks, as Elmhurst Dairy did. The 80-year-old milk producer closed its Queens, New York facility in the summer of 2016, and then reopened less than a year later after switching its focus from cow's milk to what it calls "milked" nuts.

The company is now known as Elmhurst Milked, and it sells a variety of plant- and nut-based milks, including plain and flavored oat milk, hemp creamers, and almond, cashew, hazelnut, and walnut milks.

Who knows? Maybe Borden's next act will be introducing us to Elsie the Almond.

Update January 6, 2020: A previous version of this article stated that Dean Foods is the owner of the Land-O-Lakes brand. The text has been amended to reflect a clarification of the two parties' relationship at the request of Land-O-Lakes.

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