The sudden closure of schools and restaurants throughout the United States to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic has reduced demand for milk, and dairy farmers have started to dump it.
Dairy farmers across the country began the dumping about two weeks ago, and industry representatives say they don’t expect it to stop until food service businesses reopen and demand returns to normal.
“Farmers never want to do that,” said Julie Bomar, executive director of the Wisconsin Farmers Union. “Their identity and values are really tied up in feeding people, especially during a crisis like the one we’re in now.”
But there is no other option, Bomar said. About half of the dairy produced in the United States goes to food service venues. Restaurants and stadiums buy large quantities of cheese, while children in school cafeterias drink a lot of milk.
But now communities across the country have closed schools and restaurants, cancelled sporting events and told businesses to have their employees work from home. Americans deserted food service venues and flooded grocery stores to stock up on necessities.
“It wasn’t even a slowdown,” said Paul Bauer, the general manager and CEO of Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery in Ellsworth, Wis. “It was a dramatic halt.”
Retail demand for groceries like milk and cheese is up considerably, Ellsworth said. But the dairy industry is not capable of diverting what had been bulk sales to retail operations.
Processors that supply food service operations make multi-pound blocks of cheese or package large, multi-gallon tubs of yogurt and ice cream. Most don’t have the right equipment or machinery to switch to smaller, retail-friendly packaging, Bauer said.
Those who do are running into trouble transporting the products to new locations.
“Say you’re processing for retail and you needed 100 trucks normally to move your product,” Bauer said. “Now, you suddenly need 200 trucks. Where are you going to get the trucks? We’re just not set up for this.”
Industry groups, like the Wisconsin Dairy Alliance, are looking for short-term solutions. They hope to find a way to get the cheese and milk that is normally bound for food service to food banks instead.
Producers hope the U.S. Department of Agriculture will use some of the $23 billion coronavirus farm aid to purchase and transport the dairy products to food banks.
“That will do two things,” said Cindy Leitner, president of Wisconsin Dairy Alliance. “It will keep the industry in business, and it will keep the food banks stocked.
In the meantime, farmers — like everyone else in the country — are waiting it out and hoping life can return to normal.
“It’s very emotional for farmers,” Leitner said. “They’re fearful because you don’t know when it will end.”
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