REGION — Last Memorial Day, central New York dairy farmer Robin Fitch lost a barn and more than half of her farming equipment in a fire. She and her family have been trying to pick up the pieces and rebuild ever since. Recently—almost a year later—they were “all set to go” and construct a new barn. Then Fitch got a call from her dairy processor that it would be a while before it could accept more deliveries; in the meantime she would need to dump her milk. This leaves Fitch and her family wondering, once again, whether rebuilding is even an option.
Dairy farmers across the country have been dumping their milk as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although demand for milk, cheese and other products have gone up in grocery stores, demand from other industries like schools and restaurants have become virtually non-existent with widespread closings. Dairy processors that normally service these industries have been telling farmers to dump their product rather than deliver it.
In the midst of the crisis, Progressive Agriculture Organization (Pro-Ag), a nonprofit group that lobbies for interests of small dairy farmers, held a virtual press conference on Wednesday, April 8 to hear how regional farmers were faring.
“With all this crisis coming, do we really want to [build a new barn]?” Fitch asked herself “over and over and over.” She added that people have been asking to buy milk from her directly since it’s so difficult to buy it in stores. “We can’t give it to you, we can’t sell it to you, we can’t do anything to help you; we have to throw it down the drain.”
Things have been just as bad for some Pennsylvania farmers too. “I guess the word is terrifying and infuriating at the same time,” said Brenda Cochran, a PA-dairy farmer who was ordered to dump milk on her family farm. “Just a few days earlier we had been informed the federal milk price had collapsed, we are going to see outrageously low milk prices in May.” Cochran said that she and her family are going into the sixth year in which federal milk pricing is too low to cover “even basic” costs of living.
“We have had these crop failures and my husband is afflicted with some very serious illnesses,” Cochran said. “So you can understand we basically had a very miserable day to dump perfectly fine milk.” She also said that people who work with the homeless population in New York City had reached out to dairy processors and asked them to donate excess milk to the homeless. Cochran said that no processors in her network did this, and that it outrages her that none “stepped up” to donate milk and instead told farmers to dump the product.
Pro-Ag’s consulting manager, Arden Tewksbury, echoed the complaints that he has heard from consumers asking, “Why is milk being dumped when I can’t even find a gallon of milk at the store?” Tewksbury acknowledged some people have been panic shopping and hoarding products, but he said the real problem lies in the supply chain. He also claimed that contrary to some people’s beliefs, dairy farmers are not over-producing milk. “Maybe they’re producing one or two percent more than last year but that’s about it.”
Tewksbury also discussed a “milk crisis plan” which the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) and International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) recently proposed to the Department of Agriculture. The plan’s goal is to help offset surpluses in the supply chain by monetarily incentivizing farmers to cut their production by 10 percent. NMPF and IDFA additionally proposed compensation for “all producers and handlers” who have had to dump milk as a result of the pandemic; it also includes loans for milk processors that continue to purchase milk and maintain employee payroll.
Tewksbury was not impressed with or optimistic about the proposal. “I think it’s going to be a nightmare to administer,” he said. “The plan does take into any consideration our dairy farmers’ cost of operation.” Tewksbury said that the plan was “not the answer to our problems,” and that Pro-Ag would continue fighting for a milk price which is based on farmers’ cost of production.
“The dairy industry has been so weak for 50 or 60 years in fighting the opposition that’s thrown at us,” he said. “This scare we’re going through—this virus—maybe for the first time our consumers are going to wake up and see how important their food supply is, and I think they might be a little more amenable to paying a fair price for milk, allowing dairy farmers to get a price that covers their cost of production. And you’re not going to get that from the IDFA and NMPF proposal.”
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