Our packaging and trucking partners don’t have the capabilities to immediately reroute milk, cheese and other dairy products from restaurants and schools to grocery stores or food banks. But cows still need to be milked twice a day, and farmers only have limited storage facilities. So they have no choice but to dump millions of dollars of milk.
Unfortunately, the crisis could soon worsen. Without long-term federal relief, dairy farmers won’t be able to stay afloat.
Covid-19 has sent shockwaves through nearly every industry. But the dairy sector is particularly vulnerable, for three reasons.
First, dairy products are highly perishable. Second, since under-milking signals their bodies to halt production, cows must be milked every morning and evening — regardless of whether buyers are capable of taking delivery. And third, cows produce milk at the fastest rate this time of year, since many cows give birth in late winter and spring pastures are high in nutrients. This triple-punch has left farmers with an unanticipated milk surplus and no place to store it.
It’s just not that simple. The trucks that transport milk to retail locations are already operating at full capacity. And establishments like food banks and homeless shelters can’t take excess milk, as they aren’t prepared to handle high-volume deliveries.
Similarly, packaging dairy products for retail use is a much different process than packaging it for schools, restaurants and other high-volume buyers, many of which have been shut down during the pandemic. Producing the eight-ounce bags of shredded cheddar that grocery stores sell — instead of the 10-pound bags that restaurants purchase — would require retooling an entire processing plant. That million-dollar endeavor would be difficult even without a pandemic going on.
For example, the USDA could adjust milk prices by region to take Northeastern farms’ higher production costs into account. Dairy farms in New England and the upper mid-Atlantic generally have to ship fertilizer from the Midwest. They also pay higher land and insurance costs. Yet they are invaluable to their local communities, since transporting milk from the Midwest would compromise freshness.
Today’s dairy farmers have proven their industriousness by surviving years of low milk prices. Our farmers serve as the backbone of our rural communities and the stewards of our land. But Covid-19 poses an unprecedented threat — and farms will need help from the USDA and Congress to weather this crisis and continue providing fresh, healthy food to US communities.