The economic and social changes from the new coronavirus that have closed schools, shuttered restaurants and left thousands in Pennsylvania unemployed have not left dairy farmers untouched.
In many ways, the new coronavirus outbreak is not changing the lives of Pennsylvania’s dairy farmers as dramatically as it is for other people: They already mostly work from home, disease control on farms is an age-old concern, and their cows don’t stop making milk even in the midst of a global pandemic.
But, COVID-19 has given them new headaches.
Consumer demand skyrocketed, then leveled out, exports have dwindled, and some central Pennsylvania farmers have even been asked by processors to dump their milk, an uncommon practice that only occurs when milk can’t be picked up or processed.
“I have never been asked to dump milk in my career of probably 30 years,” said Lancaster County farmer Glenn Hursh. “The moral of it is disturbing to me … it’s not being a good steward of food.”
Hursh said he’s been told he may see payment at some point for the two days worth of milk dumped, but others warn it’s more than just a moral issue for farmers. The ripple effects of COVID-19 could not come for a worse time for the state’s dairy industry, said Dave Smith, chair of the PA Dairymen’s Association.
For the last several years, milk demand has declined, as have farmers’ incomes. But recently, it had looked like the supply was beginning to level out to the demand, Smith said.
“It’s very frustrating for our dairy farmers,” Smith said. “We were through several years that were very difficult financially … (and) I think things were looking brighter this year.”
‘The entire model has been turned on its end”
When the realities of the novel coronavirus set in, people across the state rushed to grocery stores to stock up on essentials, including milk.
Sales increased and shelves were emptied out, but the good news didn’t last long for the dairy industry: The closure of schools and restaurants meant the loss of two customers who buy a lot of dairy products.
Food service establishments are normally the largest buyers of cheese and butter by far, executive director of the Center for Dairy Excellence Jayne Sebright said.
“Where we used to have a diverse consumer base across homes and restaurants and schools and institutions, that has diminished to home use,” Smith said.
Lebanon County Farm Bureau president Curtis Martin said milk exports have also declined, at the same time that the briefly skyrocketing demand in grocery stores has leveled off, as people are already stocked up or not shopping as much.
A spokesperson for the Giant Company said the company has seen increased demand for dairy products, and any empty shelves are temporary and due to the “rapid increase in demand.”
Sebright said sales for March 2020 were 30% higher than March 2019, but the increase isn’t nearly enough to counter the decline in food service sales.
“The entire model has been turned on its end in a matter of a few days,” Sebright said in an email.
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As milk processors are having to account for unpredictable demand, cows have continued to produce.
As processors have had to adjust to the drastic changes in demand, Sebright said production capacity has also changed. COVID-19 has led to more employees taking sick time, production runs have to be modified to maintain social distancing, and more time needs to be spent sanitizing the facility.
“The result is milk that has no home and must be dumped,” Sebright said.
Dumping is extremely uncommon, and usually only happens if a delivery truck can’t make it to the farm for some reason
Perry County farmer Donny Bartch has never had to dump milk in the 17 years he’s worked in the dairy industry. This week, he had to dump three days worth, and he’s been told he will likely have to do the same next week.
His dairy, Merrimart Farms, posted a photo of Bartch dumping the milk. It went viral, and the post had been shared 18,000 times on Facebook as of early Friday afternoon. Bartch said he couldn’t help but think of the bigger picture.
“Yesterday, when I grabbed hold of that milk tank handle, it was definitely hard knowing … how hard we worked for it and just knowing that the future was a little uncertain,” Bartch said. “But I know at the end of the day we’re still going to get through this.”
Bartch is looking at losing 43% of his dairy’s income for this month if he’s not compensated for the wasted milk. He is concerned about being able to pay his 11 full-time and six part-time employees.
Unlike other industries, dairy farmers can’t simply stop operations. Cows need to be milked twice a day, no matter if the milk has anywhere to go.
“Nothing has changed on the expense side,” Bartch said. “We still have to put in the investment every day as far as the time, the labor and the feed.”
The dairy produces almost 22,000 pounds of milk a day, which translates to about 2,500 gallons, Bartch said. Instead of being processed and sent to schools or grocery stores, Bartch had to dump his milk into their manure pit, where it will eventually be spread on their fields along with the fertilizer.
Dumping perfectly good milk isn’t why Bartch is a dairy farmer, but finding a different home for it is tough. He can’t sell or donate raw milk himself, as much as he’d want to.
“Even on the food bank side of things, these kind of things take a lot of planning and a lot of logistics,” Bartch said. “The tough part about this situation is it’s kind of out of all of our hands.”
Just as dairy farmers aren’t immune to the economic fallout of the new coronavirus, they are human too, and safety has been a concern for farms who bring in outside employees.
Martin said keeping a healthy labor force is essential to be able to care for farm animals.
“It’s critical to have a certain number of people there to process and milk the cows and feed the cows,” Martin said.
At the same time, Martin noted biological controls on farms has long been a concern, particularly when it has come to virus outbreaks in livestock and poultry, such as the Avian flu about a decade ago.
Even as the market for other agricultural products — such as beef — have also been hit in recent weeks, farmers don’t have much choice but to continue working.
“Farmers are not new to understanding the need to having biological controls,” Martin said. “The bottom line is, we’re all in this together and the farmers are out there day to day doing what they have to do to keep their end of the food chain going.”
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