The coronavirus pandemic has forced many dairy farmers across the state and nation to dump thousands of gallons of milk as processing plants find themselves with a surplus supply with the closure of schools and restaurants.
The dairy industry was just seeing an uptick in market prices after a four or five-year slump when the pandemic hit. According to the National Milk Producers Federation, this latest lag in milk prices will worsen before it gets better.
“Lags in timing for milk payments have kept many dairy farmers from feeling the worst effects of the coronavirus crisis’ effects on their revenues – but that will soon change,” said Leroy Plagerman, a dairy farmer in Whatcom County, in the northwest corner of Washington. One of the biggest challenges dairies face is “just the challenge of the uncertainty, and not knowing how long this is going to last, and where we end up on the other side,” said Plagerman, who also is a director of the Northwest Dairy Association, a.k.a. Darigold, in an NMPF podcast.
On Saturday, Harrisburg Dairies, who supplies milk to schools and a host of other retailers in several states, participated in a Milk Drop at Franklin Feed & Supply in Chambersburg where more than 3,600 gallons of milk were given to families in need, thanks to generous donations from members of the Franklin County Farm Bureau and community members. In five hours, about 2,000 vehicles went through the lines.
“We had four lines of vehicles moving through to the volunteers who delivered the milk through the windows. It worked really well, everything went smoothly. It was an in and out process,” Lucy Leese, office manager for the Franklin County Farm Bureau, said. “We also handed out goodie bags with a dairy fact list about milk and why the dairy farmer works so hard, recipes, coloring books and other promotional items.”
Leese explained the closure of schools and restaurants has greatly reduced the need for bulk orders, which has left the surplus supply at the processing plants.
“We are trying to help as a community to bridge that gap,” she said. “All of the milk that was given away Saturday was purchased by people in the community. We were overwhelmed and very blessed! Farmers are losing milk money. This is our way to show the community that farmers do care about them. Some people might think they don’t care, and that’s not true. They pour their heart and soul into their farms and their animals.”
Leese said many area farmers took time out of their busy schedules to help distribute the milk on Saturday. The more than 30 volunteers also included FCFB board members and family members.
“We appreciate the support from the donations, the volunteers, for Franklin Feed & Supply for hosting the event and the people who came out and received the milk. We couldn’t have done it without each of them.”
Zach Meyers, president of the Franklin County Farm Bureau, said everyone came together to help the community Saturday.
“It was made possible out of the goodness of many people’s hearts,” he added.
Meyers said dairy farmers are now receiving close to $4 less per 100 weight of milk produced than they were three or four months ago. He added if the coronavirus slump continues, it will mean some farmers having to exit the business.
“You can only get paid at a loss for so long before it bleeds the farm businesses dry,” he said. “There will be folks exiting the business. This is too big of a ripple. It’s depressing to think that way, but that’s where our people who are producing our food are right now -- they’re producing at a loss.”
Meyers said he thought it was really heart-warming to see dairy farmers come out to help with the Milk Drop Saturday.
“It was really neat to see a group of people who work so hard still give back to the community while they are under severe financial stress themselves.”
Ron Wenger, a Pleasant Hall dairy farmer, was one of the volunteers who helped during the Milk Drop.
He said he and his wife, Amy, run his family’s 300-cow dairy farm with six employees. Their milk is processed at Land O’ Lakes in Carlisle, and 90 to 95 percent of their income comes strictly from milk sales. Wenger said they have been fortunate, and haven’t had to dump their milk. However, he said they are now receiving about $10 to $12 per 100 weight of milk when they were seeing between $18 and $19 per 100 weight at the beginning of the year.
“That is well below our cost of production,” he said.
He added they will see how hard they were hit by the market crash later this month.
“It’s going to be ugly,” he said. “We have certainly been stressed over the last few years with low prices. It was starting to look up, but then the bottom fell out with the pandemic. It’s a very serious concern.”
Wenger said the Milk Drop was a phenomenal event.
“It was neat to give back to the community, and get whole milk into their hands. We were blessed to be able to do that and give back to the consumers who give us a job.”
“We all need to come together, support each other, help each other out and get this country back on its feet,” he added.
Raw milk permit
Jen Zinn of Hidden Valley Farm in Newville said she and her boyfriend, Roy Coale, are working to secure a raw milk permit so they can sell the milk without processing it. Otherwise, they are dumping between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds of milk into their manure pit every day.
“We sell our milk when our Ayrshires are calving in the spring, through the first of June,” Zinn explained. “There are only so many milk processors, and not all of them are set up to receive liquid milk to process. Our processors currently have a surplus because schools and restaurants are closed, so they aren’t selling as much in bulk. Plus, processors set up for bulk distribution cannot convert their operations to distribute milk for retail consumption.”
The bulk processors don’t have the amount of plastic jugs, drivers and other measures needed to process the milk for everyday consumers.
Zinn said they are working to get a raw milk permit so they can sell their milk directly from their tank. However, the process takes weeks to complete because of the regulations and insurance cost surrounding the permits.
Zinn said all of their cows’ blood must be tested prior to securing the permit. Three consecutive milk samples from the tank must also be tested for bacteria, along with permission from the township and purchasing a pricey insurance policy of at least $1,000. There are strict regulations on the sale of raw milk because it could potentially cause illness if bacteria is present.
Zinn said they don’t feel it’s right to require a permit to sell something they raise and take care of every day. But, she knows it’s the government’s way of making sure people don’t get sick.
She added that she, Roy and their 5-year-old son, Dakota, all drink the raw milk from the tank all the time, and have never had any issues.
Zinn said they raise Ayrshires because their milk is easier to digest. Their diet consists mostly of grass, dry hay and some baleage.
“I raised most of these cows, and I milk them all,” she added while standing in her pasture, calling each cow by name. Rachel. Giggles. Sangria. Bambi. Rosebud. Mystery. And, of course, Dakota’s cow, Baby Giraffe, or Baby G for short.
Zinn noted they don’t push their cows for production to prevent from burning the girls out. She said some of their cows produce up to 100 pounds of milk a day.
Milk isn’t Hidden Valley’s main source of income, but they are seeing a loss in revenue, just like dairy farmers across the state and country.
Zinn said she started working with cows as a child when she was in the Cumberland County 4-H. Coale, originally of Maryland, also started when he was in 4-H. They have rented the 150-acre farm on Bobcat Road for six years.
Zinn, a 2005 graduate of Shippensburg Area Senior High School, said they also sell calves to children just starting in 4-H. However, 4-H activities have also been halted due to the pandemic, and she isn’t sure if they will sell any calves this year to the 4-H members.
She and Roy both have other jobs that help them to maintain the farm.
“We would pay $500 to $600 just to have the truck come to the driveway every other day,” Coale said. “We would lose money before we even made money. We aren’t looking to go any bigger to make a profit. It’s just the two of us. But, we are losing too much right now with this.”
Coale said they also are required to pay various fees, along with market and location adjustments at $1.65 per 100 pounds of milk, per federal guidelines. He said they typically send their milk to the Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers co-op, but the surplus caused by the pandemic has prevented them from sending it for processing.
He also said the biggest problem lies within the limitations at the different processing plants, and the inability to go from bulk packaging to bottling milk for the consumer.
“Our only options are to have someone process our milk or sell it from the farm as a raw product,” he said. “Each state has their own regulations regarding raw milk. Maryland can’t sell raw milk, and we can’t sell it across state lines. We would have to sell 600 pounds of raw milk to get back what we were getting. If we sell a week’s worth of raw milk, we would get what we were selling to the co-op for a month’s worth.”
Coale said he and Zinn are fortunate to be able to maintain their part-time jobs, but if the milk issue isn’t resolved, it will hit their finances.
“There are a lot of expenses this time of year, crops to plant. If the farmer doesn’t have it, then people down the line won’t get it,” he added.