Dairy farmers are dumping milk
FINGER LAKES--When you think of those suffering in this pandemic crisis, what comes to mind is restaurants and retail establishments and - let's be honest - parents of school-age children working from home. But farmers? After all, everyone still has to eat. Except it's not that simple.
Few dairy farmers sell milk directly to customers. Instead, in ordinary times, while they concentrate on their herd, tank trucks from the cooperative distributor they're contracted with pick up milk on a regular schedule and deliver it to processors who either bottle it, turn it into one of the many dairy products we use, or use the milk as an ingredient in other foods.
"But this is definitely a different world," says Carmella Hoffman of Sunset View Creamery. The Hoffman family owns a dairy farm in Odessa, New York. "Part of the problem, they're telling us, is supply and demand. Also, the plants that process the milk, bottle it and make it into yogurt, ice cream and whatever, have had issues with employees being sick. When that happens, the plant has to close and be disinfected and then sits unused for a certain amount of time before they re-open. When the plants close there's not much you can do."
Most of the milk from the Hoffman Dairy goes to their co-op, Dairy Farmers of America. In March, the co-op would only take 85 percent of their milk production for the month.
But farmers who don't already have the equipment and training to create other dairy-related products from their herd depend on their distributors who, for the most part, have long found a ready market for their milk.
"About 8 percent of our milk production goes to schools," says John Gates, co-owner of Seneca Valley Farm in Burdett. "Some processing plants that supply restaurants and do commercial-sized packaging have shut down. That's a big usage drop. Even though people are drinking more milk now that they're staying home, it doesn't make up the difference."
The Gates farm also uses the Dairy Farmers of America cooperative. For them, a 15 percent cut means daily dumping 70,000 pounds of milk. It hurts. Farmers are being paid a little for what they dump - but their payment is far less than their cost for the milk production. Gates says he'd love to find a way to give that milk away, but federal rules don't allow this.
"2020 was looking to be a pretty decent year for dairy farmers and now it's moved in the opposite direction," Gates says somberly. With 1400 cows, and still reeling from this turn, "We haven't decided how to handle it. We may feed some milk back to the cows. We're meeting with a business consultant this next week."
"When one farmer has to dump milk everybody pays," says Jim Bergen, who co-owns Bergen Farms in Odessa with his brothers Skip Bergen and Mike Bergen. "Just because I'm not dumping milk doesn't mean it doesn't hurt me." The Bergen milk goes to the Cayuga Milk Cooperative based in Auburn, New York, which they partly own.
"About half our milk goes to powder, we separate cream off milk and use the protein for making powder." This is used commercially and also exported, while the cream has been packaged for restaurant use. But now, "The biggest struggle is getting rid of the cream," he says.
Like other farmers, he's been weighing his options, considering herd reduction but not wanting to do that yet. "I think farmers are going to take a hit until the quarantine subsides and restaurant and food service opens back up," he says. "Cutting production - it's not going to save us."
Nor are most farmers in a position to begin buying expensive equipment and learning how to commercially produce butter or ice cream.