AMES, Iowa — I live in the rural Midwest. Dairy country. Like many of you from one coast to the other, my wife and I sometimes find our grocery store to be short on milk and cheese. I wish that was my biggest problem when it comes to dairy products, but it is not.
I’m a marketing representative for dairy farmers. I spend my days desperately trying to help them find buyers for the milk that comes from their farms. Sometimes, that requires offering rock-bottom prices. Too often, even that doesn’t work, and perfectly good milk goes to waste, dumped on the ground.
In my 41 years in dairy sales and operations, and before that as a kid milking cows on the home farm, I’ve never seen anything like this. How can we have both grocery store shortages of dairy products and overwhelming farm-level milk surpluses at the same time?
The answer, in short, is that milk doesn’t go straight to grocery stores from dairy farms. First, processing plants turn it into the products you see in your grocery store—cheese, butter, ice cream, and yogurt. Even the milk you drink goes to a plant that pasteurizes, homogenizes, and then fills the paper cartons and plastic jugs you see on the shelf.
Each of these plants specializes in making a certain products, like cheese or milk to drink. Some dairy processors are set up to serve only grocery stores, but some process milk for restaurants and schools. Dairy products made for schools and restaurants can’t be easily sold in grocery stores.
For example, pizza places usually buy cheese that is pre-shredded and packed in five-pound bags. Milk for schools goes out in half-pint cartons, not the plastic gallons you see in the dairy case. Milk you drink in restaurants is most likely shipped in five-gallon bags.
But COVID-19 has basically shut down the markets for schools and restaurants. Meanwhile, more people are showing up at the dairy case. It would cost millions for processors to switch production lines from school and restaurant type products to retail-sized products. Instead, dairy plants hit by reduced orders for food service products have cut way back or closed down altogether.
What about food relief for the ever-growing number of us who have lost our jobs? Our traditional food relief product is powdered milk, but those plants are specialized, too. They produce bulk-sized containers of products normally made for further processing. They were already operating at full capacity before COVID-19 came calling. Producing and diverting products intended for non-grocery use will require government actions or a complete retooling of that portion of our industry.
Meanwhile, cows keep producing milk. Farmers are too often caught in the middle with no processor to buy their milk. The rest struggle to make it on prices that don’t cover production costs, much less leave anything for family living. Farmers worry about the virus sickening essential farm workers. They worry that their bankers won’t stay with them. They worry that any government help that comes their way will be a day late and a dollar short. Farmers see first-hand the horror of the wonderful food they have worked so hard to produce literally going to waste down the drain.
I see this tragedy play out every day. Believe me, it’s really getting to me. Make no mistake, every dairy farmer I work with is on your side. They work day in and day out to make sure Americans have plenty of quality milk products at reasonable prices. They and you are in this together.
I hope and pray that our road out of this will be short and smoothly paved. No matter what, I hope that understanding and cooperation will guide us as we face the coming challenges affecting everyone from our farms to your home.
— Dick Bylsma, National Farmers
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