Sharply lower demand forces some farmers to dump milk
According to U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Howard Township, the dairy industry supports more than 50,000 jobs in Pennsylvania and contributes more than $14 billion annually to the state’s economy.
But that industry has come upon hard times.
“(U.S. Department of Agriculture’s) 2020 milk price estimate reflects a drop of roughly $5.7 billion at the farm level over just the last six weeks,” Thompson wrote Wednesday to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. “Furthermore, dairy farmers have already suffered five years of low prices.”
And the COVID-19 crisis has been no help. Thompson told Perdue that farmers are “enduring a massive drop in sales due to restaurant closures, school closings and food service cancellations.”
So, for the past week, at the behest of their dairies, some farmers in Indiana County and elsewhere head out each day to milk hundreds of cows … and then dump the milk.
“We can’t find a place for the milk,” said Don Coleman of Stoney Hill Farm in Elders Ridge. “The excess milk goes to a cheese plant ... and he’s backlogged.”
“There is too much milk backed up in the system,” said Ron Learn, whose Blossom Hollow farm is in the Cookport area. “They can’t move it quick enough.”
“They” are dairies such as Turner and Schneider, which have contracts for the milk produced by farmers across western Pennsylvania.
“We’ve been shipping milk to Schneider for over 20 years,” said Bob Lieb of Barr Ridge Farm near Nicktown, Cambria County. “They have always been fair to us.”
Lieb believes the situation will be rectified, “it is just a question of when.”
Turner Dairy Farms did not respond to requests for comment, while Schneider’s Dairy said, “we’re not interested in discussing these matters at this time.” On its website, Schneider’s said it gets milk “from approximately 60 local independent family dairy farms that sell their milk exclusively to Schneider’s.”
Turner, which is marking its 90th anniversary, said on its website that “local agriculture is of utmost importance to our family business and the socioeconomic fabric of western Pennsylvania.”
Part of the problem is packaging. Schools get half-pints of milk, restaurants get milk in bulk volume, and those venues get 40 percent to 50 percent of what normally is processed by dairy companies.
“The dairy plants cannot pivot quickly enough from packaging bulk food service items to the packaged grocery store item,” said Learn, who is on the board of the Indiana County Farm Bureau.
State Rep. Jim Struzzi, R-Indiana, participated in a recent conference call with the Indiana County Farm Bureau.
“Storage capacity, supply chain issues, processors, and the lack of milk being served in schools are major factors,” Struzzi said. “I am working with our House Agriculture Committee and the Department of Agriculture to see what can be done to address these issues including compensation for dumped milk, opening doors to new markets and allowing whole milk to be provided as an option for take-home lunches.”
State Sen. Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, said the matter also has been discussed in the Senate Agriculture Committee, where Chairman Elder Vogel, R-Beaver County, is himself a dairy farmer.
And while dairies may be shutting off orders, as Vogel told his colleagues, the flow has to continue from the farms.
“That cow has to continue to produce milk,” Pittman said. “Farmers have to milk their cows one way or the other.”
“Some retail stores are limiting how much milk shoppers can buy, even though there’s a healthy supply and the Department of Agriculture has recommended against limiting dairy purchases,” state Rep. Cris Dush, R-Brookville, said in his weekly newsletter to constituents.
“We know communities are counting on us more than ever and we are determined to serve the broadest number of customers and ensure they have access to the key items they are looking for,” said Dacona Smith, executive vice president and chief operating officer for Walmart U.S. “Our stores will have limits for customers in certain categories including paper products, milk, eggs, cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, water, diapers, wipes, formula and baby food.”
On the other hand, Giant Company stores, including Martin’s in White Township, have not implemented a limit on how much milk can be purchased, and 99 percent of the milk they purchase comes from Pennsylvania.
“Our orders to our milk suppliers have increased in line with the increase in demand,” Giant/Martin’s manager of public relations Ashley Flower said.
“The Giant Company has been working very closely with suppliers to ensure that we meet the increased demand,” Flower went on. “We are even working with new suppliers, due to increased demand. We’ve also worked with local milk suppliers to increase the amount of items carried and the amount of stores they deliver to. Our supplier partners have been great to work with during these challenging times.”
In his letter to Perdue, Thompson suggested ways to ease the problem.
“Food banks — where dairy is often a popular item — are facing unprecedented demands for donations, providing a valuable outlet for the nutritious dairy products (USDA) could purchase.”
The 15th District congressman, a ranking member of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, also urged Perdue to reopen 2020 enrollment for the Dairy Margin Coverage program and explore “an approach that would enroll producers for the remainder of the current Farm Bill to avoid a repeat of this situation in the future.”