The COVID-19 pandemic has had a far-reaching impact that has been felt across the country. While closures and stay-home orders have been necessary in order to protect the health and safety of the American people, they have caused a ripple effect that has impacted every industry in the nation.
Because of restaurant and school closures, the dairy industry, in particular, has been subjected to unprecedented market fluctuations, forcing farmers across the country to dump product down the drain.
One farmer in Pennsylvania, however, had a different plan.
Whoa Nellie Dairy Farm
Ben and Mary Beth Brown are the owners and operators of Whoa Nellie Dairy farm, a five hundred acre farm in Pennsylvania. They have two hundred cows, seventy of which are currently producing milk.
While they have always sold some of their own milk at their small farm store, a large portion of their product gets bought by Schneider Dairy. Because of the pandemic, however, the company did not have the market to sell the Brown’s milk.
Brown and his wife Mary Beth, who had purchased the farm from his parents four years earlier, had already been struggling to stay afloat. He decided that he could not afford to simply dump all of that milk, so instead, he took matters into his own hands.
“We’re talking about 12 milkings we would have to dump. … I just don’t want to do that,” Brown said .
In an effort to keep his farm, which had been in his family since the 1700s, from going under, the Browns began pasteurizing their own milk and advertised that they would be selling it directly to the consumer at their local store. Since they only had the capacity to process thirty gallons at a time, they were working day and night to process and bottle all of their product.
“I hate waste, and I don’t want to dump milk. People can use it, and I still have to pay my bills,” Brown said .
Overwhelming Local Support
The response from the community has been nothing short of astonishing to the Browns. As soon as the word got out that they were bottling and selling their own milk, people from all across the county came out to support the family.
The line to get into the store was nearly twenty customers long, all of them maintaining a proper social distance as they waited to purchase their milk and other dairy products like cheeses, cottage cheese, and sour cream.
Linda and Tom Goodin were among the many customers, who had driven several miles to take their place in line.
“I know their uncle, Larry Basinger, and we want to help the Brown family through this. We’re going to buy 10 gallons. I have orders from our whole family,” Linda said .
Brown has now been able to sell hundreds of gallons of milk and is incredibly thankful to all who came out to support them.
Why are Farmers Dumping Milk?
With schools, restaurants, and stores closed across the country, farmers of all kinds are left without a market to sell their products. This is particularly problematic for farmers in California, Florida, and the other Gulf states, who are the primary produce suppliers for the country at this time of year.
Depending on the shelf-life of a product, some can be stored to sell later. Potatoes, for example, and some fruits and vegetables do not necessarily need to be sent to market right away. Milk, on the other hand, cannot be stored for long periods of time and needs to be sold as soon as it is produced.
Dairy farmers also can’t slow down production- when a cow needs to be milked, she needs to be milked, even if there is no one to buy it.
“Dairy farmers can’t keep the milk and so they’re dumping it because, they’ve invested so much money to produce it already, Money and labor and goods to get it done, that they can’t sell it,” said Orion Samuelson, an agro-business reporter for WGN Radio in Chicago. “The biggest buyer of fluid milk in the United States is the National School Lunch Program. Those buyers just aren’t out there.” 
Farmers are being forced to dump their milk, not for lack of demand- in fact, the demand for basic needs like dairy products during the pandemic has been quite strong- but because shutdowns have caused numerous disruptions in the supply chain that have made it difficult for farmers to get their product to market .
The restaurant and school closures have caused the need for dairy products to shift away from wholesale foodservice markets to retail grocery stores. This has caused significant logistical and packaging problems for the plants that process milk, butter, and cheese, and trucking companies are struggling to get enough drivers to deliver it.
The global foodservice sector has also all but shut down, so there is currently no international market for dairy products to be exported internationally .
Why are Farmers Dumping When there are Shortages in Grocery Stores?
The reality is, dairy products have actually been in high demand in grocery stores since people have been staying home and self-isolating. The problem is that grocery stores typically operate on a just-in-time distribution system. When customers began panic-buying, descending on stores to stock up on essentials, retail locations couldn’t keep up with demand.
Most grocery stores do not have enough refrigeration capacity to store any more dairy products than they already have, and most trucking companies aren’t able to deliver products more frequently than their current schedule and pace allow. This has forced retail locations to slow down demand by putting restrictions on the number of products a customer can buy at once .
“Those sales limits have got to stop,” Brown said .
The Department of Agriculture has asked major retailers to lift quotas, however, lack of storage and the difficulty of increasing the number of product deliveries to grocery stores still leaves many dairy farmers with a surplus.
Help Our Farmers- Buy Local
The Browns are extremely grateful for the support they’ve received from the people in the community. Without them, they, too, would’ve been forced to dump hundreds of gallons of milk, which would have been financially catastrophic for the family-owned farm.
With global supply chains slowed down, and grocery store shelves emptied, now is the perfect time to begin buying local instead. Major retailers have the financial capability to survive these difficult economic times, but many local retailers, as well as local small-scale farms, do not.
Check with the small businesses and farms near you to find out if they are selling any of their products directly to the consumer. In many cases, you may have to call ahead and put in an order before you go to pick it up.
In these difficult and uncertain economic times, your support could be the difference between a local business surviving or being forced to close permanently. Families like the Browns are depending on all of us.
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