Across the world, there is hardly an industry that has gone untouched by COVID-19. The North American dairy industry has taken a particularly painful hit that to the outsider is quite confusing. Last week, dairy farmers across the United States and Canada were asked to start dumping gallons of raw milk down the drain, and much of their profits with it. (1)
Farmers Asked To Dump Dairy
Since the beginning of the shutdowns in March, the way society consumes a product or service and the amount that they are consuming them has drastically changed. For some, such as online streaming and video conferencing services, consumption has increased exponentially. However, for others, like the dairy industry, it has not been the case.
Despite dairy product sales in grocery stores being up 30%, the closure of schools, restaurants, hotels, cafeterias, and more have made a huge dent in the demand for dairy. (1, 2)
John Walker, a dairy farmer in Alymer, Ontario, Canada, cites these problems as to why he has been forced to start pouring his product down the drain. (1)
“There is just nowhere for it to go,” he explained to a local news channel. “Schools, restaurants, and even Tim Hortons’ amount of cream is down. Those are all things that have slowed down demand for our product right now.” (1)
He’s not the only one. Dairy farmers in New York, Georgia, Wisconsin, and Minnesota are all facing the same problem. Nikki Boxler from Varysburg, New York talks about how tragic it is to have to watch what would have been hard-earned be dumped out. (1)
“Watching your hard work literally go down the drain is heart-wrenching. The wasted product represents our livelihood and the massive amount of hard work that takes place year-round to produce it,” she said in a Facebook post. (1)
Why must the product be poured out?
For many regular consumers, this is very confusing, especially when grocery store shelves are bare and there are signs asking customers to only take one carton, jug, or tub of a product at a time. There are a few reasons why despite the lack of dairy products on store shelves, there is still too much supply to actually meet demand:
- Many plants that process raw milk for grocery stores are at maximum capacity. (1, 2)
- Facilities that process specialty items have had to cut back production due to lack of consumer purchasing in wake of the coronavirus pandemic. (1, 2)
- Large buyers of dairy products, such as schools, hotels, and restaurants, are either seeing drastically decreased demand or are completely closed altogether. (1, 2)
Raw milk does not have a long shelf life, and there is currently far too much of it to keep in storage while processing catches up. The demand for raw milk to make ice creams, butter, cheeses, sauces, condiments, and other products used in these settings just isn’t there right now. (1, 2)
Why can’t the farmers just decrease production?
In nearly every other industry, the current lack of demand means a scale-back in production. Unfortunately when it comes to dairy, that just isn’t possible. Dairy cows must be milked regardless of demand for milk for two main reasons:
- They will continue to produce milk at a rate of around eight gallons per day. If they are not milked, pressure will build up in their udders, which is not only painful but could also lead to serious infections. (3)
- Though less of an issue, a cow that is not milked enough could run the risk of drying up, which would result in a loss of profits to the farmer. (3)
“Milk is something that needs to flow every day. It can’t stop, it can’t be stored very long without being processed somehow,’ said New York dairy farmer Michael Mattison.“You can’t shut them off, you can’t turn them down, you can’t say, ‘Ok, we’re going to take a day off.’” (2)
What can be done about this issue?
The Dairy Farmers of Canada (DFC) has said that it is working with partners throughout the supply chain to attempt to manage this massive disruption in the market. They have facilitated the donation of more than 2.5 million liters of milk to food banks in the last week in hope of helping offset the demand even just a little bit. So far there has been no word from the Canadian Dairy Farmers Commission on how farmers who are suffering these losses will be given aid. (1)
Currently, there is no information on what is being done to help American dairy farmers who were already struggling with a decreased demand for milk before COVID-19 hit. (1)
One thing is certain: the longer Canada and the U.S. must stay in lockdown, the more milk will continue to go to waste.