Most Americans would agree that our world has been turned upside down and inside out in the past four weeks. Just six weeks ago, America was experiencing one of the lowest unemployment rates in history and restaurant sales were at all-time highs. The latest statistics indicated that unemployment rates will reach 15 percent by the end of the second quarter of 2020, the highest level on record since 1948. Restaurants are boarded up, and more Americans are eating at home and depending on charitable food systems than ever before.
Our dairy community has also been turned upside down. In the first week after COVID-19 started to spread, we saw milk sales at the retail level up 38 percent with milk and dairy products flying off the shelves. Then businesses started to close, and food service sales fell through the floor. Some food manufacturers even reported seeing a 90-percent reduction in sales. Retail sales started to level out, as grocery stores scrambled to manage their inventories and restock shelves. We started seeing limits being placed on dairy products, and frustration levels within dairy mounted.
Then the flood of milk began. Cooperatives and dairy processors alike started seeing milk pushed back into the system from all sides, as school milk sales dropped dramatically, restaurants closed, and food service fell way down due to many institutions across the state closing. Pennsylvania isn’t alone in this battle. The National Milk Producers Federation is anticipating a 10 to 15 percent decrease in dairy demand over the next three months, due to the pandemic’s impact on communities everywhere.
The reports of dumping milk sent shockwaves across the industry, with every milk handler trying to manage very complex dynamics related to their own milk market. Some dairies with higher portions of milk going into retail fluid milk markets were okay, while those shipping a lot of product into food service and restaurants, or who relied heavily on school milk sales, struggled to find outlets. Manufacturing plants also struggled to maintain normal operations with reports of employees calling off sick, modified runs to allow for social distancing, and downtime to ensure proper sanitizing between shifts.
As I am writing this on April 8, we are now in week four of the pandemic, and many in the industry are searching for solutions to this situation. Cooperatives and independent dairies are working together to find homes for the milk, with dairy donations and sales to food banks at unprecedented levels. Folks on the policy side are also working around the clock to find answers, with USDA contemplating how to allocate the limited support in the CARES Act to dairy and other segments of agriculture hit hard by this pandemic. Both the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board are exploring every avenue to streamline processes, ease the regulatory burden and keep milk flowing to market.
While there are no clear answers in sight yet, two things needed most right now are patience and perspective. As a dairy farmer, I hate to see grocery store shelves empty and find it even more discouraging when I see milk being dumped in manure pits. It makes me sick. But what we need to realize is that farmers aren’t the only ones it makes sick – everyone working in the dairy industry, everyone who recognizes the nutritional value of milk, all of those who personally know the hungry bellies it could feed, and everyone who recognizes how crucial dairy is to our state’s economy are beyond frustrated and seeking answers. But we are playing catch up, with the pandemic way ahead of us.
Stories of Service
What we don’t always see is how many people are working on behalf of dairy or how hard they are working. I have had the opportunity over the past few weeks to talk to many working in the supply chain, and I have been amazed at the dedication and the stories of what’s going on behind the scenes. One person from a dairy manufacturing plant told me how supervisors were giving up their days off and working late hours to do skilled laborer jobs because the limited staff with the knowledge of that job was cut in half due to illness.
In another situation, I learned how the Pennsylvania Department of Ag and FDA worked to expedite an extension on a reseal that gave the plant six more hours of production time. Dispatchers turned on a dime to reroute trucks and send them for cheese to donate to food banks, while others repurposed milk for pig feed so it was not completely lost. After donating product, one dairy even provided reefer trucks so gallons of milk could sit outside food distribution sites in Pittsburgh for people to take as they got their weekly food allowance.
April is the time of year when we often are fortunate to witness rainbows, which to me are a symbol of hope and God’s promise. A week or so ago, I was heading to our barn after spending a long day on the phone trying to connect people in finding solutions. I had three different people that day tell me how scared they were about what was happening and what was to come. But as I walked from the house to the barn, I looked down over the valley below us and saw a rainbow coming straight out of heaven.
Patience and Perspective
To me, it was a reminder of God’s promise and why it’s important to put things in perspective and have patience. That night, I thought of those who have lost family members and who have had their future stolen away by COVID-19. We need to be thankful for what we have and recognize all the people who are working to protect that. We also need to recognize that this pandemic has affected everyone, not just those of us in dairy, and some have lost much more than others.
Those in dairy are resilient, smart and strong. We need to continue to look for solutions and to support each other as we work through this pandemic. We also need to take advantage of this opportunity to show the world how important farmers and agriculture are to their lives. It’s our chance to let them know we are still farming so they have food for their families.
Lastly, we need to have patience. My favorite Bible verse is Romans 8:25, “if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it patiently.” Let’s keep things in perspective, because we will get through this together. Remember to be grateful to all those, including your fellow dairy farmers and the team on your own farm, who are all working through this as best we can.
Editor’s Note: This column is written by Jayne Sebright, executive director for the Center for Dairy Excellence, and published monthly in the Lancaster Farming Dairy Reporter.