By now, you may have seen snapshots of the dairy industry’s worst nightmare: heartbreaking photos of gallons of milk being dumped down drains or in fields while dairy farmers stand by, hollow-eyed and tight-jawed. Dairy processing plants, where milk is pasteurized and bottled for sale, are turning farmers away, as the plants are already having to house more dairy than they can handle. Cheesemakers big and small have ceased purchasing fluid milk, as cheese sales have plummeted and facilities have halted production in the name of worker safety. Schools, office cafeterias, and many restaurants have shuttered in an effort to halt the spread of COVID-19. There’s almost nowhere for new milk to go.
And since it’s illegal in many US states to sell unpasteurized milk, farmers then have no choice but to dump it: in fields, manure storage, culverts, and rivers. In big dairy states like Wisconsin, California, and Vermont, the toll is painfully apparent.
“There is too much milk on the planet and the incentives are to make more,” says Mateo Kehler, co-owner of Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vermont. The multi-award winning farm and affineur has not yet begun to dump their own milk, but they have dispersed portions of their cow herd to neighboring farms to mitigate production. Kehler estimates that there are twelve to fifteen milk tanker trucks being emptied per day in his state.
When demand for dairy decreases, dairy animals don’t just stop producing milk; and now that it’s springtime, new mothers are producing more milk than usual. Despite the drastic decrease in demand for milk, daily work does not stop on the farms: animals need to be cared for, facilities need to be maintained, and employees need to get paid.
Dumping milk is the absolute last resort for excess dairy, but State Departments of Agriculture like those in Wisconsin and New York have asked farmers to document their wasted milk in the past couple of weeks. Those numbers remain confidential, and it’s also not confirmed whether all farmers are complying. The Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) estimates that farmers are dumping up to 3.7 million gallons of milk per day.
And as if that news weren’t bad enough, consider this: Milk is technically an environmental pollutant, with a higher concentration of nutrients than manure. Too much of this otherwise good thing can compromise waterways, killing fish and altering the pH balance of aquatic environments. But wedged between a rock and a hard place, what other solution is there?
As milk retail prices drop and wholesale orders dwindle, dairy groups and advocates across the US are calling on the federal government to compensate farmers for the wasted milk by buying mass quantities of dairy. In Wisconsin alone, the Wisconsin Cheesemakers Association estimates that around 50 percent of all milk produced in the state is currently going to waste due to supply surplus and processing fatigue—that’s a LOT of revenue loss.
In an already-struggling industry, the COVID-19 crisis is looking like it may be the back-breaking straw for the current US dairy market. Milk prices have been steadily falling since 2014, as over-productive dairy farms are increasingly turned away by processors who’ve reached capacity. But as consumers panic-purchase grocery staples and cause shortages in stores, one might think that demand for milk would increase. However, increased demand doesn’t change the fact that it would cost millions of dollars to build a dairy processing plant to make that milk available to customers—money the industry simply doesn’t have at the moment. “Supply management is the only opportunity to move the needle on the dairy crisis pre-, during, and post-COVID,” says Kehler of Jasper Hill.
Jennifer Huson, Senior Director of Marketing and Industry Relations for the Northeast chapter of the DFA, takes issue with purchase limits. “First off, our supply chain is strong and there is no milk shortage,” she says. “So if you see a limit on dairy product purchases at your local grocery store, reach out to the store manager and express your disappointment, [letting] them know that limits are not necessary.” The theory behind store purchase limits on staples like milk might sound great, but the Foundation for Economic Education argues that limits instated by individual stores actually hurt consumers and suppliers, as well as the stores themselves. It hurts consumers with large families or dependents, it hurts suppliers by short-changing them for their product, and it hurts the stores’ profits by limiting movement of an already-cheap commodity. If the price of milk were to increase and purchase limits were lifted, consumers would regulate their buying, farmers and suppliers would earn a living wage, and stores would be able to keep their doors open and their employees paid.
There is some good news that may improve the retail issue. “Some researchers are looking at ways to extend the shelf-life of products, [while others] are looking into supply-chain innovations that might allow for better refresh rates at retailers,” says Adam Brock, Director of Food Safety, Quality, and Regulatory Compliance at the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin.
But the silver lining to the current scenario is weak at best. “Dairy farmers are getting paid a terrible price for their milk, but they are still getting paid,” says Kehler, “even if the milk ends up in their own manure pit.” Dairy farmers typically receive dollar amounts in the low- to mid-teens per one hundred pounds of milk, though the numbers fluctuate monthly. In addition to demanding that the federal government buy surplus product, New England states including Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island, and Connecticut are asking that the USDA establish a wholesale price of $19.50 per one hundred pounds of milk. That’s the cost of production to farmers, according to Anson Tebbets, Vermont’s Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets.
Farmers and cheesemakers encourage consumers to do their part by buying local dairy products, which support small producers and provide an end destination for that otherwise wasted milk. Cheese-producing farms have a surplus of product right now, and many are offering discounts on their websites (Beehive Cheese and Jasper Hill Farm are two makers seeking takers for pounds of homeless cheese). Donations can be made to relief organizations like the Great American Milk Drive, which tracks down surplus dairy and delivers it to food banks based on the zip codes of individual donors. Look up your state’s dairy board or Department of Agriculture to see how you can support them.
It might sound cute, but the best thing you can do right now is to put more cheese on everything. And the experts can back us up: “Add a little extra cheese to your pizza, taco, or sandwich, or a little more milk to your morning coffee,” says Huson of the DFA. “These small changes could help with the added surplus that we’re experiencing right now.”