JAMESTOWN – The Southwest New York Dairy, Livestock, and Field Crops Program is reassuring the region’s consumers that there is no reason for concern regarding the safety of our food system or threats of food shortages.
Officials say this has been supported by the Institute for Food Safety at Cornell University. Farms nationwide, including dairies, have been deemed essential businesses and are still working daily to produce safe, wholesome foods that families can enjoy – even during this uncertain time.
While farms have been out plowing fields to plant new crops, pruning vines to grow grapes for juice, and caring for livestock to produce meat, milk, and eggs – consumers have been visiting grocery stores and buying the staples they need. What we’re experiencing in the form of empty store shelves is a disruption of the supply chain. While many hardworking people are committed to mending this situation, it will take time to balance out.
You may have seen videos or news stories of local dairy farms having to “dump” the milk that they have worked diligently and caringly to produce. This unfortunate situation is happening while dairy cases at retail stores are empty or are limiting quantities available for purchase. This disconnect has raised a lot of questions from both farmers and consumers and does not have a simple solution. The current challenge the market faces is a huge shift in demand and interruptions in distribution caused by the current pandemic.
Milk, while incredibly nutritious and affordable, is a challenging and perishable product to produce and prepare for sale. As one of the most regulated food products in our country, there is a limited amount of time between milk leaving the farm in large tanker trucks to when it’s made into a final product. Because of this perishability, farmers can’t hold onto milk when buyers aren’t taking orders or store it until prices are high – they have to sell their milk, or dispose of it responsibly, within days of production.
Additionally, milk is a raw product that has to be standardized, homogenized, and pasteurized before it can be sold in supermarkets and consumed. The facilities that perform these activities are currently backed up and operating at their fullest capacities as they work to catch up with the rush of orders from supermarkets.
The milk produced in the U.S. is sold domestically to wholesale buyers (restaurants, schools, coffee shops), retailers (grocery stores), and is exported (usually as dried products). With the current global economic uncertainty, export levels have dropped. As restaurants and schools close their doors, or switch to lower volume deliveries, that demand has also decreased by an estimated 60%. Positively, at the retail level, we have seen demand increases of up to 40% in supermarkets and grocery stores. However, this increase in demand isn’t enough to balance the market, and the National Milk Producers Federation estimates that milk supply is exceeding demand by at least 10%.
While we often think of milk as our companion to cookies and our morning cereal, it is also made into things like cheese, yogurt, evaporated milk, and ice cream. These products require additional time and costly infrastructure investments to produce. It’s not easy for milk plants and production facilities that were set up to make 50-pound bags of shredded cheese for large scale buyers to quickly convert to packaging one-pound bags for retail. Similarly, fluid milk plants that were producing cartons or large bags of milk for schools and other institutions can’t easily switch to bottling one-gallon containers. The shift from bulk packaging to meeting the needs of home consumers is also creating delays in getting milk from farm to fridge.
Dairy farmers work 365 days a year to care for their cows and produce milk using best management practices. Dumping is the last resort. Milk is still a safe, healthy, high-quality product, but farmers can’t just “stop” production, even if there is no place for it to go. Cows are not a valve that can be slowed or shut off for periods of time. If there isn’t a buyer for the milk right away, the only alternative is to dispose of it properly.
There have been questions about why milk that is being dumped can’t be diverted to local food banks. Unfortunately, this raw product can not be donated directly from the farm and has to be bottled first.This is a costly process, and there is currently no extra capacity at existing facilities to bottle milk, for donation or sale, that would have been dumped.
The best thing consumers can do to support their local dairy farms is to be patient and buy extra dairy products when they are able to do so safely. Consider buying extra milk and butter for a neighbor, choose yogurt as a healthy breakfast option, and enjoy a bowl of ice cream in the evening. Industry leaders are working with corporate grocery chains to remove limits on dairy purchases and restock stores to help make this even easier.
For more information about dairy production and marketing in the Southwest New York region, contact Katelyn Walley-Stoll, Farm Business Management Specialist, at 716-640-0522 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Alycia Drwencke, Dairy Management Specialist, at 517-416-0386 or email@example.com. If you visit a retail store that is still limiting the purchase quantities of dairy products, please take a picture, note the location, date and time, and send to Beth Meyer (firstname.lastname@example.org) who is working on behalf of the American Dairy Association North East with grocery chains to improve the situation.
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