I want to make it clear that there is plenty milk and beef on the market. The issue is in the production and distribution.
Let’s start with the milk situation because that one is closest to my heart. The U.S. produces 210 billion pounds of milk annually. Milk by the pound you ask? Yes, that is how we are paid. One gallon of milk weighs 8.6 pounds. Do the math and you get 24.4 billion gallons of milk a year. That’s a lot of milk!
Roughly 1/3 of all milk produced goes into food service. Food service is restaurants, schools, and any place other than eating at your home. 1/3 of 210 billion is 70 billion pounds or 8.1 billion gallons of milk. That’s 8.1 billion gallons that doesn’t have a place to call home now because the food service industry is operating in very minimal situations right now.
The next question that naturally comes up is if there is all that extra milk why the shelves are empty and limits? The processing plants that supply the dairy products for the food service industry are not set up to start bottling milk for consumers. Those plants are set up to package cartons of milk or make the little butter packets or bag up 25 pound bags of cheese or carton up large containers of sour cream.
Raw milk has a short shelf life. It is through the homogenization and pasteurization processes that we are able to extend the shelf life a bit. During the process vitamin D is added to the milk to help with the absorption of calcium to help you get strong bones and teeth. Some people ask if they could just buy milk from the farm since its being dumped. The answer is no because Wisconsin law says that you can’t.
Another question that comes up is can plants run 24 hours a day? Yes they could if they wanted to, but some plants are short staffed because employees have to stay home to take care of their children or don’t want to put themselves at risk.
Back to those 8.1 billion gallons that have to go somewhere. We know that you want it but the infrastructure of the dairy supply chain is not set up to do a mass switch over. Even though the consumer demand is up, chances are it’s not up enough to take all that extra milk. Farmers can’t just turn a switch and tell the cow to not give milk. It sucks plain and simple for both the consumer and the farmer. Yes demand is there but we can’t get it where it needs to be.
What does this do for the price the farmer is getting paid? If you guessed going down, you are right. On March 27 the milk price was between $15 and $16 a hundredweight or 15 – 16 cents a pound. That’s $1.29 a gallon. As I write this milk price is at $13.80 a hundredweight (13.8 cents a pound or $1.19 a gallon). Last week it dropped to $12 something. The government and people in the dairy industry are working together to get the milk where it needs to be, but the fix won’t be quick.
Dairy farmers are not the only ones struggling; the beef, pork, and grain farmers are too. I have a friend right here in the Fennimore area who told me that the price of beef has dropped to where they are losing $150 a hundredweight when they ship their steers to market. They have spent months investing and raising a high quality product to all of sudden have the wind knocked out of their sail.
Why is meat so high in the stores then? The meat industry has taken advantage of the demand by consumers and raised the price in the store while cutting the price to the farm or price gouging. Don’t worry, plenty of complaints have been made and the DATCP and the USDA are already looking into the situation.
One meat packing plant in Pennsylvania has shut down for two weeks because a worker in the plant tested positive for Covid-19. Just today alone (Tuesday) Bloomington and Belmont Sale Barns announced that they would not be having their fat cattle sales this week due to the lack of buyers. Cattle can’t be told to just stop growing or putting on fat. The bigger they get the quality of meat goes down which makes them less desirable to the consumer.
It was also announced that a Tyson Foods’ pork processing plant in Iowa is shutting down for two weeks because of positive tests on workers there. Now the hog farmers have pigs ready for slaughter and no place to take them.
And then there’s the grain farmers. Some farmers have contracts with ethanol plants. Due to smaller amounts of fuel being made and used, these farmers don’t have a market for their ethanol.
Last week I participated in a conference call with Representative Ron Kind’s office about the dire situation of the agriculture industry in Wisconsin. People are well aware of the situation and are working as quickly as they can to benefit both the farmers and the consumer.
Friends, I am scared. Really scared. I am more scared about the future of the agriculture industry then I am of catching the virus. My parents purchased their farm in 1985 and then the drought of 1988 hit. We don’t need a history lesson of the 1980’s farm crisis but it was bad. My parents almost lost the farm. It was tough, and I know the only way my parents made it through was their faith that God always provides. I don’t know what the future holds, but as rapidly as things are changing I am scared not only for myself but my fellow farmers.
As I type, I know of at least one farm in the tri-county area dumping their milk and heard of some within a half hour of here that may have to dump this week. By the time you read this I may or may not have been able to sell my bull calves at Fennimore Livestock. I also don’t know what the future holds for our milk. I am trying to keep the strong faith my parents had in the 1980’s but it’s weak.
As Americans we have become spoiled. Spoiled by a safe and plentiful food supply that many nations envy. In the blink of an eye that food we rely on may not be there, yet the people who produce it will continue to get up at 4 a.m. to milk the cows while putting the milk straight into the manure pit. They will hop in the tractor and churn dirt to put a seed in the ground. The health of their animals will come before their own. They will continue doing everything they can to keep the food supply safe and plentiful.
If American agriculture fails then that safe and plentiful food supply will be no more, and the reasonable prices we pay will sky rocket. If American agriculture fails, the small businesses in the rural communities will fail because there will be no one there to support them. If American agriculture fails, the country fails. Agriculture has been the backbone of this country since it was founded. The people associated with agriculture are strong and resilient. They survived the Dust Bowl, the 1980’s, and we WILL survive Covid-19.