COVID-19 News

COVID-19 adds to farming woes

Becky Strabel | Staff writer
Michael Robin, Burnett Dairy warehouse assistant, and Jay Strasser, Ruby’s Pantry truck driver, pose near Burnett Dairy’s shipment of more than 8,500 pounds of shredded cheese headed to Ruby’s Pantry. “This is an uncharted time of need and we are happy to get cheese into the hands of those who need it most,” a BDC spokesperson said. - Photo provided
Burnett Dairy Cooperative steps up with delivery of food to nonprofits and food pantries
NORTHWEST WISCONSIN – News of milk dumping in the state due to a lack of markets created by the pandemic has brought awareness to the importance of not just dairy farmers but all farmers that diligently work every day to provide safe food that is readily available for consumers.
Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery issued a request on April 1 for its farmers to reduce the amount of milk they each ship by 7% to avoid having to dump milk due to a backlog at their plants.
Besides buyers canceling orders that would typically supply food service contracts, milk prices have also dropped 30% according to the creamery. This is like your local independent mom-and-pop store having a 30%-off sale and not being the ones to make that decision.
Ellsworth stated that if their supply continues at the current rate the farmers price would continue to fall. They have even offered member equity buyouts to encourage dairy farmers to quit farming.
Farmers’ incomes have always been dependent on a number of factors, but the coronavirus pandemic is also affecting crop and livestock prices. An economic recession is looming. According to the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri, prices could tumble and reduce farm income nationally by $20 billion in 2020. This number is taking into account lower production costs, added farm subsidies and grain held in storage.
Less corn is being used for ethanol due to stay-at-home requests and lower consumer spending was incorporated into the FAPRI estimates, but it did not consider disruptions in supply chain that could further reduce prices paid to producers.
Depending on the intensity and duration of the pandemic, the FAPRI and ag economist Dan Basse of AgResource Company say a speedy recovery could take place, but there are many variables that must line up for that to occur.
Basse explains that COVID-19 couldn’t have happened at a worse time since the weather is getting warmer and people generally eat out more, referring to the fact that more Wisconsin dairy products are sold to the food service industry versus grocery stores.
He suggests that farms focus more on efficiency rather than maximum production. Basse says to look at margins between income and expense and work on that aspect.
The bright side is that farmers can save money on fuel and feed costs. Also, the food service industry will eventually recover. Structural changes may be needed in the industry to shift between food service and retail sales more economically, Basse believes.
Kink in supply chain
Many area farmers in northern Polk and Burnett counties sell their milk to Burnett Dairy Cooperative in Grantsburg, Associated Milk Producers Inc. with a regional office in New Ulm, Minnesota, or Foremost Farms headquartered in Baraboo.
These locations don’t have any plans on dumping milk and no one wants to resort to this drastic measure. In fact, farmers have banded together at the Ellsworth Co-op to reduce their milk without the need to dump at the plant.
Dairy products have sometimes been unavailable in stores, which leads to confusion as to why there is an oversupply of product. The problem is that often products are packaged for food service versus retail. Madison-based Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin is looking to help repair this kink in the supply chain by working with companies to reroute their products to consumers.
If you see restrictions on dairy products at local stores, it is requested that you contact the DFW, who will work with that location to get milk and other dairy products on its shelves.
Say cheese, please
A group of area milk haulers have been raising funds to buy Ellsworth cheese curds to deliver to area food shelves. So far 5,000 pounds of the squeaky curds have been distributed.  
In the last week, Foremost Farms has been able to get over 45,000 pounds of cheese packed and shipped to help feed families and food pantries across Wisconsin and Illinois through The Salvation Army.
It is business as usual at Burnett Dairy Cooperative.
BDC is also giving back to the community and has been donating to food banks and a number of nonprofits in the area and throughout the Midwest. They want to continue to provide jobs, continue their operations, and not impact farmers.
The dairy has committed to donating 45,000 pounds of cheese and anticipates that number will exceed more than 100,000 pounds in the coming months.
By Monday, April 20, over 8,000 students who receive school lunches will also be receiving 2-pound bags of shredded mozzarella cheese as a donation from BDC. The 16,000 pounds of cheese will head out to 19 area schools in Burnett, Polk, Washburn, and Barron counties, along with Minnesota’s Pine and Chisago counties.
The dairy also donated 8,500 pounds of shredded cheese to Ruby’s Pantry.
Bruce Chell of Chell Trucking, Siren, is donating his time and refrigerated truck space to help safely make deliveries to the schools and others. It is the willingness to lend a hand that is appreciated during this time.
“This is uncharted territory for all of us and this is what we can do to make a difference, that’s what we can focus on to do our part in this,” said Dan Dowling, BDC’s CEO.

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