No one wants to dump milk. Here’s why it’s happening anyway.

Why We Wrote This

Images of farmers literally pouring their milk down the drain are especially troubling at a time of rising demand at U.S. food banks. Farmers would love to get their product to where it’s needed.

Whitney Curtis/Reuters
Dairy farmer Alfred Brandt milks his Holstein cows in Linn, Missouri, on April 28, 2020. Mr. Brandt, along with other U.S. dairy farmers, has seen a drop in milk prices and has been forced to dump excess milk as a result of the closure of schools, restaurants, and coffee shops.

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No one likes dumping milk, least of all farmers like Brian Brown. Yet dairy farmers from New England to California have been forced into hard choices. 

The reason: Response to the coronavirus has undermined demand from restaurants even as it also disrupts the paychecks that many consumers use at grocery stores. That leaves farmers with few options. Give milk to food banks? Make cheese for the future? Those are being tried, but warehouses are full and dairy processors, like farmers themselves, are in crisis. 

Dairy industry groups have urged, among other things, that the federal government step in as a temporary buyer, to help more milk go to food banks or nutrition-aid programs “to address the growing and widening food insecurity facing many Americans.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a step in this direction in mid-April. Some private companies and charities are also buying milk for those who need it. Yet for now, farmers still face pressure to cut production or dump milk.

“It’s not going the way we were thinking it was going to go,” says Mr. Brown in Belleville, Wisconsin. “At the same time, we know we’re not alone.”

On Easter Sunday, Brian Brown, a dairy farmer in Belleville, Wisconsin, did what he had not done before: He opened the valve on his big stainless steel bulk tank and watched 5,000 gallons of milk flow down the drain.

“It’s painful,” he says.

Days earlier he had gotten a call from the dairy processing company he sells his milk to, telling him to cut production by 20%. The call was not unexpected. Among farmers, rumors had been circulating. Others who got the same call began dumping some milk every day. The Browns – Brian, his wife, Yvonne, and their son, Cory – decided to do it once a week, on Sundays.

“I don’t know if it’s our faith,” Mr.  Brown says, adding that “we’re trying to stay positive.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

No one likes dumping milk, least of all farmers. It’s an affront to their bottom line, but also to their sense of purpose and vocation. “You’ve got all your expenses and hard work going into a product that you care for, a quality product for the consumer,” Mr. Brown says.

And yet as the coronavirus disrupts supply chains and undermines the demand for dairy products, especially cheese, dairy farmers from New England to California have been forced to make difficult choices. They have tried alternatives. They have sold their worst cows, usually to slaughterhouses. They have cut back on feed, hoping to reduce the amount of milk each cow makes. 

The Browns have done these things – they sold more than two dozen of their 500-cow herd – but it wasn’t nearly enough. So like many farmers, they have resorted to dumping, an experience Mr. Brown finds difficult to contemplate, let alone describe.

“We kind of feel numb and defeated,” he says. “You open the drain to your product and let it go down.”

A search for solutions

Major farm organizations have appealed to both federal and state governments for help rebalancing supply and demand and rescuing hard-hit dairy farmers. 

Here’s the problem: Even as demand from places like restaurants has dried up due to coronavirus restrictions, the lockdowns have left millions of consumers in financial stress or outright unemployed – less able to shop freely at grocery stores. That leaves farmers with few options.

Give milk to food banks? Make cheese for the future? These too are being tried, but warehouses are full and farmers face a financial crisis. Processors are grappling with both a precipitous drop in demand and the need to adapt quickly to new markets.

“That’s a huge shift,” says Bobbi Wilson, a government relations specialist with the Wisconsin Farmers Union. One consequence is that farmers are again seeing milk prices drop below the cost of producing it – when they already were struggling to recover from a five-year price slump.

Whitney Curtis/Reuters
Alfred Brandt speaks with his son, Sam Brandt, and father, Don Brandt, at the dairy farm that's been in their family since 1840 in Linn, Missouri, on April 28, 2020. Their farm and others across the nation have been affected by the industry's supply chain disruptions in response to the coronavirus disease.

“It’s put them in a difficult position,” says Ms. Wilson. “They need to have a long stretch of good prices to get their heads above water. The timing couldn’t have been worse.”

The National Milk Producers Federation and the International Dairy Foods Association have urged, among other things, that the federal government step in as a temporary buyer, to help more dairy products get to food banks or nutrition aid programs “to address the growing and widening food insecurity facing many Americans.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on April 17 announced a Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, which includes $2.9 billion in payments to dairy farmers and $3 billion in purchases for food banks (including of dairy products).

There have been private efforts, too, large and small, to get dairy products, especially milk, to those who need it. The Milwaukee-based Hunger Task Force pledged $1 million to buy milk for distribution at local food pantries. The Publix supermarket chain has launched a similar effort. One company, Sassy Cow Creamery, put a “kindness cooler” outside its store in Columbus, Wisconsin, stocked with free milk. 

But the larger market trends are grim, with industry experts citing declines in exports among the reasons that milk supply now exceeds demand by at least 10%.

Dumping milk is not unheard of in dairy country. In the first eight months of 2016, according to one estimate, a glut of milk in the U.S. prompted farmers and processors to dump 43 million gallons. In the 1960s, members of the National Farmers Union, a cooperative based in the upper Midwest, dumped milk to protest low prices. They failed to get the dairy program they were demanding, but they got a lot of attention.

The dumped milk doesn’t actually run into sewage pipes. Instead, on most farms it’s diverted into big lagoons used to store liquid manure. Eventually it will be pumped out with the manure and spread on the fields as fertilizer – to return again to the cows as corn and alfalfa.

Future of a farm at stake

What makes this moment especially painful for dairy farmers is that COVID-19 arrived just as things were just starting to look up for them. The five-year slump had forced many of them to borrow against their farms just to survive. Some gave up altogether. Prices began to rebound last autumn, and by the turn of the year, farmers were feeling hopeful. They were making money again. “We were kind of set to go,” Mr. Brown says.

Now prices are falling again, plunging farmers and their families into a new period of uncertainty. 

It’s hard to stay positive. For the Browns, the crisis has brought a still deeper sense of precariousness. In the past few years, Mr. Brown and his wife had been contemplating how they might transfer the farm to their son, who attended a dairy program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has been working next to his parents on the farm he grew up on. COVID-19 has cast a shadow over these plans, at least for now. How long it lasts could determine whether they can stay in business.

“It’s not going the way we were thinking it was going to go,” Mr. Brown says. “At the same time, we know we’re not alone.”

Indeed, no farmer is an island. Dairy farmers are surrounded by a host of bankers, veterinarians, nutritionists, university extension specialists, trade organization representatives, and other experts eager to give advice. And like others, Brown has been consulting a lot of them recently, trying to figure out what to do. He’s taken to attending meetings by video conference – something else new to him – to learn more.  The other day he heard someone suggest that farmers could reduce production by lengthening the time a cow is left dry before she calves and is ready to be milked again. He thought he would try it.

From the beginning, too, farmers have been reaching out to one another for news, advice, and simple reassurance. Virgil Haag, a friend of Mr. Brown who sells to a different processing company, called when he learned about Mr. Brown’s predicament. “He was pretty down in the dumps,” Mr. Haag says. But then his turn came, too. He learned he would have to cut production by even more: 25%.

“There have been many nights since then I’ve had pretty much no sleep,” Mr. Haag says. “I’ll have some tears when I’m dumping – just to see that milk going down the drain that we worked so hard to produce.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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