Even before the novel corona virus brought the country to an economic standstill, family farmers had problems. According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, family bankruptcies in Chapter 12 increased by almost 20% in 2019 compared to 2018. In Wisconsin, most family businesses filed for bankruptcy, but dairy farmers in the “America’s Milk State” hoped that 2020 would bring sunnier weather.
According to USDA reports, both milk prices and milk production rose in January compared to the previous year, which was welcome news for dairy farmers. In the same month, the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed in the United States. In March, schools were closed, restaurants closed, takeaway or delivery services restricted, and grocery stores began to limit the number of dairy products customers could buy. As a result, dairy farmers across the country have been forced to waste thousands of gallons of milk every day.
In large milk producing countries like Wisconsin, multi-generation farmers like Jim and Katie DiGangi, who own and operate Darlington Ridge Farms, a large farm with 2,700 cows, have been hard hit.
“It is a very scary time that is very scary for our families and our employees, as well as for the families of our employees, from a business and emotional perspective,” Katie DiGangi told CBS News.
Usually about a third of DiGangis milk goes to restaurants and another third goes to grocery stores. There has been a 40% drop in sales in recent months, largely due to closures caused by the virus.
Darlington Ridge now pours out about 50% of the milk it produces every day. That’s about 15,000 gallons of milk spilled – worth $ 20,000 – a day. The DiGangis are currently being reimbursed for their losses by the processors who pasteurize and package the milk for sale and distribution, but they do not know how long this will take. And because so many dairy farmers rely on restaurants as consumers of dairy products and restaurants are closed, there is also a decline in demand for other dairy products such as butter, cheese and sour cream from farmers.
Many farmers seek help from the federal government. While lawmakers are discussing what could go into a “phase 4” for coronavirus relief, the interests of dairy products ensure that farmers are not forgotten. Tim Trotter, managing director of Edge Dairy Farm Cooperative, which works for dairy farmers, wants a comprehensive program to make farmers whole.
“We don’t want to leave farmers behind,” Trotter told CBS News. He asks lawmakers to help dairy farmers make up for lost earnings from discarded milk, and he wants the US to buy excess cheese for food banks, as in the past. In the United States, there are about 1.4 billion additional cheeses around the country that hang around in the cold store because dairy farmers are already producing too much cheese.
“We need support, we need government help in this situation,” said Katie DiGangi. “It is very bad.”