How long can a person hold their breath?
Google says the average is only two minutes but that must be wrong because Hubs and I have been holding our breath for a couple of days now.
We are holding our breath waiting for the call that others have received telling them that the milk their farm produces doesn’t have a home and has to be dumped. If and how they will be paid still seems unclear. This is insult on top of injury for all of us as we watch the price we will be paid for our milk going forward plummet.
Like many of you reading this at first I couldn’t understand how it’s possible that some stores have empty dairy aisles, some stores are limiting how much milk you can buy and worst of all, some are going without and there is milk being wasted. But after talking to a few friends and thinking it through, I understand what is happening more and I wanted to turn around and explain it to you.
First, you need to know that during normal times a huge chunk of overall dairy consumption happens in schools and restaurants. Around 7% of all fluid milk is consumed at school. Think about how much sour cream a Mexican restaurant, cheese a pizza place or milk a local coffee shop goes through. While schools and restaurants are still feeding people, it’s nowhere near the levels it was when life was normal.
The switch from food service to retail
When a restaurant orders their sour cream, they order it pounds. When we buy sour cream at the store, we buy it by the tub. The sour cream plant has separate manufacturing lines for bulk and for tubs. With the pandemic suddenly there is very little call for bulk sour cream, they can’t keep tubs in stock at your local grocery store. So the plant stops making bulk sour cream because no one is buying it, they don’t have the extra storage room for it and they focus on producing tubs. The production lines that package bulk sour cream can’t just switch to making tubs because that’s not what they were designed to do. The plant switches their focus to stocking store shelves and they make all the tubs of sour cream they can, as fast as they can until they run out of the actual plastic tubs and have to wait for the manufacturer to get them more. But the manufacturer is running slower than normal because their staff is reduced because moms and dads are having to stay home to care for their kids. This change in what the sour cream plant produces means the plant can’t take in as much cream as it did before.
Meanwhile, the milk bottling plants are in the same boat. The stores are calling for more milk because the shelves are bare. The plant has lines that produce the gallons and half gallons people buy at the store, as well as lines that produce the little cardboard pints that go to schools. They can produce enough school milk on those lines in one day to supply the current reduced orders so the other six days of the week those lines sit still while all hands are on deck producing milk in jugs to refill store shelves for you.
Then you have the trucking. The delivery trucks start running as fast as they can to deliver to stores and the bigger distribution centers. But it’s not just the dairy delivery trucks doing this, it’s all the products that people are buying that need replacing showing up. But there’s only so many loading docks and workers to unload the product so trucks wait in line and it takes longer.
There are bottlenecks everywhere. It takes time to switch our plants to produce what is needed when it changes in such a drastic way. When you factor in that there are fewer people working because they have to stay home with their kids, those who are self quarantining because they have been exposed to the virus or are immune-compromised and can’t risk getting sick, the change is even slower.
Grocery store panic buying-
Then we have grocery stores. Most are used to panic buying when a snowstorm is forecasted, but the panic buying that happened made blizzard buying look like a blip on the radar. The dairy cases were cleared out because of everything I mentioned before and they had very angry customers in their ear about not being able to buy milk. So when the next delivery truck arrived, they put a limit on how many gallons you could buy. They knew it would be a problem for families that went through more milk than the limit, but decided it was better for families to not have all they wanted than for some to have none.
We all know that milk is perishable and has to be refrigerated. But did you know that when you buy a gallon of milk at the store it’s so fresh that it was likely picked up from the farm just 48 hours ago? This comes into play because plants simply don’t have the capacity to store massive amounts of milk or dairy products. Our dairy plants are designed to turn milk into the dairy products we love as efficiently as possible and simply can’t just store the extra milk that is out there.
Another big piece that is causing a backup in moving dairy products is that our dairy products are sold around the world, and right now those products that would be headed to China or Mexico aren’t going anywhere and they are taking up the limited storage space we have.
Why dump milk instead of donating it?
Why are farmers dumping milk instead of donating it to those in need? You can’t exactly drive the milk truck straight off the farm around neighborhoods and tell people to bring out their mason jars and fill ‘er up. Milk is minimally processed but is still processed. When milk comes into the plant it is tested for quality and safety. Fat levels are adjusted, it is pasteurized and homogenized and fortified with vitamins A and D and then bottled. As I explained above, those plants are already running at 100%, there simply isn’t the room to bring more milk into the plant to bottle it to be donated.
What is happening to fix this?
That being said, dairy leadership is working together to ask our government to buy the products we do have in storage to supply food banks. They are also working with stores to remove limits on dairy products. If you want to help those in need to get dairy products, visit givedairy.com to make a donation to Second Harvest Food Bank of Southern Wisconsin or donate HERE if you want to donate in your area. The programs we have in place in our dairy industry are busy working to make sure schools can get coolers and other items needed to better manage dairy products for the change in how kids are getting food (you can learn more and make a donation to that cause HERE). But those things aren’t immediate and doesn’t help the farmers today that are pulling the plug on their tanks and watching their milk go down the drain.
We have a perfect storm on our hands that no one could have imagined. As dairy farmers, our whole mission is to feed families like yours. No one wants to see milk being dumped down the drain. Everyone is scrambling to fix this problem. Meanwhile, we keep holding our breath, praying that we don’t get that call to dump our milk because at this historic moment that’s all we can do.