Spilled milk

Why have dairy farmers been dumping their product?

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REGION — Last week, a company called Diehl Trucking created a stir on Facebook when it posted a video of one of its delivery trucks dumping two entire loads of milk.

“The sadness we felt dumping milk is indescribable,” said Kim Modrovsky, a co-owner of Diehl Trucking based in Tyler Hill, PA. “Many of the farmers whose milk was on that trailer we dumped are like family to us.”

Surprising as people found it to see a truckload of milk get literally flushed down the drain, it’s not actually abnormal, due to effects of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Across the country, dairy farmers have been forced to dump milk as processors have had to shut down during the pandemic.

“I can’t understand when, in the store, they’re limiting people to only a couple gallons per purchase of milk, why we’re dumping milk,” said Brian Smith, chairman of the Wayne County Board of Commissioners, and a dairy farmer himself.

The answer—Smith learned from the Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) local milk inspector—is that while demand for milk in grocery stores has gone up as a result of the pandemic, demand for dairy products in other markets, like restaurants, schools and hotels has become almost nonexistent, with those industries indefinitely dormant throughout the country. Processing plants that normally serve these shuttered industries have had to shut down or retool.

“The plant we deliver to in New Jersey produces cheese, and they had too much and couldn’t process anymore,” said Modrovsky, whose company makes deliveries for regional farmers. “We weren’t able to go to another plant because there is a surplus.”

Amy Erlwein, a Sullivan County dairy farmer for over 40 years and vice president of the board of Cornell Cooperative Extension in Sullivan County, describes the issue as a “disruption in the distribution chain.”

“All of those who are not eating in restaurants are home, and they drink milk and also use butter and cheese and everything else,” she said. “The supply should still be going to them, however, sometimes these [processors] can’t shift gears fast enough to make that happen.

Modrovsky described that same problem with the processor in New Jersey. “If the plant was scheduled to produce small mills for schools and now have to switch over to gallon size, as an example, they need [new] containers, labels, et cetera; it isn’t a change that can happen overnight.”

And when one plant closes, farmers aren’t able to simply deliver their product to another that is still operating.

“When they close processing plants, they can’t just send tractor-trailer loads, one after another, to other plants,” Smith said. “Most of the other plants are already taking as much milk as they can possibly take.”

Erlwein said that this pandemic highlights the industry’s failure to prepare for potential disruptions.

“It’s a glitch, and what really bothers me the most is that most large industry knows that these things can happen, and there’s no backup plan,” she said. “They really need to address that problem.”

The effect of this pandemic is yet another hardship for the region’s dairy farmers to endure. While there used to be more than 1,500 dairy farms in Wayne County, now there are less than 50. Diehl Trucking began about 42 years ago with a single truck that hauled milk. As the company has grown, Modrovsky said her family has seen and felt the diary industry’s decline.

“Hauling milk is about half of our work currently. Unfortunately it keeps decreasing as we keep losing more and more small family farms,” she said. “We have had to balance out our company by hauling other commodities over the years… but our hearts will always be with the dairy industry.”

Erlwein, who knows several Sullivan County dairy farmers who have had to dump their own supplies, said that some small dairy farmers lack trust in the industry during this kind of crisis.

“Some of the farmers are of course very skeptical, because they’re used to being told untrue things by the industry,” Erlwein said. She said it’s hard for her to tell what is and isn’t true.

Modrovsky said that DFA is doing “everything in their power” to mitigate the need for farmers and deliverers to keep dumping milk in the future. Diehl Trucking was scheduled to start making deliveries again as of Monday, April 6. She said that removing the limits on buying milk in stores would help the industry meet its increased demand from grocers, while balancing out its surplus from restaurants, schools and other industries.

“Everyone is working to get limitations that are currently in grocery stores for purchases or milk and milk products lifted so the public can buy as much as they would like. We are hopeful things will start evening out soon,” Modrovsky said.

Erlwein also said that grocery stores should not be placing limits on dairy in stores.

“There is no problem with the supply, it’s the processors who have the problem of shifting their gears,” she said. “Hopefully this disruption will be short, and these distributors and processors will get their acts together and try and figure out a way out of this… if this goes on too long, it will really be detrimental to farmers.”

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