Pennsylvania dairy farmers have found themselves with no option other than to dump excess milk, despite reports of grocery stores with empty dairy aisles and purchase limits for customers. How is it possible that while plenty of milk is available, farmers are left to dump it into manure pits, or spread it on fields?
It's a complicated set of factors, but simply put, Covid-19 has radically disrupted normal milk supply and demand.
Food Service and Retail, Processing
Dairy consumption levels are nowhere near normal levels before COVID-19, with the most significant shift being dairy consumption in schools and restaurants. In the United States, nearly 8% of all fluid milk is consumed in schools. Schools and restaurants in Pennsylvania are still feeding people, but the amount has significantly decreased.
For example, restaurants and institutions typically buy large plastic bags of milk for dispensers or one-serving cartons. At-home consumers buy products in gallons and half-gallons. Dairy processing plants have separate manufacturing lines for gallons, food-service bags, and smaller one-serving containers.
Production lines are unable to easily switch to filling such different containers. Sometimes the shift must be to a different plant entirely.
It takes time for plants to produce what is needed when it changes in such a drastic way. This shift, along with measures to protect workers from exposure to Covid-19 is slowing processing.
Like many other shelves, dairy cases were hit hard in grocery stores. Grocers were, and still are, finding their shelves cleared out before it is time to restock. To limit panic-buying and keep customers content, limited purchases on dairy were imposed. Stores would rather their shoppers have some of what they need, rather than none.
Limited Storage Space
Milk sold in the stores was typically picked up from the farm about just 48 hours prior. With warmer Spring weather comes higher milk production. Just like many of us, cows love the nice weather. Plants that process cheese and other products cannot store and process the increased supply coming their way. Farms and processing plants, and food banks and pantries simply don't have enough refrigerated storage to hold this excess supply.
Processed dairy products are sold around the world. Exports are down, with ships backed up in ports around the globe. Processors do not have the storage capacity to delay processing.
As a consumer, how can you help?
Keep buying milk. American Dairy Association North East is working at the retail level in a couple of key ways to stop retailers from limiting milk sales.
If you see a store that is limiting milk sales, (in PA, NY, MD, DE, NJ or north east VA) please take a picture, note the location, date and time and send to Beth Meyer firstname.lastname@example.org.
As dairy farmers and consumers, we are not alone. Continue to support your local communities and farmers and purchase dairy at your grocery stores. We are in this together.
If you are a Pennsylvania dairy farmer fighting this hardship, there are resources.