Dairy farmers forced to adjust their practices during COVID-19 pandemic
Shocking videos of dairy farmers dumping thousands of gallons of milk have been circulating on the internet, as the coronavirus outbreak has forced dairy farmers across the country to dump their excess milk supply to offset their losses and keep prices stable.
Arizona dairy farmers have taken part in this dumping process to help stay afloat. With demand for milk down from stay at home orders shutting down schools and restaurants, farmers are trying to reduce surpluses they can’t afford to produce and hold onto, while also maintaining prices for consumers. Cooperatives, including the United Dairymen of Arizona, have been working to help their farmers survive.
“We have about 12 million pounds of milk a day and we’re dumping about a million a day,” said Keith Murfield, CEO of the United Dairymen of Arizona.
The co-op is losing about $160,000 a day by dumping milk from approximately 69 member farms, Murfield said. The milk, however, is not being entirely wasted in the dumping process and is being run through digesters that convert it into such products as gas and electricity in some places. Other excess milk is fed to the cows and young livestock.
“You just can’t dump it on the ground, you got to be careful where you put it,” Murfield said.
In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey on April 1 requested that the federal government restart trade between the state and Mexico to allow Arizona dairy farmers to export their excess product after the Mexican Ministry of Health ceased operations on March 26. Mexico is one of Arizona’s biggest trade partners, and the ministry’s closure has caused losses in many industries.
A majority of the dumped milk was never destined for cartons on shelves in grocery stores. The industry has taken a major hit as a result of closing restaurants and fast-food chains that would typically be purchasing cheese and other dairy products in bulk.
Kerr Family Dairy has seen these effects on their farm in Buckeye, where about 1,100 cows are milked thrice a day, said Wes Kerr, manager of dairy production.
“You have this supply disruption where there is plenty of supply but the supply chain is now getting that product to a different avenue,” he said.
With this surplus of milk, farmers are eager to stock shelves in supermarkets with their full range of products to make up for the losses they face from milk dumping. Despite some minor improvements in stocking, farmers remain burdened with large surpluses of milk, Kerr said.
Surplus milk isn’t the only problem in the age of pandemic, labor activists say. Farmworkers in agricultural practices were deemed essential, putting them at risk of becoming infected.
United Farm Workers, the first farmworker labor union in the U.S., is working to provide some benefits for nonunionized farmworkers in California and Washington state, said Marc Grossman, a spokesman for the group.
Many farm laborers continue to work out of necessity – despite the risks, he said.
“Farmworkers are uniquely vulnerable because they often work in and commute and live in very substandard overcrowded often unsanitary conditions,” Grossman said.
Major labor protection laws, such as the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act, exclude farmworkers.
“It would be great if farmworkers were able to be treated the same way that other essential workers are,” Grossman said.