Share Public Health Transcript: COVID-19 Impact on Dairy Farmers

Season 1 Episode 29

Hannah Shultz Welcome to Share Public Health, the Midwestern Public Health Training Center’s podcast connecting you to public health topics, issues, and colleagues throughout our region and the country highlighting that we all share in public health. Thank you for tuning in to the series focusing on COVID-19 and its impact on our region of Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas.

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Hannah Shultz Darin Von Ruden is a third-generation dairy farmer who is very active with the Farmers Union on local, state, and national levels, earning several awards for member recruitment. He and his wife, Joanne, have two children. He is President of the Wisconsin Farmers Union Board of Directors and the Wisconsin Farmers Union Foundation. He also serves on the National Farmers Union Board is chair of the National Farmers Union Membership Committee. We’ve asked Darin to talk to us today about COVID-19 and its effects on dairy farmers. So in a previous episode of Share Public Health we talked about meatpacking plants and how and why workers there are at high risk of COVID-19. Today we’re going to talk about dairy farmers and their industry. Darin, can you start out by giving us an overview of what it’s like to be a dairy farmer right now?

Darin Von Ruden Well you know, we’re certainly in interesting times with the whole COVID-19 issue. As a small family farm we don’t necessarily have to deal with issues of employees coming in that could possibly contaminate the workplace or bring the virus in but we certainly have a lot of friends and neighbors in the dairy business that are in that situation. You know, it’s a struggle because in the business that we’re in with the larger you get the more people contact you have. You know, a small family farm like our own, it’s really easy to isolate because we do all the work by ourselves, so we don’t have, you know, ten, fifteen, or twenty people coming in the farm on a daily basis. The isolation issue is, you know, kind of normal for dairy farmers, especially smaller dairy farmers but when you look at, you know . . . we also like to socialize too so if you’re not able to do anything on weekends or even week nights after the farming chores get done that does start to take us a toll on the mental health and the physical well-being of farmers out in the countryside.

Hannah Shultz Do you know or what are you hearing from the folks who run larger operations about how they’re dealing with social distancing when they have to have a lot of employees coming in?

Darin Von Ruden So, you know, they’ve tried to make sure that they’re keeping families together versus having, you know, a husband works one shift and a wife work another shift. Have them both work, you know, the same shifts so they’re not bringing in multiple families, trying to keep it as few families coming in as possible so that way they’re working together, going home together, and not contaminating another family or another individual. So it’s really a question of timing. And then, you know, with schools out, how are the kids being taken care of. You know, one thing about the Hispanic community, they seem to have figured out a way to make sure that they’re watching out for each other and then trying to make sure they’re having as few contacts as possible.

Hannah Shultz That’s interesting. We’ve heard of similar scheduling solutions in other industries as well on the news and in conversation, so it’s interesting to hear that the same kind of solutions are being found in farming.

Darin Von Ruden Yeah.

Hannah Shultz Many small family dairy farms – and it sounds like you have a small family dairy farm – have just one or two people or maybe just a small number of people who are milking the cows and doing the farm chores. Do you know of any farmers who have had COVID-19 and not been able to work?

Darin Von Ruden You know, at this time I do not know of any which is, you know, let’s knock on wood and hopefully that’ll continue to be the way. You know, it’s one of those things that with our isolation that we do on a daily basis as small producers, you know, we won’t get in that contact but we do have to run to town for feed for the cows, minerals, and just everyday supplies that you need so there is some of that contact. But I have personally talked with other board members with Wisconsin the Farmers Union too that have not been able identify any farmers that have contracted the virus at all.

Hannah Shultz That’s great. Have you talked about if a farmer does have COVID and isn’t able to do their chores how the community would respond?

Darin Von Ruden Yeah, you know, I think it’s kind of like any other natural disaster, you know, if a farmer neighbor has a barn fire or loses a building or even loses a family member to a farm accident or just a natural death, you know, the neighbors go and help other neighbors out and I’m sure that would be the same situation with COVID-19. You know, just making sure that if there is that situation that you follow the proper protocols of, you know, masks and gloves and make sure you wash your hands and try to eliminate as many factors as you can to contract it yourself. One thing with smaller family farms, you know, we like to do all the work ourselves so a lot of times neighbors don’t know how to do the work on your farm. Every farm is just a little bit different so it would still take some contact and some help from the farmer that has contracted the disease but, you know, at this point – and knock on wood – I don’t know anybody personally yet and hopefully it’ll stay that way.

Hannah Shultz Yeah that’s great. Being a farmer is a really unique situation, you’re very well set up for isolation, which is great in a situation like this. From what I’ve seen in my experience, farming communities are very close-knit and really help each other out, so you’re also very well set up to step in if someone needs help, so that’s a really unique environment to be in and I think it says a lot about the strengths of farming. We’ve heard stories and seen stories on the news about farmers having to dump their milk. Can you explain why this is happening and how we might be able to avoid it?

Darin Von Ruden So one of the issues is really timing. Normally March, April, May are the highest producing months of the year across the nation, so with COVID-19 hitting at the time it did we were probably in the situation we might have to dump some milk, but it was going to be, you know, small quantities versus what actually had to be dumped. The biggest issue was really the processing sector didn’t have the capacity to handle all of the milk with the cancellation of orders. With schools closing, restaurants closing, all those orders all of a sudden were not needed at all. Then, in some situations it actually was that the plants, because of becoming so specialized in what they do – you know, they just produced for hotels and restaurants – they weren’t able to reconfigure their packaging to be able to get to the normal, regular consumer. So those plants really weren’t taking on anything. Other plants that were able to do some other kinds of products than what they normally do simply didn’t have contracts because of the schools being closed and the restaurants being closed.

Hannah Shultz Right at the very beginning you said that supply is highest in March, April, and May. Why is that?

Darin Von Ruden Well, in the dairy industry we know it as the spring flush, so back many many years ago most farmers would breed their animals so they can calf in February, March, April and then usually the first three months of their production for the year are their highest producing ones. The reason farmers did that back then was because you looked at spring pasture coming on, so if weather’s really good you can get the cattle out in March but usually it’s April or first part of May before cows can get out on pasture. Then you have the fresh green grass growing, which gives them more milk production too. They’ve got the higher nutrient-dense plants that they’re eating and so they just naturally produce more food. So that breeding cycle is really kind of hard to break even though a lot of farms now are in a year-round production cycle. We still have those months of March, April, and May [that] are our highest producing months yet.

Hannah Shultz That makes complete sense but I had never considered that. Yeah, the timing of that with COVID hitting the US right at that time has some compounding challenges. You mentioned the processing facilities might be set up to do one kind of product and not another, which is interesting when we think about one of the tensions we’ve been seeing around supply and hunger. We see lines at food banks are really long and grocery stores don’t have any milk on the shelves, but then we see stories about farmers dumping milk. And one of the reasons I’ve seen for that is if a line is set to do the little, teeny tiny butter packets that restaurants order, you can’t just turn that into a gallon of milk. Can you explain a little bit about how milk and milk products get to consumers and why we have this tension of increased demand right now but we’re still seeing milk being dumped at times?

Darin Von Ruden Yeah, so you know, it all boils down to really the processing mechanisms. The cows produce the same amount of milk on a daily basis around the country, then the milk haulers come and get the milk and take it to the processing facilities. Then, the processors depending on who they are – some smaller cooperatives have a variety of dairy products that they make like hard cheeses, yogurt, cottage cheese, cheese curds, butter, and then maybe some fluid. A lot of your cheese plants in Wisconsin, though, they specialize in cheese and over the last 15/20 years the dairy industry and really all agriculture has moved towards more specialization. So we’re gonna specialize in the butter, we’re gonna specialize in Colby cheese, or we’re gonna specialize in cheese curds. So the plants are set up to be more efficient which the majority admire, but when you come to a time like the COVID-19 crisis in March and April when we all of a sudden have a change in the consumer appetite we’re not set up to move to that direction in a hurry. So like you said, if a plant is set up for small patties for restaurants they can’t just convert to one-pound box of butter overnight. It takes, you know, different equipment to do that and so every plant is really maxing out their production pretty much year-round right now. When you looked at even like a gallon of milk, you know, grocery stores did run out of those, you know. It would have been nice if there would have been a way for the industry to figure out how to get the cardboard boxes or the twelve-ounce pints of milk into a container to sell to the consumer for the same price as a gallon of milk or maybe a little bit more to cover some of those extra packaging costs but for some reason we didn’t get to that point. So then there was not a need for the extra milk that was being produced at this time and then that’s where, you know, sorrily we had to discard that milk even though there was store shelves that were empty and some families didn’t get all the milk on a weekly basis that they probably would have consumed. But it was, you know, that transportation, distribution mechanism that really caused some of those shortages.

Hannah Shultz I’m reading a book right now that’s about hyperspecialization and how that really does increase efficiency and is really great in ideal conditions but as soon as there’s, you know, even a small thing – and COVID-19 is definitely not a small thing – but even one small thing can just throw off an entire industry when different plants are that hyperspecialized.

Darin Von Ruden Right, right. Yeah.

Hannah Shultz So is there anything else our listeners should know about dairy farming especially right now during the pandemic?

Darin Von Ruden Well, you know, I certainly think . . . you know, [there’s] one thing that we’re really good at and that’s producing milk and that’s one of the reasons why we seen the milk dumping this year, is that we’ve, as farmers, have become so efficient at what we do that we’re actually over-producing milk right now. It’s not just this year, we’ve had this issue for, you know, maybe a couple decades already where we’re just producing too much milk. And it’s not just the U.S. neither, its worldwide. That’s one reason why we’re seeing depressed prices for dairy products right now at the farm level. Consumers in some places – especially with COVID-19 now – the consumer prices really went up quite a bit compared to what the farm level price is at. I think one of the things that as a farmer that I would want the consumer to know about dairy products is that it costs us so much every day to produce the milk and to try to get us to produce milk for zero dollars so you can have milk for ten cents a gallon in the supermarket just can’t happen. You know, as an industry I think COVID-19 has taught us one thing and that’s we need more diversity. You know, as I’ve talked about some specialization and what that’s done for making things more efficient, COVID-19 has certainly pointed out that those efficiencies might not always be the best thing for the system. So, I think we really need to take a new look at what’s going on in agriculture and how we need to become more diversified so that we’ve got a solid way to produce food but also make sure that we’ve got an adequate food supply for the rest of the people in the country and really to keep our nation strong because if we don’t have a good food system, we don’t have a strong nation.

Hannah Shultz Yeah absolutely. So making sure that we have strong distribution systems and strong farmers is really really important and we’re seeing just how important right now. So thank you so much for sharing a bit about what you’re seeing with COVID-19 and more about how the dairy industry works. Thank you so much for sharing with our listeners and I hope you have a good afternoon.

Darin Von Ruden Well, thank you Hannah.

Hannah Shultz Thank you for joining us today. Special thanks to our guests and to members of our planning committee Rima Afifi, Anne Crotty, Paul Gilbert, Mike Hoenig, Hannah Shultz, and Laurie Walkner. Funding for this webinar is provided by the Health Resources and Services Administration. Please see the podcast notes for an evaluation and transcript.

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