Farmers Face Their Worst-Case Scenario

While some dairies have been able to donate their milk to food banks, many dairy cooperative members don’t have that option. Many lack pasteurization and processing equipment. Without that capacity, selling raw milk isn’t a legal option.

Even if farmers can gain access to the necessary pasteurization equipment, there are numerous regulatory hoops to jump through before they can begin selling milk. It might not make financial sense, says Stone. 

Some contracts penalize selling the milk outside the cooperative system. “They basically have to buy back their own milk that they’ve already produced,” explains Stone and, if they leave the cooperative altogether to do that, it could be very tough to get back in. “It’s a very difficult situation,” she adds.  

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ALBANY, MN – APRIL 19: Kerry and Barb Mergen outside their now empty chicken house with a straggler … [+]STAR TRIBUNE VIA GETTY IMAGES

Hog farmers and chicken growers are also beginning to face these difficult decisions. Delaware-based Allen Harim Foods sent a letter April 8 announcing plans to reduce the amount of chickens by 2 million. Meanwhile, according to reporting in the Baltimore SunPerdue’s nearby Salisbury, Maryland plant hasn’t asked the same of its growers but whether that continues depends on plants staying open. 

Iowa hog farmer Lance Schiele tweeted on April 25 that “1,250 little pigs will get gassed” this week. On a Facebook post to the page Farm Babe run by Michele Miller, farmers are talking about these decisions, too. 

Carolyn Olson, a contract pig farmer in Minnesota, describes what’s happening right now as “not pretty.” She worries that the public can’t possibly understand how limited the options are for pork farmers. “We can’t hold them back [from slaughter] until the situation improves because the equipment at the plants can’t handle heavy hogs,” she explains. “Not to mention the piglets being born need a place to go,” she adds. 

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“We can do things to slow growth but, even with that, we need somewhere for them to go,” she says. “Between Tyson, JBS, and Smithfield, we’re down 50,000 head per day slaughter capacity. Other plants are running on slow downs as they try to work split shifts to allow for worker safety.” (Update: Capacity is now down 100,000 head per day in the state, according to the Minnesota Pork Producers Executive Director.) 

Farmers are desperately trying to avoid wasting or dumping, so those with the capacity are making donations to food banks to mitigate those losses. But Olson says it’s difficult with pork because the meat has to be processed prior to donation, and, by regulation, that processor has to be inspected for food safety. 

The options are limited. “Many small town butcher shops in our area are booked out for at least 3 months, and the pigs are ready right now,” she explains. 

Dairy farmers also have limited options right now, says dairy specialist Stone. They could “dry out” their cows and stop the lactation process, but that’s hard on the animals and risks infections like mastitis. It also means housing, feeding and caring for cows when farmers may not be bringing in any money. 

What’s often left then is the choice to dump the milk or sell the cows for beef. The latter floods the beef market, but Stone says dairy farmers will usually take any option over dumping their own milk. “They worked hard for it,” she explains. 

Farmers have to be thinking ahead, too. Shifting their operations to something less perishable like powdered milk for export wouldn’t make sense in the long term. Once the threat of the virus has passed, the market for powdered milk might not be as strong as fresh dairy, Stone argues. 

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Farmers with the capacity to process meat and sell it to consumers are in a very enviable position right now. Many are selling out on their own websites or taking orders through organizations like Eat Wild or Local Harvest. But there are challenges there, too.

City residents either don’t want to drive the distance to a rural farm right now or simply can’t—they’re under shelter-in-place orders to stay home—so farmers have to be able to deliver the meat in order to make those sales work. 

Dal Grooms, communications director for the Iowa Pork Producers Association, says she knows most Iowa pork farmers are doing what they can to avoid that worst-case scenario. “Some have found more barn space, changed to maintenance diets for pigs” or sold pigs to farmers with storage or to processors who can donate the pork to local food banks or pantries. 

Grooms also warns the situation is about to become more dire for Iowa’s 6,000 pig farmers. “What likely lies ahead will be gut-wrenching.”

Read the original article by Jenny Splitter at here.

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