Dairy farmers lament milk dumps in chaotic market

Sarah Eames | The Daily Star

Barb Hanselman, co-owner of Del-Rose farm in Bloomville, is shown Thursday in the dairy barn with some of her milking herd.

Facing a reduced workforce, a limited market and plummeting milk prices amid the coronavirus pandemic, dairy farmers across the country have resorted to dumping their milk.

“This is my 38th year on a dairy farm, and I have a funny feeling this will be the worst year I’ve weathered,” said Barb Hanselman, who owns and operates Del-Rose Farm in Bloomville with her husband, Ernie.

As of the end of April, the Hanselmans have not had to dump any milk.

As members of the Dairy Farmers of America cooperative, Hanselman said her farm is subject to different arrangements for marketing milk than an independent farm, but even cooperatives are feeling the strain of a spiraling market.

Milk produced at Del-Rose Farm, just 15 miles from the Saputo plant in the town of Delhi hamlet of Fraser**, may theoretically be given priority over milk produced at farms further away, Hanselman said.

“You’re not paying a lot of money to transport milk to be processed if you’re closer.” 

Doug DiMento, director of corporate communications for Agri-Mark, said the New England-based cooperative closed its membership five years ago because of excess milk on the market.

“We’ve got more milk than we’ve ever had. With the closing of restaurants, schools and colleges — that’s 40 to 50% of our business, the food service industry,” he said. “It’s a huge blow.”

“Even with an uptick in retail sales, it’s not enough to offset the loss of the food service market,” said Hanselman, who serves as secretary on the American Dairy Association North East’s board of directors. “If there’s too much milk and we cannot find a place for it, it has to get dumped. It’s a problem all across the United States.”

When milk is dumped, it is typically poured into manure pits, Hanselman said. With a high nutrient content, milk can also be spread on fields as fertilizer.

“You can’t just pour it down the drain,” she said. “Milk is tough on septic systems with its high butterfat content.”

Acknowledging the wave of public criticism directed toward farmers forced to dump their milk while many struggle to put food on the table amid the coronavirus pandemic, DiMento noted that the dumped milk is raw.

In New York state, raw milk must be sold directly from farm to consumer and is subject to rigorous testing by the Department of Agriculture and Markets.

“The dumping is not the dairy farmers’ fault,” he said. “The plants are full and there’s nowhere for it to be processed.”

“It’s important that milk continues to move,” Hanselman said. Fluid milk’s relatively short shelf life and the limited availability of refrigerated storage “creates a backlog of product within the industry.”

To adapt and to meet the increased demand among households amid the coronavirus pandemic, food pantries are developing milk distribution systems such as voucher cards and designated dairy days for patrons to come pick up the products, Hanselman said.

“There’s been too much milk for quite a while now,” she said. “I think it’s hard for people to wrap their heads around how much milk is produced by one dairy farm.”

Del-Rose Farm, with its 60 milking head, produces an average 600 gallons a day, Hanselman said; a volume typical of local producers but small compared to the statewide average.

“We tend to go through hills and valleys in milk pricing,” Hanselman explained. “The federal milk marketing order system was put in place to ensure all Americans had access to Grade A fluid milk, but that was 70 years ago. I don’t think it serves our industry the way it should because our industry has changed, just like everything else has.”

Federal milk prices have been consistently low for the past five years, Hanselman said, but she was “cautiously optimistic things were starting to improve.”

“This was supposed to be a bounce-back year,” DiMento said.

“For the first few months of 2020, there weren’t wild milk checks, but it was getting better,” Hanselman said. “The virus totally obliterated that.”

Dairy Farmers of America* directed its members to reduce their milk production 15% by May 1, Hanselman said.

“When times are good, farmers make more milk to make more money,” Hanselman said. “When times are tough, they make more milk to pay their bills.”

Hanselman surmised that the blow to the industry caused by the virus is unprecedented in most any dairy farmer’s lifetime.

“I don’t think a lot of us have seen anything like this before,” she said. “We haven’t seen war in our country. It’ll be interesting when we get to the other side to see how bad things got.”

“Any dairy farmer that survives this is a damn good farmer, in my opinion,” DiMento said. “They’ve survived a lot.”

“I hate it,” Hanselman said. “I don’t know what the answer is. I think we can all agree the system doesn’t work the way it should. Even if we had a good system in place, COVID would have rocked us. It’s rocked everyone.”

Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at seames@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.

*changed at 6:45 p.m. May 2 to correct the organization that directed a drop in production.

**changed at 6:45 p.m. May 2 to clarify the location of the plant.

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