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Coronavirus is forcing some Idaho dairies to dump thousands of gallons of milk a day

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DV Dairy in Buhl has been forced to dump milk because of market disruptions due to coronavirus. It has dumped more than 180,000 pounds (about 21,000 gallons) this week alone. | Courtesy DV Dairy

Hank DeVries, 23, returned home to take over the family dairy in Buhl just a few months ago, finally allowing his parents to retire and safely pass the business on to the next generation.

Now, DeVries is watching his family’s hard work go down the drain.

“We started to receive word on Sunday that milk was having to be dumped,” said Rick Naerebout, the CEO of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association. “That was a surprise. I didn’t think we would be at that point for a couple of weeks.”

For the first time in decades, DeVries and other dairy owners across Idaho — mostly in the Magic Valley, so far — are dumping thousands of gallons of milk because they can’t sell it. Although some Idahoans can’t always find milk at their grocery stores, restaurant closures and other disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic has led to a steep drop in demand, leaving milk producers with an oversupply and significant financial losses.

“Cows get milked every day,” DeVries said. “We can’t just stop milking cows.”

Just 3% of the milk produced at Idaho dairies actually makes its way to milk cartons. The vast majority of Idaho milk is used to make cheese, according to Idaho State Department of Agriculture estimates, as well as other dairy products like whey powder, butter, ice cream, sour cream, yogurt and more.

Most of those Idaho products are purchased in bulk by the food service industry or are shipped overseas. Although people are now buying more food to cook at home than usual, they aren’t purchasing products like butter, cheese or creams at the same rate as thousands of Idaho restaurants operating at full capacity.

“We’re not seeing that demand transfer, one-to-one, to what people are buying in the grocery store,” Naerebout said. “What they deliver to the (food service sector) is not the same packaging, size or anything like what you see in the grocery store. It’s not an easy transition to then be able to take what they’re producing and put it in consumer packaging. They’re just not set up to do it.”

Labor issues and fallout from tariffs and trade wars contributed to the loss of about 20 Idaho dairies last year. Coronavirus will likely hit the industry even harder.

“Undoubtedly this is going to accelerate the loss of dairies,” Naerebout said. “I don’t see any way around that. You cannot sustain these type of losses.”

But dairy industry losses were likely only the “tip of the spear” for Idaho agriculture, Naerebout said. Many sectors of Idaho’s agriculture industry might soon be in the same situation, as restaurants that usually purchased food products in bulk close and Idaho food processing companies reach their storage limits. Some packaging plants that usually work with Idaho dairy products have switched to meet the intense demand for toilet paper and paper towels.

“A plant that would be making paper containers for butter to be stored in, they are now making paper towels and toilet paper,” said Kristi Spence, the spokeswoman for Dairy West. “It disrupts the entire supply chain.”

Why can’t Idaho dairies donate or sell their own milk?

Social media posts of Idaho dairies dumping milk have led to some Idahoans asking if they can purchase the milk instead. Unfortunately, most Idaho dairies aren’t in the position of selling or donating their own milk. You need a license from the USDA to sell raw, unpasteurized milk.

“It would be an option, but most dairies aren’t set up to do that,” Naerebout said. “And most dairies are going to shy away from the risk associated with selling milk directly, because you then take on the liability of making someone sick if the milk is unpasteurized.”

Many Magic Valley dairymen like DeVries sell their milk through a milk marketing cooperative, who deliver milk to dairy processing plants. When the dairy processing plants hit their limit, they don’t purchase milk from the co-op, who then have to instruct their farmers to dump the milk.

“This is just unprecedented,” DeVries said. “You couldn’t have seen this really coming with how fast it all hit.”

Theoretically, Naerebout said, dairy product manufacturers could retrofit plants to make more products for individual consumers. But the cost to do so would be substantial — as well as the cost to transition back after the pandemic ends, markets stabilize and restaurants reopen.

Dairy West, which represents about 430 dairy farms in Idaho and more than 100 in Utah, is working with more than 100 school districts to make sure they have the equipment they need to keep distributing dairy products in school lunches. Spence said they’re also delivering Idaho cheese to front-line healthcare workers at Saint Alphonsus and Intermountain Healthcare and connecting struggling Idaho food banks directly to food processors so they keep making the dairy products the charities desperately need.

But all those adjustments and workarounds take time to implement. Cows need to be milked every day, which means dairy farmers can’t wait for the gradual changes to have an impact.

“We’re not just dumping milk to spite people,” DeVries said. “I would give it away if I could. If I could sit out front with a lemonade stand, but with milk and cookies, I would do it.”

Want to help? Buy Idaho dairy products

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, dairy producers and other farmers can qualify for Small Business Administration emergency loans for the first time, which Naerebout should help significantly.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is also due to begin distributing $9.5 billion in emergency funding, which should be used to offset some dairy losses.

“We’ve gone through a lot of stuff on our dairy,” DeVries said. His parents started the dairy in 1988 with just 30 milk cows. Now they have about 950. “We’re usually pretty chin-up people with this kind of stuff … This is just another bump on the road, but it’s one that no one saw coming.”

The best way to help Idaho dairy farmers, DeVries and industry leaders said, is for Idahoans to buy dairy products to cook with their families at home, and continue supporting restaurants that are still open. Spence from Dairy West said many retailers are starting to lift quotas on dairy products in grocery stores, since there’s plenty of supply available.

“If there’s a big demand, we can fill that demand,” DeVries said. “We can do that. It would help us immensely if we could consistently fill the demand.”

This article first appeared in the Idaho Statesman. It is used here with permission.

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