Photos of milk being dumped into fields and cries to support dairy farmers have flooded social media and TV newscasts since the United States reported its first cases of COVID-19. Local dairy farmers say that the situation is exactly as it's being portrayed.
In January, Rick Balzer, of Balzer Dairy Farm, just outside of Owatonna, was selling his milk at $19 per hundred weight – the unit of measurement for weight used in certain commodities, including milk. By March, he was selling his product at $16/hundred weight. By June the price will be as little as $11, he said.
“It’s going to be devastating,” Blazer said. “We’ve been going through this for the last four years with low milk prices, and one of these days I will run out of cash and have to sell. I am using my retirement to keep us going.”
Though Blazer admits that the dropping dairy prices has been an issue for a number of years, the pandemic has made times especially difficult. According to the information he received from his creamery, the rapid closure of the restaurant service industry was the first nail in the COVID-19 coffin for dairy farmers.
“Those creameries that sell into that business, those are the ones you’re seeing dumping milk,” Balzer said. “Our creamery we sell to makes all our product into cheese, and that product is still moving and our co-op is doing well, but the price is still down.”
Tom Marzinske, a dairy farmer with 100 cows just outside of Janesville, also felt the distressing impact of the state of the dairy industry, taking a 30% decrease in dairy sales. He said he has's heard that school closures is one of the major reasons the milk market has fallen off a cliff.
“The bottling plants that are tooled to fill those little cartons for schools, they can’t just switch over to gallon jugs,” Marzinske said, adding that once milk is produced it is processed and put on the shelf for sale in a matter of days. “With those places shut down there is no market and the only thing to do is to dump.”
The schools' shut down played a role in the decline in milk prices and the “grab-and-go” dairy products such as yogurt cups, but statistics Blazer's seen show that overall dairy consumption is on the rise.
“I know that cheese us is up because people are eating a lot of pizzas yet,” Balzer said with a chuckle. “But fluid milk use is up, too, because people are getting milk to take home and feed their children. Feeding your kids cereal and milk in the morning is a good way to keep them busy for a little while.”
Despite the reportedly consumption of dairy in households being up, Balzer and Marzinske say that the stress COVID-19 has brought to their farms can be overwhelming.
“We can’t shut down the cows,” Marzinske said. “We are still busy keeping our cows as healthy and as happy as we can, and we can’t stop doing what we normally do to take care of them. But we’re really taking a hit.”
Balzer's 120 cows are still his priority, but the reality of his situation is hard to escape.
“My wife pays the bills and it can be stressful for her when she’s trying to write checks and we don’t have the money because we have cut our milk payment down by a third,” Blazer said. “I can only hope this is temporary. I try to always look at things optimistically, but I didn’t build my robot barn so that it goes out of business.”
As far as what the public can do to support their local dairy farms, both farmers said that the answer is simple: eat more dairy.
“I’m hoping that [the state] can see that it will be fine to open things up,” Marzinske said. “We’ve learned enough about who is at risk so that they can be careful, so my hope is that everything will open again so we can get our market out there.”
Public speaking isn’t something that came easy to high school senior Vanessa Boyum — yet somehow, she found herself on stage last fall, addressing over a hundred of her peers from across the state about her experience as a student at the Owatonna Alternative Learning Center.
She was one of a number of students seeking election as a state officer for the Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs’ STARS organization. An acronym for “success, teamwork, achievement, recognition and self-esteem,” there are MAAP STARS groups in alternative learning settings across the state, providing leadership training and volunteer opportunities for participants.
Boyum initially joined the local chapter as a junior at the ALC, drawn to it because of the multiple statewide conferences where participants can meet other students from across Minnesota while participating in public speaking competitions, mock interviews and problem-solving exercises.
“She attended the spring conference last year, and decided to enter the public speaking competition then,” said Ray Ostfeld, math teacher and MAAP STARS advisor at the ALC. “It was outside of her comfort zone, but she wanted to try it. When this year came along, I approached her and said, ‘Would you be interested in running for state officer? I think you’d be really good at it.’”
Although Boyum had some practice under her belt, she said running for office was another challenge and a way for her to further push herself out of her shell.
“In the past, I was always shy. I didn’t reach out to people, but I told myself, ‘This year, I want to make friends. I want to put myself out there,’” she added. “I wanted a learning experience, and I wanted a challenge.”
In her address to those gathered at this year’s fall leadership conference, Boyum shared a little about herself — including the reasons why she wanted to be an officer. In addition to using it as an opportunity to grow, Boyum said she wanted to raise awareness about alternative education programs across the state.
“They get a bad reputation, and there’s a stigma against the students that go there. We have a choice to go and we enjoy going,” she said. “In our opinion, it’s better than a regular school.”
Ultimately, Boyum was one of five students elected from alternative education programs across Minnesota, voted by her peers at the same conference. Throughout the past year, she has been able to use the platform to raise awareness about alternative learning programs and the MAAP STARS organization.
After an overnight training in the Twin Cities, where the group set goals for the year and got matching professional attire, Boyum spent her senior year taking what she’d learned and applying it to conversations with both state legislators and her peers at the ALC.
Advocating for alternative programs
One of the biggest annual events for MAAP STARS students is Legislative Day, which took place this year in mid-February. An opportunity for teens to meet with their legislators and share their stories, Boyum said the gathering was also a chance to promote alternative education and of the MAAP STARS program.
“It’s an opportunity for students to go up and talk to legislators about some of the needs and some of the issues in alternative education,” added Ostfeld. “We’re trying to talk about what we do, give our students an opportunity to meet some of the decision-makers.”
Boyum added that she also discussed the benefits of the MAAP STARS program itself, seeking legislators’ help in getting a chapter of the organization into every alternative education setting in Minnesota. In Owatonna, Ostfeld added, funding for the group comes primarily from the 761 Foundation, a nonprofit that helps provide funding for district programming.
Through the speeches she’s given and the conversations she’s had with lawmakers, Boyum said she’s really developed her communication skills — something she had hoped to do in first joining the program. Apart from talking with legislators and MAAP STARS organizers, she added that the experience has also trickled down into her day-to-day life at the ALC.
“If people come up to me now, I’m more open to having a conversation with them and trying to actually talk, instead of shutting down,” she said. “With new students, I’ve been more open to going up and talking to them.”
Talking with newcomers to the ALC was a way Boyum saw to try and make everyone feel welcome — replicating one of the things she likes best about the school. It was also a way to meet one of the goals set by this year’s officers — raising awareness about bullying. While an anti-bullying talk they were set to give was cancelled due to the pandemic, she said she’s tried to bring this awareness to the ALC by reaching out to others and starting conversations with peers.
“All of the officers had gone through bullying and bonded through that, so we made a goal to raise awareness about it,” she added. “At the ALC in general, it’s an anti-bullying zone.”
‘She’s that rare unicorn’
With enrollment that hovers around 90 students in ninth through 12th grade, Boyum said the size of the ALC likely has something to do with the welcoming environment. In her time at the school, Boyum also worked closely with educational assistant Sherry Baker to found the school’s Hippocampus Club, which gives students a creative outlet for documenting their experiences.
“It’s an after-school club where we scrapbook and use mixed media. Basically, the idea is to help students celebrate their everyday life,” said Baker. “[Boyum] was very instrumental in helping me get that going in year one, and she’s incredibly creative.”
Baker also helped Boyum with her election speech last fall before the leadership conference. While they went over some slight grammatical changes and practiced the presentation, Baker said the words were all Boyum’s.
“She’s years ahead of her time as a teenager. She writes in an authentic voice and she’s very confident in her writing,” said Baker. “ She’s that rare unicorn where she knows who she is, and the more she works in this capacity, the more she’s confident in who she is and how what she has to say impacts others.”
Since the fall, Baker said she’s seen Boyum continue to grow through her senior year and through her role in the MAAP STARS program. Ostfeld agrees, also recalling how hard Boyum worked on her election address — pacing around the conference, running through it a final few times before going up on stage.
“I’ve had the opportunity to listen to students give their initial speech in October, and then see when they get to the end of the year how they’ve evolved. To a number, they’re all much more confident speakers and much more able to spontaneously answer questions,” he said. “She’s just been a leader in the school, and she’s evolved tremendously as a student as well.”
While this year’s spring conference was cancelled due to the pandemic, Boyum said she’s keeping in touch with the other officers remotely — looking ahead to a relaxing summer and then starting cosmetology school next year.
“Her creativity, her honesty, her leadership skills,” said Baker, “they’re all going to lead her far into the future.”
Rice and Steele counties, like the state of Minnesota, have again seen a steep rise in COVID-19 cases.
In Minnesota, the total confirmed COVID-19 cases hit 9,365 Thursday, up 786 from Wednesday, the largest single-day jump in cases. It continues a string of days of accelerating case counts as testing for the virus intensifies. Steele County had 10 additional cases from Wednesday to Thursday, Rice had 19. Since Thursday, Rice County has had 36 more confirmed cases.
Steele County now has a total of 41 positive cases. The age range of cases is teens to those in their 70s. Rice’s numbers are higher, with 53 cases in all. The youngest is 12, according to Rice County Public Health Director Deb Purfeerst. The oldest is 89.
A Steele County business is experiencing a cluster of employees who have tested positive for COVID-19, according to a release from Steele County Public Health Director Amy Caron. Public Health is working in partnership with Minnesota Department of Health, health care partners and the business to address the situation and to try to contain further spread.
Purfeerst attributes much of the jump to increased testing and guidelines that allow for those with less severe symptoms to be tested. Area businesses who are screening employees each time they arrive for work is also contributing to the higher number of confirmed cases, she said.
Those affected are asked to isolate themselves for two weeks and until symptoms subside for 10 days, with no fever for three days. While most people are able to recover at home, those who are older or have underlying health conditions may require further medical assistance in a hospital.
While Purfeerst understands the urge to gather, she underscores the importance of taking precautions when going to the store or getting together with friends.
“We are social creatures,” she said. “We like to congregate. But we’re going to have to change our practices if we’re going to slow the spread.”
Both counties are seeing more cases in younger people, a change Purfeerst believes is a result of workplace screening. And while the virus tends to hit older people and those with pre-existing conditions harder, there’s no way to predict how individuals will react to the coronavirus.
“People can be asymptomatic and potentially spread the illness and not even know,” she said, making the case for taking precautions and using good judgment.
“We want people to exercise, to be out and about — of course, we have beautiful weather. You can get together and stay 6 feet apart.”
The virus that causes COVID-19 is spread primarily by respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It can also spread when people touch surfaces that have been contaminated by an infected person and then touch their eyes, nose or mouth.
There is much we do not know about this virus. However, there are things we can do to protect ourselves, our family members, our neighbors and our vulnerable populations. Do this by taking the following actions:
• Wear a cloth face mask when you are out in public; especially when out getting groceries, supplies or medications. The mask will not protect you but will protect others in case you are carrying the virus unknowingly.
• If you are currently carpooling to your work or other places, please consider other options. If you do not have any other options wear a cloth face mask for some protection.
• Practice social or physical distancing from others by keeping a distance of 6 feet between you and others out in public.
• If you have an underlying health condition or are an older adult, take precautions now. Consider limiting any visitors to your home. Consider asking others to assist you in getting the things you need, such as groceries or medications so that you do not have to go out where there are groups of people.
• Do not gather in groups. Find new ways to conduct your daily business. Make use of technology and use phones, FaceTime, Skype and other ways to communicate
• Stay home if you have cold or flu-like symptoms and avoid close contact with people who are sick. Try to separate other people in your household from any members that are sick.
• Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or into your sleeve, and then throw the tissue in the trash.
• Wash your hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom or before eating. If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
• Avoid touching your face – especially your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
• Clean and disinfect your home to remove germs: practice routine cleaning of frequently touched surfaces
• If you have symptoms of a respiratory disease (these include fever, coughing, muscle aches, sore throat, and headache), you should stay home for at least 10 days, and for three days with no fever and improvement of respiratory symptoms—whichever is longer. (Your fever should be gone for 3 days without using fever-reducing medicine.)
• Please seek healthcare for any other conditions you may have.
Hospitals and clinics in both counties are open and ready to help.