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.”