Wisconsin farmers dump milk as people go hungry. Will Washington help? 

CAMBRIDGE, WI - APRIL 25: Tina Hinchley milks cows on the family farm she shares with her husband Duane on April 25, 2017 near Cambridge, Wisconsin. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
In this file photo from 2017, Tina Hinchley milks cows on the family farm she shares with her husband Duane near Cambridge, Wisconsin. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — April and May are known as the “spring flush” in the dairy world. 

“It has a lot to do with Mother Nature. When the sun starts shining more, cows start to become more productive, just like human beings,” said Darin Von Ruden, president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union Board of Directors and a dairy farmer in Westby, Wis. That means “that there’s a whole lot of extra milk out there.” 

This year, the annual production boom comes at a particularly bad time. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the typical dairy supply chain. Sales have slowed as restaurants and schools around the country — many of which are shuttered due to the pandemic — have canceled contracts. Farmers in Wisconsin and elsewhere are racing to adapt, but “you can’t turn a semi around on a dime,” Von Ruden said. As COVID-19 has thrown markets into disarray, some dairy farmers have been forced to dump rivers of milk. 

Farmers and lawmakers are pushing for federal action that would help keep farmers afloat and  ensure that food isn’t being wasted as many Americans face increased risk of hunger due to income loss and supply shortages. 

Even as farmers are dumping milk, there are “hours-long food lines at food pantries around the country. So there’s a huge disconnect between the food needs that American families have right now and the supply that’s being destroyed,” said Rep. Ron Kind (D-La Crosse). 

Paul Bauer, CEO at Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery, sent a letter to members early this month warning that a company had already broken a written contract to purchase milk, and that there was a backlog at the cooperative’s plants. “We may need to dump milk if our milk supply is not reduced,” he wrote. 

A family-run farm near West Bend was flushing 220,000 pounds of milk per day into a wastewater lagoon, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported this month. 

The Dairy Farmers of America, the largest U.S. dairy cooperative, estimated that farmers are dumping as many as 3.7 million gallons of milk each day, The New York Times reported this week. 

“That’s a real psychological blow when you start seeing that, especially for our producers, having to destroy the hard work that they put into milk production and other commodities,” Kind said. 

‘It’s brutal in farm country’ 

The problems are pronounced in Wisconsin, which is the No. 2 state for milk inventory and sales after California, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Collectively, California and Wisconsin accounted for about a third of U.S. cow milk sales in 2017, according to a report issued last fall. 

Wisconsin dairy farmers were reeling even before the pandemic hit. Over the last decade, about 40% of the state’s dairy farms have shut down, NPR reported, as supply outpaced demand and milk prices plummeted. Smaller farms are particularly vulnerable to the ongoing industry problems exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. 

“No question, it’s brutal in farm country,” Kind said. “We had record bankruptcies the last two years, part of that attributed to the trade war. But now with the virus, this is just piling on at the worst possible moment.”

In response to the Trump administration’s tariffs on foreign products like steel and aluminum — billed as an effort to help U.S. manufacturers — other nations retaliated by imposing tariffs on U.S. dairy products, delivering a blow to Wisconsin producers. 

The COVID-19 crisis is fueling additional concerns about the fate of small farms in the state. 

“My concern would be it accelerates that trend of consolidation,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Green Bay). If smaller farms don’t have enough cash on hand to weather the crisis, “they might be looking to sell, so we’d see further consolidation in the industry,” he said in an interview. “I hope that doesn’t happen, but it could add a sense of urgency” to relief efforts. 

‘Wisconsin needs your help’

Wisconsin lawmakers have a series of requests for the Trump administration and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to protect farmers in their state. And they’re pushing the administration to move swiftly. 

“President Trump needs to step up and take immediate action to support Wisconsin dairy farmers,” Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin told the Examiner in a statement. She spoke to Perdue last week about her concerns, she said. 

Early this month, nearly every member of the Wisconsin congressional delegation — with the exception of Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner — penned a letter to Perdue laying out their shared requests. 

“While these changes in consumer demand are temporary, without immediate action, they could have a permanent effect in causing the closure of hundreds and possibly thousands of farms, rural businesses, and food processors,” they told him. “Wisconsin needs your help.”

They’re asking for USDA to reopen enrollment in the Dairy Margin Coverage program, which pays dairy producers when the difference between the national price of milk and the average cost of feed falls below a certain level.  

“Reopening the Dairy Margin Coverage program to allow farmers to adjust their coverage selections and make those changes retroactive to the beginning of the year can help stabilize farms in these extraordinarily difficult market conditions,” the Wisconsin lawmakers wrote. 

“I know the secretary is reluctant to do that, but this is extraordinary circumstances that call for extraordinary remedies,” Kind said. 

Gallagher said this week that he’s spoken to USDA officials who “seemed open to it,” but that there’s limited bandwidth, given the pandemic. “It seems everybody is overwhelmed.” 

Wisconsin lawmakers are also pushing for the Commodity Credit Corporation — a government corporation created during the Great Depression to stabilize food supplies — to buy dairy products and distribute them to families and food banks hit by the pandemic. 

And they want USDA to provide funding to states to help them resolve supply chain disruptions and help agricultural products and food reach consumers when and where they need it. 

The four Republicans in Wisconsin’s U.S. House delegation — Reps. Gallagher, Sensenbrenner, Bryan Steil and Glenn Grothman — signed onto a separate GOP letter to Perdue this month praising the “hard work and long hours” that USDA officials have been putting in and asking that USDA use its authority and “quickly act to save the dairy industry.” 

Meanwhile, food producers are scrambling to adapt to the new landscape, said Von Ruden of the Wisconsin Farmers Union Board. 

“It’s been a juggling match to try to figure out at a time like this when you don’t know what’s going to be happening day to day.” 

If he’d been told three months ago that there would be empty grocery store shelves in the United States, he would have said it’s not possible — the system is too strong. But now that he’s witnessing it, he said, “the crisis that we’re in is certainly pointing out some of the weak spots.”