By Maddie Smith
National FFA Officer Candidate
Milk is expensive yet farmers are dumping it… How does this happen!?
When we think about essential workers during the pandemic, we most often think about healthcare workers and grocery store workers. Looking at our grocery stores, however, there are plenty more heroes to add to that list. When we grab food off of the shelves, we might think about the farmers who have grown it. So who do we think about when there is no food on the shelves?
Over the course of this spring and summer, numerous food processing plants have closed because of workers testing positive for COVID-19. This has made it a challenge for Fillmore County farmers to sell milk, beef, pork, poultry, and other commodities. When processing plants are unable to process milk and meat, farmers have no place to take their fresh milk or market-ready animals.
Swine farmers have been particularly affected. Back in May, Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Commissioner Thom Petersen predicted that 10,000 hogs were being euthanized on the farm daily. In some cases, animals are given away or sold at low prices to people who have the room or the ability and knowledge to safely process meat (such as deer hunters). In most cases, however, farmers have suffered a complete economic loss and emotional toll. The production cycle is something that is planned out months in advance when females are bred and young is born. Animals that are ready to be sold to market have to go somewhere. In addition to the cost of continuing to feed matured animals, younger generations of animals continue to grow and need more space in the barns.
The farm is the first point in the food supply chain. The goal of producers is to get food from the farm to the fork. However, there are critical steps in between the farmer and consumer. Looking at the food supply chain, there are four basic steps: farmer, processing/manufacturing, distribution, and consumer. As we move along the chain, each step is responsible for providing a commodity or service to the next. The saying, “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” rings true for the food supply chain. When one phase is disrupted, so is every other phase.
In the current scenario, the second step — processing/manufacturing — has been the obstacle in the food chain. As consumers, this has resulted in empty store shelves and higher prices. For farmers, this has made it difficult to sell livestock, eggs, and milk that are ready for the next step in the food supply chain. Looking forward, though, there is hope. Meat processing plants are up to 90% capacity. However, market-ready animals that were not euthanized are preventing newly-ready animals from being processed on time, and animals are being processed at heavier weights. Most likely, it will take at least a year to be back on track with the second step of the food supply chain, and the economic impact will last even longer. The good news for producers is that the worst conditions for selling are passing — especially as processing plants more carefully monitor COVID cases to prevent any further shutdowns. The good news for consumers, who are at the end of the supply chain, is that there is no need to worry about food shortages.
Milk did become more expensive and farmers were forced to dump it. This is a result of a supply chain disruption. This season has shown us just how critical every step of the food supply chain is. The process between the farm and fork requires the work of people in processing and distribution. When either of those stages is disrupted, farmers are forced to dump milk and consumers don’t see affordable products on store shelves. Our food supply is interdependent beyond imagination: whether you are on the farm, at the fork, or anywhere in between.
In the upcoming weeks, I will be sharing what I have learned and continue to learn from my experiences and conversations across the state. Topics will range from local stories to understanding the relevance of policies and current events in agriculture. Literacy is listening. To share any questions, story ideas, or comments on published or potential articles, please feel welcome to email me email@example.com.