I’ve seen over the last few days a lot of stories, comments, and mixed messages about farmers having to dump milk. I thought I’d clear a few things up with my perspective, direct from the farm.
We were included in the farmers asked to dump milk. We dumped a little over 4,000 litres of raw, unpasteurized milk. It’s what we produce over a 48-hour period. In case you are wondering, it’s not a fun thing to do. We are proud of the work we do and the nutrition we provide our cows and the food we produce. We don’t want to see that wasted.
Of course the question comes to why. First off, it has nothing to do with price. Milk in Canada has a fixed price coming from the farm, depending on what it’s used for. Whether it’s a big order or a small one, whether it’s today or the first of March, that price is set.
Second has to do with shelf life. Of course milk doesn’t last forever, and this is especially true of raw, unpasteurized milk. It’s required to be picked up from our farm within 72 hours, and then would need to be processed within a day or two. It can’t just sit and wait.
The third challenge is storage. I said it’s required to be picked up within 72 hours, but our farm and most others only have 48-hours-worth of milk storage on farm. That’s because milk is picked up every 48 hours. It would be an extra cost that would have to be accounted for.
The same goes for tanker trucks. There are enough milk trucks to pick up every farm every 48 hours. But there isn’t a fleet waiting for more. That would be an extra cost that no one has wanted to pay. So once it’s picked up, it has to be unloaded within the day.
That brings us to processors. And I feel for all of them right now. Before this started, demand was pretty constant. Tim Hortons would need a pretty steady amount of cream week to week. My Loblaws store would need a pretty steady amount of 2% milk. Processors would be able to adapt to small increases or decreases. But what’s happened over the last few weeks is nothing short of an absolute shock to the system. Plus, many are working with new rules of physical distancing for employees to make sure they stay healthy and operating.
Figures out of the U.S. (Canadian numbers should come soon) show increases through retail of 53% in milk, 84% in cheese, 127% for butter. All while food service demand collapsed. Keep in mind food service wants buckets of sour cream, not tubs, or 10 pound bags of shredded cheese, not packets. Tim Hortons uses a big bag of cream through a SureShot machine, while you want 500 ml at a time. Those processing lines can’t change overnight. It takes millions in new equipment and packaging to convert those. So you’ve got retail lines that can’t keep up while food service lines are completely backed up or shut down.
Having processing lines just sitting waiting for this occasion would be another cost that no one wanted to cover. It would have been passed on to consumers that typically don’t want to pay more than they have to.
Finally, you’ve got retail logistics. If it took two truck-loads a day to keep a grocery store stocked in February, all the extra demand means it now might take three or four. That’s more trucks. More drivers.
Unfortunately, all that combined meant something had to give. In our business of milk, some raw milk had nowhere to go. So a few hundred farms out of the 3,900 in Ontario were asked to dump two-days’ worth of production.
Learning that usually brings up the next question — what about food banks? It’s a great question. But again, we run into the challenge of it being raw and unpasteurized milk. A food bank can do nothing with a 40,000 L tanker at its back door. They aren’t processors. If anyone knows of an available line that can pasteurize, process, and package milk, I’d love to hear from them. But all those lines are tied up filling orders for grocers. And foodservice lines aren’t packaging in a usable form for food banks. Fortunately, as dairy farmers in Ontario we ARE donating close to 100,000 litres each month to food banks. Not because of the crisis, but because hundreds of farms have done it for many years. That milk was donated last month, the month before, and the month before that. It will continue.
We can do better, though. But the food chain can’t evolve overnight. Look up @ModernFarmer on Twitter. He’s got a great explanation of this, plus you’ll get to follow a pig farmer, too.
Struggles in the food chain are going to continue over the next several weeks. We’ll all do our best to cope, but know the struggles are real. Solutions aren’t simple. Or cheap. They’ll take a lot of work, but they will come. In the meantime, no matter where you are in the food chain, know how important your work is. And I hope your struggles are ones you can come out the other side from.
And of course if you need to talk, look up resources like Farm-Help lines, Do More Ag, or reach out to friends and family.
Good luck, everyone.
Stay safe. Stay apart.
And keep buying Canadian.