Like many dairy farmers across the state, Shelly Mayer said she was taken aback when she opened her most recent milk check.
“Opening up my mail I was feeling like I’d gotten the wind kicked out of me looking at my milk check and knowing that it’s short,” Mayer, PDPW’s executive director and a dairy farmer from near Slinger, said April 28 during the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin’s Dairy Signal webinar. “I’m a seasoned dairy farmer. I grew up in this business, and I’ve been dairying for almost 35 years, but I have never seen a situation like we have right now.”
Randy Romanski, interim secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, said his department has been in contact with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, working to expedite the direct payments and commodity purchases that were authorized as part of a relief package aimed at taking some of the financial pressure off struggling farmers but that the state is still waiting for many of the details about the program.
“Farmers need help now, sooner rather than later,” Romanski said. “Getting that milk check now is a realization of the dramatic impact COVID-19 is having economically for people in the countryside. It’s not like people didn’t know it before, but that milk check is a reality.”
Romanski said the state is making every effort to make sure resources will soon be available for farmers as they struggle with markets that have taken a sharp turn downward during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Producers don’t set the price of milk,” he said. “It’s a supply-and-demand curve that is dramatically effected when something like COVID-19 comes along. This great disturbance in demand means that there needs to be a resource-driven response from the federal government.”
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers said it was difficult to see the struggles the state’s dairy farmers faced with schools and much of the food-service industry closing while shelves and dairy cases in grocery stores sat empty.
“It was frustrating to me, to see that we have this oversupply of milk and at the same time we have food pantries needing milk,” Evers said. “The last thing we wanted was people suffering, and not having the food and nutrition farmers in Wisconsin provide.”
“As farmers, there’s nothing more frustrating than being so committed and proud to produce such great products on our farm and not get it to the people who are hungry for it,” Mayer said.
As the new coronavirus pandemic was beginning to take hold, Romanski said DATCP officials took time to clarify the roles of the department. Among primary role early in the crisis included making sure grocery store shelves remained well stocked.
“We live in a state that produces an abundance of any product you could want,” Romanski said.
Evers said he recognized agriculture and its supply chains were essential to keep safe and operating when he was crafting the state’s “safer at home” order.
“Farmers and their supply chain have always been viewed as an essential service,” Evers said. “For people having high-quality food at a time when they are struggling is critically important.”
Last week, President Donald Trump has signed an executive order to try to keep meat plants impacted by coronavirus open in an effort to prevent livestock supply-chain disruptions. A JBS meatpacking plant in Green Bay temporarily closed after more being linked with more than 300 positive COVID-19 tests in Brown County.
Romanski said his department was working to make sure the supply of meat in grocery stores remains stable.
“As we’ve seen the disturbances in the supply chain that have affected the dairy industry, ... we’re starting to see issues in the livestock industry,” Romanski said. “We don’t want to see panic-buying. There will still be meat products in the grocery store.”
Evers said the state’s “safer at home” measures are working to limit the impact of COVID-19 but that several milestones still need to be reached before fully opening the state back up. Evers said the state needs to perform more testing, and the Badger Bounce Back Plan, Evers' blueprint for reopening the state released April 20, calls for 85,000 tests per week. The state's current testing capacity stands at about 80,000 per week, Evers said.
“We’re saving lives every single day. For the most part, people are helping to make sure that we’re in a good place going forward,” Evers said. “In order to get our economy gaining momentum, we have to make sure we’ve done what we can to minimize the impact of this virus. To do that, we need to be boxing in the virus instead of boxing in people.
“We’re getting the virus under control and slowly increasing the opportunity for people to get back to work. The new normal isn’t going to be the old normal. We’re going to have to take this very slowly or this pandemic will just return. We want to do this right the first time.”
Before the state can re-open, Evers said, transmission of the disease has to be minimized, something only social distancing can help accomplish.
“There are certain of industries that rely on a bunch of people coming together at one time. There’s parts of rural Wisconsin where tourism is king,” Evers said. “Any model that talks about recovery makes it clear that transmission of disease when you’re bring a lot of people together can make things difficult. Staying 6 feet apart is how you slow transmission.”
Mayer said farmers could be in a unique position to help the public understand why regulations put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19 are important in slowing the spread of the disease.
“Farmers manage a very complicated biological system,” Mayer said. “We’re very used to quarantining animals that are not healthy, taking care of stock, sanitizing, social distancing. Maybe this is an opportunity to help some of our consumers that have sometimes been concerned understand what’s happening with those baby calves who are off by themselves.”
Despite limited confirmed cases in rural areas, Evers said it was unlikely rural areas would be allowed to open before the rest of the state out of concern for rural health-care systems, but he didn’t totally rule out the proposal.
“We’re seeing surges in rural counties, and that concerns us. There are surges right now as we speak, we’re not even sure how they arrived,” Evers said. “We always look for opportunities, and maybe rural Wisconsin could present that. But we have to make sure the surges are stopped, and that hasn’t happened yet.”
Once businesses are allowed to re-open and day-to-day life gets back to looking more like what residents would consider normal, Evers said there will still be more work to do to get the dairy industry back to thriving in Wisconsin.
“Before the pandemic, it was an extraordinarily complex and difficult time for dairy. The pandemic has amplified that,” Evers said. "It’s been six significantly difficult years for the dairy industry. We’ve done what we can, but I’m of the belief that we have to do more.
“Post-pandemic, returning the dairy industry to where it was pre-pandemic, that’s a step, but it’s not the solution.”