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Down the drain: Some farmers asked to dispose of milk amid COVID-19 pandemic

Wisconsin dairy farmers who are members of the cooperative Dairy Farmers of America received news a week ago that no dairy farmer ever wants to hear: that they should consider voluntary dumping of milk amid market concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a statement, Kristen Coady, vice president of corporate communications at Dairy Farmers of America, said that demand for dairy products is changing during the pandemic, ultimately resulting in an overall surplus of milk.

“While we initially saw increased demand at grocery stores as consumers stocked up on many products, like dairy, in anticipation of potential quarantines and shelter-in-place orders, the retail demand is starting to level off,” she said.

Additionally, there has been a reduced need in the food service sector, specifically schools and restaurants.

These sudden changes in demand are forcing some dairy manufacturers to cut or change production schedules as many are already operating at capacity. And in some circumstances, like the one at Golden “E” Dairy Farm in Fredonia, some farmers have been asked to voluntarily dispose of raw milk on their farms.

Ryan Elbe, who farms with his parents, Chris and Tracey, and his siblings Kimberly, Matthew and Kyle, received a phone call two weeks ago from his field representative, informing their family that milk dumping was a possibility and asking if they would be willing to do it. Because they indicated they could, they later received another phone call from their DFA central region manager with the official ask for the voluntary dispersal of milk.

“It’s not some — it’s all of it,” Elbe said. “All the milk that was loaded on March 31 was dumped that day, and we’ve been dumping every day since then.”

Elbe has been asked to continue dumping milk from his farm until mid-week, disposing of 220,000 pounds of milk every day.

“I don’t know whether or not they’ll have us continue. We should know by Monday if it’s prolonged,” he said. “I hope not, but anything is possible at this point.”

Elbe’s farm is the only dairy farm in the immediate area that has been asked to dispose of milk, but it appears about 10 other larger dairies in southeastern Wisconsin have also been asked to voluntarily dump milk by DFA. It’s Elbe’s understanding that DFA strategically selected larger dairy farms to ask as they have the capabilities to properly dispose of fluid milk and are producing at a larger volume.

Golden “E” Dairy Farm encompasses 5,000 acres, milking 2,400 cows three times a day. The Elbes haul their own milk, with 99% of it shipped to Kemps LLC in Cedarburg.

“It all happened so fast — we’re still in disbelief that it’s happening,” Elbe said.

He has been told that the farm will be reimbursed for the milk it had to dispose of; however, Elbe is unsure if that reimbursement is coming from DFA or from the federal government. He has been keeping close track of all the pounds going down to drain for when that time comes.

“Farmers in the area, even if they don’t ship to DFA, were very upset,” Elbe said. “They were in disbelief, like us, and angry. They felt sorry for us, but I think many of them have cooled off and are now thinking about what else can be done.”

Others have been reaching out to Elbe on Facebook with questions about whether the dumped milk can be sent to other states with perceived milk shortages or given to local food pantries. Elbe has had to explain that “we, as a farm, cannot just hand out milk,” and although they are providing a fresh, nutritious product, they have no control over where it goes after it is provided to dairy processing facilities.

“It’s disheartening to not see milk from our farm on shelves at the grocery store right now,” Elbe said. “But I do believe there is reasoning for DFA to do this and there has been an open line of communication. I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes making these decisions.”

As of April 2, UW-Extension Dairy Outreach Program Manager Mark Hagedorn said factors like infrastructure, transportation and processing networks and the lower volume of milk producers in the western part of the state meant that, thus far, farmers being asked to dump milk were primarily fluid-milk producing dairies located in the eastern and southeastern parts of the state.

Tammy Smith Schroeder of Bears Grass Dairy in Augusta said she is thankful they haven’t been asked to dump milk yet on the Eau Claire County farm she owns with her husband, Gary Schroeder, his brother, Don, and their nephew, Donald Honadel. The family and employees milk about 400 cows twice a day in a double-12 parallel parlor.

“It’s scary. Milk prices are dropping down to where it’s impossible to survive, but it’s better to get something for it than nothing,” Smith Schroeder said. “Employees still have to be paid. The cows still have to be fed.

“Every day, I breathe a little bit easier when I see the milk truck come up the driveway.”

Hagedorn said the volatility of everything surrounding COVID-19 makes it difficult to predict what the impact on the dairy industry will be from one day to the next.

“This is one of the most rapidly evolving and changing situations I’ve seen in the 35-plus years that I’ve been involved with the dairy industry,” Hagedorn said. “I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s difficult to be proactive. And even when you are proactive, you end up coming off looking reactive. That is really very frustrating.

“It wasn’t a month or two ago that we were looking at $18 milk and the optimism was even on the uptick. It’s just mind-boggling how rapidly you can go from there to $12 or $13 on the futures market in May. It’s bleak.”

For the past three weeks, the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association has been reaching out to its 105 member companies that make dairy products, including 25 of those whom are cheesemakers, and the 600 suppliers that provide ingredients, equipment and more to those companies to assess the current situation with dairy plants in Wisconsin.

John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, said the biggest hit to their industry comes from the inability to move cheese through food service; about 44% of all U.S. cheese sales are filtered through food service, including schools, restaurants, universities, destinations and institutions. And with 75% of Americans following a shelter-in-place order, “gains made in retail are not able to make up for losses of the closure of hundreds of thousands of restaurants,” Umhoefer said.

The number one concern amongst his membership is market uncertainty — and just how to keep the milk flowing during this time. Some cheese companies with a retail focus are doing okay, but others with a food service focus are struggling, he said, and the association is helping them move the milk around.

“We’re seeing unprecedented cooperation among companies to move that milk to where it needs to go so it gets to a market where it can either be a storable product or to help them find a market in retail,” Umhoefer said.

Members of the association are also concerned about their workforce itself, asking for guidance on the best ways to keep their workers safe during the pandemic. Keeping dairy farmers and workers in dairy processing facilities safe is a strong priority, and safety efforts are being expanded in an already food-safe forward industry.

The association, along with a handful of other dairy organizations, submitted a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture urging the federal government to provide direct assistance to farmers and to expedite the purchase of additional dairy foods amid unprecedented disruptions in supply and demand.

“Direct relief to dairy farmers and a substantial purchase of dairy commodities by USDA can ensure our industry will remain fiscally able to function in its primary role of feeding the nation and the world,” the letter said.

“People in the processing industry are working non-stop and everyone is talking with everyone to make sure milk stays flowing in the state,” Umhoefer said. “It’s devastating to see milk that doesn’t get processed so when we can reach out, like we did to the USDA, that’s very important.

“I just want people to know the industry is working tirelessly here to get the milk processed and to cooperate with each other to make sure we can get the milk into the system and into great dairy products.”

The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, under the direction of Gov. Tony Evers, also penned a letter urging the USDA to step in and support the dairy industry amid concerns about milk disposal during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“With agriculture’s massive $104.8 billion impact on Wisconsin’s economy, it is critical that all of us in this industry work together to navigate this new territory,” said Randy Romanski, DATCP interim secretary. “DATCP has been in constant communication with people in all parts of the industry and hearing their concerns, including concerns about milk disposal. That’s why we’re urging the USDA and Wisconsin’s congressional delegation to take immediate action to keep the supply chain flowing and get product in the hands of people who need it most.”

The Country Today assistant editor Nate Jackson contributed to this report.


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A touching tribute: Over 100 farm vehicles join funeral procession for farmer

RICHLAND CENTER — One could certainly get a feel for the kind of person 85-year-old farmer David Manning was by reading his obituary.

Born on September 15, 1934, Manning was an Eagle Scout, an Army veteran, a family man, a sports fan and a coach. He was also active in his community — and it was the community’s response on Mar. 27 that truly shed a light on the kind of person Manning was.

Manning, who had been farming in Ithaca for over 50 years, passed away on Mar. 22 after a long battle with lung and kidney disease. In the midst of a pandemic, the family knew they would be unable to hold a traditional funeral service, so one of Manning’s four sons put out a call on Facebook, asking those in the community to join them at the Clary Funeral Home for a large funeral procession of farm vehicles which would follow Manning to his final resting place in Willow Valley Cemetery.

Even as the 12:15 p.m. approximate start time of the procession neared, tractors and other farm vehicles could be seen driving on the shoulder of Highway 14 towards Richland Center, turning into the funeral home parking lot and following others down a long line as they prepared for the procession.

As the sun peeked out from the clouds, there were tractors of every size and color, combines, farm trucks, semis and even an Ithaca school bus lined up to escort Manning to the cemetery. Dozens of yellow slow moving vehicle lights blinked from the tops of those tractors and inside the cabs were farmers and community members young and old.

Leading the procession were members of the Manning family, driving Manning’s red combine and blue tractor that he used on the farm, along with a truck and trailer carrying Manning’s Bobcat skid steer.

“Dave used that Bobcat all the time,” said Kenny Anderson, a farmer, neighbor and friend of Manning’s.

Anderson was at the funeral with his friends at Huff-Nel-Sons Farms, a neighboring farm to Manning’s in rural Richland Center. Aaron Nelson, who farms in partnership with his brother, Andrew, and their parents, Larry and Sherry Huffman at Huff-Nel-Sons, said he and his family wanted to participate in the procession to show respect to the neighbor they worked with for many years.

“Dave’s funeral and visitation would have been full (if they could have had a traditional service),” Nelson said. “He was a respected man throughout the community.”

Manning did custom farm work for many neighboring farms, including Huff-Nel-Sons. Like Nelson, many of the farmers that came for his funeral had worked with him personally over the years.

“Dave was a good friend and a local guy in the community. He’s been there for everyone else so this is how we’ll be there for a neighbor,” said Joe Koch, who brought his tractor and his son, Max, to participate in the procession.

Koch remembered how his brother once got a flat tire on his tractor just outside of Manning’s farm; they pulled the tractor in and Manning lent him a spare tire so he could get back home. He pointed to the tractor his brother brought to the service that day – it still had Manning’s spare tire on the front.

“He was a pillar to the community,” Koch added. “It’s just natural to be there for him.”

“Dave was a good guy, and I wanted to be here for support,” added Duane Durst, who also farms in rural Richland Center. “This is the only way to do that right now.”

While over 100 farm vehicles followed Manning to the cemetery, others in the community had parked their vehicles along Highway 14 to watch the procession as it left the funeral home.

One couple that was sitting inside their car said they, too, were neighbors of the Mannings for 25 years. They’d seen several tractors go by their farm that morning and didn’t want to miss the opportunity to honor their neighbor and friend.

“I think this is just amazing,” the wife said. “It really shows the support of this community.”

To read Manning’s full obituary, visit https://www.clarymemorialfuneralhome.com/obituaries/David-Manning-12/#!/Obituary.


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Community spirits: Distillers turn to manufacturing hand sanitizer

“I could use a drink” has been said in stressful times.

The owners of La Crosse Distilling Co. had a different idea for helping people deal with the stress that comes with self-isolating, social-distancing and other concerns related to the coronavirus.

In response to the spread of COVID-19, La Crosse Distilling Co. switched from distilling spirits and began making a hand-sanitizing product they made available for free to those who need the product.

La Crosse Distilling spirits are distilled from a certified organic ethanol base which allowed their production team to develop an 80% alcohol antiseptic topical solution.

“As COVID-19 continues to influence nearly every aspect of our personal and professional lives, the health and well-being of our community is top of mind,” La Crosse Distilling founder Nick Weber said in a news release. “Amid all the negative, we saw an opportunity to make a positive impact. This is our small contribution to our community, and a slight nod to finding the positive in every situation.”

Angela Welchert, La Crosse Distilling Co. community outreach director and leader of marketing and communication for the hand sanitizer project, said the decision to move from distilling spirits to making hand sanitizer was made pretty quickly when staff realized the difference they could make.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic started becoming a very stark reality and people started increasing demand for hand sanitizer, everyone realized demand was far exceeding supply,” Welchert said. “It bubbled up from a pretty small idea amongst our distillers and we began to realize the severity of the shortage and the demand and wanted to provide a service to the community.”

Welchert said La Crosse Distilling Co. realized they could help alleviate the hand-sanitizer shortage after seeing several distilleries on the West Coast make the switch to making the product. Soon thereafter, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a formula to manufacture hand sanitizer. The CDC then gave La Crosse Distilling the approval they needed to manufacture and distribute hand sanitizer.

On March 19, La Crosse Distilling Co. announced on their social media channels their plan to begin to manufacture hand sanitizer.

“That set off a firestorm,” Welchert said. “We had an outpouring of inquiries from everywhere.”

Welchert said they heard from individuals with compromised immune systems, first responders, government agencies, power companies and organizations like Lyft and Uber, who were looking to supply hand sanitizer to their workforce.

“We took a split second to decide to shift our production from spirits to fully committing to hand sanitizer,” she said.

The distillery was founded in 2018 by Weber, Chad Staehly and Mitchell Parr. The distillery partners with area farmers, including Patrick McHugh of McHugh Farms, to create organic spirits. McHugh Farms grows about 100 acres of rye, wheat and corn exclusively for the distillery.

Welchert said the distillery is continuing to source its ethanol, which is the main ingredient in the hand sanitizer, from local suppliers.

La Crosse Distilling Co. held distribution events at several area locations and gave away all of their first batch of hand sanitizer in several hours.

“We are really working off of inquiries we are getting, starting with the people who are reaching out to us,” Welchert said. “We have high-risk individuals, essential businesses and high-risk exposure employees like those people who are on the front lines and have to be working to make sure our community is up and running. Because we have such a large backlog of inquiries, we’re trying to prioritize to those who are at the most risk of contracting coronavirus and those who are most crucial to our community.”

New Richmond’s 45th Parallel Distillery made a similar move to manufacturing hand sanitizer and passed out at least 250 gallons of homemade hand sanitizer, all free of charge, March 23 to businesses, organizations and residents from across western Wisconsin looking for some protection from the virus that causes COVID-19.

The line of cars extended up to a mile and people waited for as long as an hour to have distillery employees fill containers with sanitizer, according to owner Paul Werni, who added hand sanitizer to the distillery’s normal lineup of vodkas, gins, whiskeys and other spirits.

La Crosse Distilling Co. started a Gofundme page for the hand sanitizer project, and Welchert said the funds raised from that will go to contributing back into their community effort.

The distillery’s efforts will focus on a “greater-good effort” going forward, and prioritize efforts on those who are most at risk, Welchert said.

“We’re really excited to strategize on how we can make the most impact through the avenues that we have,” she said.

Welchert said customer sentiment for the company’s hand sanitizer efforts has been very positive.

“Everybody has been extremely gracious,” Welchert said. “Everybody is touched by the dedication we’ve had to make this happen and they recognize how much work it takes to switch production over from spirits to making hand sanitizer and deliver it to the community.”

The Eau Claire Leader-Telegram contributed to this report.