Cars backed up in what was sometimes a 30-minute-plus wait might seem like something that only happens on congested city streets during rush hour.
On the morning of April 4, however, that scene could be found out in the countryside of Chippewa Falls as Blaeser Farms held a drive-thru farmers’ market and the local community turned out in full force to support it.
With an estimated turnout of 200 and traffic backed up down the road, Josh Blaeser, who farms with his wife, Ashley, said the farmers’ market “went really well.”
They were “blown away by how supportive everyone was,” Ashley said.
“We were very overwhelmed,” Josh said, but in a positive way. “The turnout was unbelievable,” he added.
The market consisted of Blaeser Farms, which sells grass-fed, grass-finished beef, and a few other vendors who came from within an approximately 10-mile radius of the farm, Josh said.
They worked to make the drive-thru market bio-secure and practiced social distancing, Josh said. Not only did they not want to take chances that visitors would be potentially be exposed, but they wanted to ensure the safety of the farm and other vendors as well.
If another market can be held, the Blaesers plan to reduce contact even more by limiting customers to purchasing methods, such as credit cards, that don’t require the vendors to provide change.
The Blaesers hope to have another market on April 18, with potentially one more vendor, but that’s dependent on what happens with the coronavirus in the meantime. They plan to keep people updated on the status of the market on their Facebook page, facebook.com/blaeserfarms.
The Blaesers will continue to try to keep their drive-thru market “small and local,” Josh said.
They don’t want to make people wait any longer in line than they already did at the first market, Josh said.
“Time’s such a precious thing,” Josh said, noting how much it meant to them that people were willing to wait in line so long to have the chance to support their local farmers.
They are also limiting the amount of product any one person can buy because even selling directly from the farm, vendors ultimately have a limited supply, too.
Mainly, the drive-thru farmers’ market is a chance for the Blaesers to help neighbors whose income had dropped because of the pandemic and to provide both Blaeser Farms and the other vendors with an opportunity to continue to sell their product, Josh said.
While the sale of grocery items is allowed under Gov. Tony Evers’ “safer at home” order, several indoor farmers’ markets have cut their winter seasons short because of COVID-19 concerns. Farmers and other producers that count on those farmers’ markets for sales can then be left in a sea of uncertainty of where they’ll be able to sell their products and how to make their own ends meet.
“There has to be another outlet,” Josh said. Producers still have to figure out how to get their product to the people who want to buy it.
At Blaeser Farms, for example, they still have to make money to buy hay to feed their cattle. That is, they have to be able to sell their current stock of product in order to provide stock in the future.
Even with higher sales now, the Blaesers, who run 35 cow-calf pairs on their farm, still try to budget out a year ahead and are faced with uncertainty as to what sales will look like once October or November hits, Josh said.
In addition to selling at farmers’ markets, Blaeser Farms does offer delivery and accepts orders on their website, www.blaeserfarms.com, and through their Facebook page.
But offering the drive-thru market was a great way to be able to see those they usually encounter at the other farmers’ markets they normally attend, Josh said. It was also a chance for the people who built the farm up to where it is now to be able to come out to the countryside and see exactly where the product was coming from, he said.
“This is a sad time, but we’re creating awareness,” Josh said. “There’s a lot of value in that for us.”
Shelly Mayer, executive director of the Professional Dairy Producers, began the first ever broadcast of The Dairy Signal on April 7 by asking those tuning in to pause for a moment and remember all the things that helped prepare them for the present.
For Mayer, that meant recalling her time in 4-H and how at the beginning of each meeting, members would recite the 4-H pledge, pledging their head for clearer thinking, their heart to greater loyalty, their hands to larger service and their health to better living, for their club, their community, their country and their world.
“Today I’m bringing that pledge to you as a subtle reminder of leadership, growth and also that the strongest things that we have are the experiences that we gained as we were growing up,” she said. “Those (words from the pledge) couldn’t be more powerful than what they are today.”
Mayer was joined on the broadcast by Chad Vincent, CEO of Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, and Mark Stephenson, UW-Madison director of Dairy Policy Analysis and director of Wisconsin’s Center for Dairy Profitability, who helped address what’s happening in the dairy marketplace and what farmers, consumers and others in the dairy industry can do right now mitigate impacts.
For Mayer, who is a sixth generation dairy farmer, one of the hardest things about the current situation is the loss of milk due to farmers being asked to roll back production.
“When I hear the words of milk loss, and we express them in different ways, and in the dairy industry, we either say ‘dump’ or ‘dispose’ and both those words cut my heart,” she said, her voice cracking. “Dump and dispose, those are words for garbage.
“The loss is the hardest part of this with the dairy industry — not only the loss of the opportunity to fund our families and our futures and that opportunity to our businesses, but it’s that opportunity to fulfill that mission that we wake up with every day to deliver that product to hungry people.”
Vincent has spent 10 years working in the dairy industry, much of which has been spent on the processor side of the industry and within the retail chain. In reference to Mayer’s opening comments, Vincent’s background and experience in this sector has better prepared the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin to handle the current situation.
He and his staff at Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin have been answering questions from dairy farmers across the state for the past three weeks. One of the critical questions being asked is “What’s going on? What’s going on at retail and my milk check and demand?”
“They’ve been going to grocery stores and they see empty shelves and they see an incredible demand for milk, cheese and dairy. Yet their milk check price is plummeting and their processor may be asking them to reduce their production, and in some instances, they may even be pouring milk,” he said.
Ninety-five percent of U.S. households have milk in their fridges — and had to be sure they had milk in their grocery baskets when stockpiling supplies over the past several weeks, Vincent explained. This led to bare shelves, along with limits on milk as grocery stores tried to ensure there was enough for everyone.
Vincent recently joined a teleconference call with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and the Wisconsin Grocers Association to explain how these limits are impacting dairy farmers who see this at their local stores.
Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin are also actively working to remove these limits, asking consumers who see limits at their local stores to inquire with the store’s manager and ask them to remove the limit. If they cannot reach a manager or the manager cannot remove the limit, Vincent said consumers can contact the store’s customer service via phone or email, as sometimes corporate can remove those limits. Consumers can also contact Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, the state’s dairy check off organization, and DFW staff will reach out to grocery stores themselves.
Another question Vincent has been asked is why prices are so high on dairy products right now.
“If you see prices that you think are out of line, you can report those to DATCP,” he said. “There were 200 instances looked into by DATCP last week.”
However, Vincent reminded those listening that these are unprecedented times, and that rising prices are likely due to increasing costs in the business and an increase in pay to employees who are working with the public.
He said another frequently asked question has to do with why processing plants can’t just switch to making another dairy product to use some of the milk being lost. Making a product switch can take a year of planning typically and cost tens of millions of dollars, Vincent said. If plants could do it, they would, he added, but it’s just not feasible.
Relationships with retailers also take time to develop, so if a processor doesn’t have a connection at a large retail chain, it may be difficult to get their product into those retail locations at any time, let alone during a pandemic.
Vincent encouraged dairy farmers with additional questions to contact Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin as they are working diligently to help in any way they can during this time. He said farmers can reach out on Facebook, visit wisconsindairy.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We’re the marketing and promotional arm for the dairy farmers and we’re really here to build trust and to build markets,” he said. “There are a lot of really good things that are happening to try and help people and to help get dairy sold and used throughout the state.”
Stephenson, who has 40 years of experience in the dairy industry, acknowledged the many things going on behind the scenes to help Wisconsin’s dairy industry, including work being done by the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin.
“It’s one of the things that people really need to appreciate — just how complex it has been to change an industry overnight practically, to move milk from where it was going to one plant, take it to a different kind of plant that’s experiencing a surge and needed the extra product, getting these packages into consumer sizes and not for restaurant sizes,” Stephenson said. “This is a very complicated task and the market, I think, has handled it amazingly.”
He cautioned, however, that this is just the beginning of the COVID-19 experience for the dairy industry, and while there was optimism about the rate of growth when consumers were buying large amounts of dairy the past several weeks, that demand is now starting to slow.
We need to recognize that the industry will be in it for the long haul, Stephenson said, with a predicted three to four month disruption due to COVID-19. He also expects a 5-10% loss of dairy markets because of COVID-19.
“Hang on,” he said. “It’s going to be a wild ride for some period of time.”
An expected surge of milk with the spring flush, coupled with a collapse in demand, are the two of the most concerning things to Stephenson.
“The markets are trying to handle this but at the end of the day, we just have to be honest with ourselves and recognize that this is not a short term in nature problem,” he said. “The ultimate solution is we have got to reduce the milk supply.”
He suggested dairy farmers do this one of two ways: by changing the ration of the feed to allow for less production or by culling or drying off marginal cows in the herd. He said he wouldn’t suggest these if he anticipated the problem only lasting for one or two months, but he foresees COVID-19 impacting the industry for much longer after that.
“I think this will be long enough that it will be a sensible thing to do,” he said. “I’m afraid it’s hard to paint a very rosy picture. It is going to be another year of financial bleeding.”
Both Vincent and Stephenson said the Wisconsin Farm Center is available to help dairy farmers with questions as well. Farmers and agribusiness owners can contact the Farm Center at 1-800-942-2474.
“Dairy farmers are some of the toughest and most optimistic people I know. But these are unusual times, and this falls on the back of five years of depressed prices. Everybody is going to process this stuff a little bit differently,” Stephenson said. “If you as an individual are just feeling like this is more than I can take and more than I can handle, reach out. Reach out to your family, reach out to your friends, reach out for some help. You need to be able to talk through this stuff.”
Many measures farmers are already taking to ensure food safety should be sufficient, according to University of Minnesota Extension officials, but farmers can take additional steps to help to make interactions with consumers at markets safer for all involved.
In response to the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Minnesota Local Food College, a distance learning opportunity for gardeners and farmers interested in community-based food systems, hosted an April 7 webinar for the small farm and food communities to help work through difficult times.
University of Minnesota Extension food safety expert Annalisa Hultberg said that because COVID-19 is a respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, it differs from many of the food-borne illnesses farmers already know how to prevent. Bacteria like E. coli, listeria and salmonella can replicate in their environment in the right conditions, while viruses need a host to replicate.
“There is no evidence COVID-19 is transmitted through food or food packaging,” Hultberg said. “That’s different than a food-borne illness that good agricultural practices can minimize.”
Hultberg said keeping people away from each other and not working while sick are the primary means for keeping others healthy with a respiratory illness like COVID-19.
“That table you have at your farm that may or may not even be touching anything related to food could potentially be a vector for the disease, but it’s probably lower risk level,” Hultberg said, noting that the virus could live for up to four days on stainless steel and hard plastic surfaces, but that many infectious particles were destroyed within a few hours. “When people are looking for hard-and-fast guidelines about how long it lasts on a tote or cardboard box, it’s hard to say. If there was a lot, it could take a number of days.
“That’s why things like hand-washing and cleaning and sanitizing as a matter of course are your best bet.”
Hultberg recommended farmers continue common practices like testing water, washing hands and keeping food-contact surfaces and frequently touched surfaces around the farm cleaned and sanitized.
“Farmers have been doing those things for years,” she said. “I hope no one would stop, because if we had some sort of a food-borne outbreak on top of this, that would not be good for our health-care system right now.”
On the farm, Hultberg acknowledged, there may be situations, like in a milking parlor or greenhouse, that make following social-distancing guidelines difficult, but that making employees aware of the guidelines at least helps keep everyone aware of doing their best to follow guidelines.
“Social distancing on the farm is going to be difficult, like it is everywhere else,” Hultberg said.
“Especially in the greenhouse or smaller space with a lot of people in it, communicating early on about how serious the disease is is going to be important. Be sure to communicate that you’re not going to be mad at employees for not working when they are sick.”
Hultberg recommended farmers set up hand-washing stations around the farm to keep employees frequently washing their hands. The U of M Extension recommends hand-washing stations include flowing water, soap, a bucket to catch the water, single-use towels and a garbage can.
“Having those around the farm and having them well marked will go far in helping your employees wash their hands as much as they need to without having to walk across the entire farm,” she said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends all Americans wear a mask while in public, but University of Minnesota Extension’s Natalie Hoidal said following those recommendations while on a farm is not always practical. Still, she said, in some situations, masks can be a useful option.
“Wearing a respirator or a mask for 10 minutes in a grocery story is a really different experience than wearing one working on a farm,” Hoidal said. “If you are out at a farmers’ market interacting with people, maybe that’s a situation you want to wear masks. When you are in the field doing work, maintaining that social distance is going to be a lot more effective than wearing a mask.”
Hoidal said keeping employees healthy is key to work getting done on a farm and communication is key to how protective measures look on each individual farm.
“Every single person is going to have a different tolerance for risk,” Hoidal said. “If you or someone in your family is immunocompromised, you’re probably taking this a lot more seriously than some other people are.
“In general, farmers are taking this very seriously. But keep in mind, if you are a farm manager and put out a great plan, if people who are working with you are not on board or taking it as seriously, that’s going to have implications. Having a really open and honest communication is really key.”