FFA chapters across the state are stepping up to help their communities and the dairy industry in different ways during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Reedsburg FFA chapter is proving to be no exception.
Beginning Monday, April 20, Reedsburg Area High School agriculture teachers and FFA advisors Todd Cherney and Nick Casey began handing out gallons of milk once a week at two of the seven locations where the school district has been regularly distributing thousands of meals for its students.
While the student FFA members can’t be allowed to help physically distribute the milk due to COVID-19, they’ve given their full support to the program.
The initiative started when the advisors talked to FFA members and decided to make a commitment to donate $1,000 of their budget to help provide gallons of milk to local families in need.
Cherney and Casey said that the FFA members saw this as an opportunity to give back to those who have been there to support the FFA and that the kids wanted to be involved and help their neighbors.
“A lot of people have helped us out before,” Casey said.
When $400 was spent during the first week’s distribution of 150 gallons, the chapter made the decision to up their donation to $1,200 to ensure they would be able to provide the same amount of milk the following two Mondays, April 27 and May 4.
The program has only grown from there.
A wave of community support and donations has flowed into the initiative since it’s started, which is allowing the number of gallons distributed each week to increase to 200 and the length of the program to be extended at least two to three weeks longer than initially thought.
“The support has been overwhelming in the Reedsburg community,” Cherney said.
The milk is distributed on a first-come, first-served basis at a rate of one gallon per family in a drive-thru format as the families drive by to pick up school-provided meals for students.
The milk distribution program, which has spread by word of mouth and the district’s social media, has certainly taken off.
On April 27, the second day that gallons were distributed, some families showed up 40 minutes before meal distribution was scheduled to begin to wait for their chance to grab a gallon, Cherney said. Once distribution started, they ran out of gallons to hand out in 27 minutes.
“There is a need,” Cherney said.
That need, which more people are starting to realize, he said, is why they’re so happy to be able to expand this program.
“You should see the cars that come through,” Cherney said, noting that he has seen kids’ “eyes light up” at the prospect of receiving a gallon of chocolate milk.
The program isn’t just about getting milk into the hands of those who want and need it, though, Cherney said. In some small way, they hope their efforts are helping dairy farmers locally and statewide who, like many, are struggling during the pandemic.
It’s “heartbreaking” to see farmers dumping their milk and the potential paycheck that comes along with it, said Casey, who has been teaching in Reedsburg for close to 20 years.
Helping people connect the dots to recognize just where their food and milk is coming from is a minor part of the program, too, Casey said.
“Part of our job is to make people aware of the food supply,” Casey said.
Cherney, who has been teaching for 30 years, knows that many of the local dairy farmers are students he’s taught or connected to the students in some way.
“It’s gut-wrenching to know what they’re going through,” Cherney said. “We’re all in this together.”
And Reedsburg FFA is just one of many chapters and other local groups who are trying to do their part to make the strength in community part of that message clear.
Farmers across the state have started making progress on spring fieldwork. But before that fieldwork started, farmers had to make some difficult decisions based on the state of the agriculture industry reeling from years of low commodity prices and now dealing with the global COVID-19 pandemic.
“Even though farmers have been really struggling with low commodity prices across the board, it’s encouraging to see they’re still putting crops in the ground,” UW-Extension Chippewa County Agriculture Educator Jerry Clark said. “They’re getting through this as best they can.”
Last spring, farmers struggled to even get into their fields. From winter-killed alfalfa to heavy spring rains and late-planted corn followed by more wet weather in May and June, many farmers may now have their forage inventories stretched to the limit.
This April, farmers took advantage of several sunny, windy days to bring in corn left standing over the winter, till fields, and apply fertilizer and manure. Planting started with small grains, alfalfa, potatoes, peas, corn, and soybeans all going in the ground in late April, according to the Wisconsin Crop Progress & Condition report released April 27 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service Wisconsin office.
“We’ve had a more normal start to spring than we’ve had in several years,” Clark said. “Just before the virus started taking a toll, things were looking like they were coming around. It looked like agriculture would see a nice rebound. Now that’s not going to happen in the near future. Hopefully by fall things have turned around.”
According to the crop progress report, hay stands are greening up, though it was still too early to judge the extent of winter freeze damage in some parts of the state.
Many alfalfa stands across the state didn’t survive the winter of 2018-19 that saw low snow cover and a polar vortex early followed by heavy snow late. Last year, more than 80% of alfalfa/forages were lost to winterkill in Clark County.
Richard Halopka, UW-Extension Clark County crops and livestock educator, said he expects there to be more acres of forage seeded this year to fill gaps in feed inventory on farms.
“Good news is forages have come through winter fairly well,” Halopka said. “A few fields seeded last year may have been stressed and may be replanted, but overall there is some forage. Many farmers have decided against alfalfa as we have had some bad years in a row; however, alfalfa does help increase yields and will help farmers fill the gap to feed livestock.”
Crop-progress reporters across the state commented that planting progress was well ahead of this time last year.
“It looks like the alfalfa came through winter pretty well; the melt was pretty gradual, so we didn’t have a lot of flooding; the fields look pretty good right now,” Clark said. “This spring looks like we should be about a month ahead of where we were at this point last year.”
But Clark and Halopka said there are many factors farmers must consider heading into this year’s planting season.
Halopka said one carry-over aspect from last year’s wet spring will be in fields that were fallowed last year, farmers can expect there to be a yield drag on crops planted this year.
Following the extremely wet 2019, the National Agricultural Statistics Service Wisconsin office reported that, as of April 26, topsoil moisture condition was rated 0% very short, 4% short, 80% adequate and 16% surplus and subsoil moisture condition was rated 0% very short, 2% short, 79% adequate and 19% surplus.
That moisture has many farmers concerned about compaction, Halopka said.
“Waterlogged soils do not compact compared to a field at water holding capacity,” he said. “Also, with our sub-soil moisture content being high, deep ripping soils is not the answer and may contribute to more problems down the road.”
Halopka recommended farmers with ruts in field fix them with as few tillage passes as possible.
“Excessive tillage will contribute to more ruts as we continue to breakdown the soil structure reducing a soils carrying capacity,” he said.
With COVID-19 wreaking havoc on all aspects of the agricultural economy, farmers have been forced to be creative in coming up with ways to be less productive. With dairy-processing plants asking dairy farmers to cut production, farmers have come up with solutions from reducing milking frequency from three times a day to two times a day to changing feed rations to encourage lower production.
“Dairy farmers might have to adjust rations with an eye on production so they can get through this without having to get rid of cattle they’d rather not get rid of,” Clark said. “Some farmers are changing rations to not as high in protein to cut back on production.”
Livestock producers are finding themselves in a similar situation. With cattle that may be ready to go to market but no room available to process the cattle, farmers are trying to come up with creative ways to keep quality high while limiting costs associated with keeping the cattle on the land for longer.
“Once the larger slaughter plants get rolling again, the bottlenecks should open back up,” Clark said. “The smaller ones in Chippewa County are backed up six months, so getting cattle in there is not an option right now.”
For the past month, UW-Extension has collected fact sheets to help farmers make management decisions related to reducing milk production, the impact of dumped milk on crop production, slowing the rate of gain on hogs and cattle, and information for people to take care of themselves, Halopka said. That information can be found at https://fyi.extension.wisc.edu/covid19/category/topics/farming.
“Farmers are just trying to think about things a little differently,” Clark said. “There’s no silver bullet. They’re just trying to do farm work in a unique way and trying to do it as cheaply as possible.
“Farmers are optimistic things will turn around by fall.”
Halopka suggested farmers try to focus on the positive and know that there are people out there they can talk to if they are struggling.
“That is what makes farming fun and challenging, every spring you get a do over,” Halopka said. “Everyday you can wake up and have a chance to change something. We can plant a crop, we have a new born calf, spring is a new beginning for farmers and it provides hope for a better year. That doesn’t make this job easy. A wise man once told me ‘if it was easy everyone would do it.’ Every year provides challenges and rewards.”
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.”