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Dairy donations: Milk hauler's efforts put cheese curds in school lunches, pantries

As a milk hauler himself, Rich Miller saw the images of milk that couldn’t be processed and knew he wanted to do whatever he could to help.

Miller noticed a friend, Don Timmerman, a retired dairy farmer and real estate agent, was working with Nilssen’s Foods in Baldwin raising money for vouchers that would allow people using the area food pantry to buy milk.

At around this time, Miller said he had been wondering what he could do to move some cheese. Miller, whose trucking company Miller Transfer in Roberts hauls for 165 farms in northwestern Wisconsin and into eastern Minnesota, said much of the milk he hauls goes to Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery and that his level of concern was raised after seeing the creamery asking farmers to cut production.

So Miller, Timmerman and another dairy farmer, John Vrieze, pooled some money to get cheese curds in the hands of families in need and in school lunches being handed out while schools are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I saw the dumping. Ellsworth mailed the letter out asking farmers to cut 7% production or asking some if they’re considering retiring this year to retire now,” Miller said. “I could see if nothing was done to cut production or selling out, it could come down to the creamery.”

Miller’s efforts started with the food pantry where his girlfriend’s mother volunteers that serves an average of about 175 Bloomer and New Auburn area families each week. Timmerman told him the Baldwin-Woodville area food pantry was serving another 120 families.

“I really didn’t know how many people were going to the food shelf, or how many school lunches were going out. It’s astronomical,” Miller said. “I called up and said, ‘I’d like to donate cheese curds.’ It just kind of snowballed. Word-of-mouth, it was just rapid-fire.”

By noon on the Monday morning following their first week of cheese deliveries, Miller said he already had requests for more than 3,000 pounds of cheese. That need, coupled with his desire to see milk continue to be processed, led Miller to dip back into his own bank account.

“I could see our funding was not enough, so I threw five grand at it,” he said. “At the same time, John reached out to some folks. Some big ones, like Compeer Financial, OEM Fabricators, Pioneer Seeds, donated. Once we got something going, holy smokes ...”

Miller said orders have been coming in quickly enough that Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery has limited them to 500 pounds per day to make sure they can keep up with packaging.

“The people, the support is huge,” Miller said. “What just blows my mind is I’ve got farmers donating money, handing my drivers money, giving the driver a check for $250.

“It’s huge. I’m loving it.”

Timmerman said he was impressed with the generosity of farmers who are struggling with low milk prices.

“The farmers are the ones we’re trying to help, and they’re donating too,” he said.

Miller said deliveries started in early April. In addition to food pantries in Bloomer, Baldwin and Roberts, deliveries have gone to schools in Baldwin-Woodville, Clear Lake, Amery, Clayton, Elmwood, Colfax, Osceola and Forest Lake, Minn.

“The food service people in schools are as happy as can be. They’re almost ecstatic,” Timmerman said. “They say the kids are just loving it.”

As of last week, Miller said donations accounted for well over 10,000 pounds of cheese curds so far. Timmerman said more than 2 tons had already been distributed.

“While those guys were picking up cheese curds the other day, the store manager at Ellsworth had a handful of envelopes that she said was all checks coming in,” Miller said. “She said, ‘You guys do realize you’re going to be handing cheese out until October.’ If that happens, I’ll be just tickled pink.”

Miller has been battling cancer for about four years, and recent treatments have kept him from hauling milk, he said, but that has given him extra time to focus on the fundraising efforts.

“I’m just trying to help the farmers,” Miller said. “They’ve taken care of me. The farmers have just been amazing.

“I know what I’m doing is just a drop in the bucket. But if I can move 50,000 pounds of cheese, that’s milk that gets put to use that may not have before.”

Dean Hines, a field representative with Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery who has been with the creamery for 45 years, said he appreciated the efforts Miller has made to help farmers and the creamery in a difficult time when demand for dairy products is down and dairy processing plants are filled nearly to capacity.

“We can’t wait until next year or next month or next week to do something. The milk isn’t stopping flowing,” Hines said. “Something needed to be done now. Rich knew the issues and took it upon himself to do something. Farmers had been helping him for years. He wanted to do something to help the farmers.”

Timmerman said they plan to make cheese curds available to food pantries and for school lunches for as long as their funds last. To contribute to the fundraising efforts, mail Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery, PO Box 610, Ellsworth, WI 54011, and write “Donation COVID-19” in the memo line.

“The donations have just been phenomenal,” Timmerman said.

“It’s incredible how many people have donated,” Hines said. “Rich is quite a guy. He grabbed the bull by the horns and really did something about a bad situation.”

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Organizers of farmers' markets adjusting plans amid pandemic

With continued uncertainty around when business can return to normal amid the coronavirus pandemic, organizers of farmers’ markets across Wisconsin are finding themselves with the painful decision to cancel, postpone or find a creative way to hold their anticipated summer markets.

Wisconsin is home to over 300 farmers’ markets, including the Dane County Farmers’ Market in Madison, the largest producers-only farmers’ market in the country. Held around the Capitol Square each Saturday mid-April through early November, the market regularly welcomes over 12,000 customers each week, serving as a key economic driver for 265 family farms and small food businesses.

The Dane County Farmers’ Market was set to open Saturday, April 11; however, because the state of Wisconsin has canceled all events on the Capitol Square indefinitely, organizers have decided to postpone the popular farmers’ market indefinitely as well, citing the restrictions in place to protect public safety and the well-being of the community. This is the first time the market has been canceled since 1972.

“We do not know when this (reopening) will be, as no one knows how long the outbreak will last,” said Sarah Elliott, market manager for the Dane County Farmers’ Market. “In the interim, we are navigating how to safely connect customers with our family farmers and how to best support our market members during this difficult time.”

In lieu of an outdoor market, a resource guide with vendor information was created and posted online at the Dane County Farmers’ Market website. That resource guide is updated two to three times a week, and includes contact information for vendors that are providing alternative purchasing options, such as home delivery, on-farm pick-up and e-commerce.

Vendors have a variety of items available, such as fresh greens, local meats, chicken eggs, bread and more. A special guide for buying local plants from farmers and nursery growers involved in the Dane County Farmers’ Market is also in the works.

Organizers of the Dane County Farmers’ Market are also piloting a Local Food Pick-Up Program where patrons pre-order from a select set of vendors, often paying for their items electronically, and then pick up those items during scheduled drive-up hours. Elliott has asked that patrons who pre-order goods put a sign in their vehicle window with their last name and the farm(s) they ordered from, with farmers setting orders inside a popped trunk or rolled down window upon arrival at the designated pick-up spot to lessen contact.

In addition, Dane County Farmers’ Market supporters have partnered with FairShare CSA Coalition to establish a crowd-funding campaign to assist small farms and food producers whose income has been severely impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak. Farms will be able to apply for funds, which will be used to pay loan and mortgage payments to ensure they can stay on their land and keep their businesses afloat, along with supporting employee wages, if applicable.

Dane County Farmers’ Market and FairShare CSA Coalition had an initial goal of raising $10,000, but after that goal was reached within only 11 days of posting the crowd-funding ask, they bumped their goal to $25,000. As of April 15, the fundraiser had garnered over $24,000, with nine grants distributed, which led organizers to announce another new goal of $50,000 to support over 100 individual farms that have faced significant financial hardship over the course of the pandemic.

“We invite you to share this fund with your community, for many hands make light work when lifting up all that our local farms do to provide us with sustenance and joy through eating,” said Carrie Sedlack, executive director of FairShare CSA Coalition.

The link for the Emergency Farmer Fund can be found at https://www.gofundme.com/f/emergency-farmer-fund.

In Eau Claire, organizers of the Downtown Farmers Market are still planning to open the market on Saturday, May 2, as planned, even though the winter market was canceled for April. Market manager Deidra Barrickman said they’ve been in touch with the city of Eau Claire and state and local health departments to ensure it’s alright to hold the market and are implementing UW-Extension recommended practices for farmers’ markets during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The producer-only market draws between 4,000 to 5,000 each week, especially during the popular summer months.

Those interested in attending the Eau Claire Downtown Farmers Market in Phoenix Park can expect things to look a little different as organizers focus on safe distancing. Vendors will be set up around the outside of the U-shaped pavilion with the inside of the pavilion open to increase spacing and avoid narrow walkways. Vendors will have items on a 6-foot table positioned in the middle of their 12-foot stall, with the possibility of another table so that customers can point to an item and the vendor can bag it properly, minimizing contact.

There will be no music for the foreseeable future to discourage the congregating of patrons. Bakeries and food trucks will also be changing their packaging to make to-go orders safer, and will be advising people not to congregate as they wait for their orders.

Hand washing stations will also be available for customers and vendors as an added safety measure, along with a restroom that will be open for use. There will also be lots of signage on safe practices and a kiosk on site with additional information and resources.

“It’s hard to have a plan for what it will look like all year, but we will implement what we believe will work best and keep everyone as safe as possible,” Barrickman said. “I think about it every day and until we see how it works, we’ll have to continue to tweak the plan.”

With about 60 vendors participating during the main summer season of the market, but as many as 75 participating all together (including the winter market), Barrickman does have concerns as more vendors look to join the farmers’ market and bring larger quantities of goods to be sold. Some vendors may opt not to return to the market amid the outbreak too, with the possibility of customers opting to skip the market as well.

“We will be putting more details on our Facebook page before the market opens to let our customers know what’s going on and what our plans are,” she said. “We have to do things as safe as possible because we care about our customers and our vendors and want them to be safe and healthy.”

The Eau Claire Downtown Farmers Market runs May through October, beginning Saturdays in May from 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Starting in June, Wednesday and Thursday markets will be open, with Wednesday hours of 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Thursday hours of 12 to 5 p.m.

For more information on the market, visit https://www.ecdowntownfarmersmarket.com or find them on Facebook.

Chief judge emeritus Bill Schlinsog of Middleton looked over some of the entries at the 2019 United States Championship Cheese Contest in Green Bay.

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Farmers may be eligible for unemployment benefits

Farmers who are facing loss of income directly due to the COVID-19 pandemic may have the unprecedented opportunity to collect unemployment insurance benefits.

Falling into the category of self-employed, farmers and ranchers have historically been ineligible for unemployment insurance, but the CARES Act, signed by President Donald Trump on March 27, has opened the possibility, said Rachel Armstrong, founder and executive director of Farm Commons, which provides legal services to farmers, during a webinar.

“This is a big change,” Armstrong said. “Disaster assistance in some ways has always been available to the self-employed, but that has been a very narrow utilization of the program. Never has it been so broadly available to those who are self-employed.”

Farms and ranches are specifically included in the expansion of unemployment insurance to the self-employed as potentially eligible for benefits, Armstrong said.

Because of the recency of the legislation, “there’s still a lot of things we don’t know about how this program is going to be administered and including how it works with other government resources that are being made available,” Armstrong said.

For a farmer to be eligible to receive benefits, farming must be their principle occupation, Armstrong said, not just a side job or hobby.

It is, however, fine if a farmer’s spouse has an off-farm job or if a farmer doesn’t show net income regularly, Armstrong said. Multiple self-employed people on the same farm (e.g. spouses, adult children, etc.) can divide the farm’s income among themselves and each claim unemployment, she added.

A farmer must also be able to self-certify that they are “self-unemployed” because of COVID-19 under one of 11 circumstances, the most likely of which is that the person “meets any additional criteria established by the Secretary (of Labor) for unemployment assistance under this section,” Armstrong said.

As stated in a clarification letter issued April 5, self-employed individuals are eligible if “COVID-19 has severely limited their ability to continue performing customary work activities, forcing the individual to suspend such activities, and the result is direct,” Armstrong said.

For example, Armstrong said, if someone sells their product at a farmers’ market and that farmers’ market is shut down due to COVID-19 and the farmer can no longer sell that product, that would be a qualifying situation.

A comparable situation is restaurants or processors that are shut down due to COVID-19 might no longer be buying the products farmers are trying to sell, Armstrong said.

Not everything situation is that straightforward, though.

If a farmer diverts sales elsewhere, such as by opening a CSA or through online sales, for example, “that’s great,” Armstrong said.

“But that is additional income that you’re going to report,” Armstrong noted, adding that a farmer can still go into the unemployment benefits system each week, but they’re going to have to account for the money they earned in other ways.

For dairy and commodity farmers, it might seem more difficult to establish the necessary cause-effect relationship between COVID-19 and their losses.

For dairy farmers unable to sell milk, “I think there is a powerful case to be made that, yes, that is a direct result of COVID-19,” Armstrong said. “But we do have to show ... that this loss is direct, and there will be push back on this point because as we know, milk prices that you’re receiving, they were not that great before. Demand was declining over time.”

That could lead some administrators to say that COVID-19 may have exacerbated the situation, but it didn’t cause it, Armstrong suggested. She said that this potential situation is something she hoped advocates could take on and reach out to government officials on behalf of farmers.

Similarly, for commodity farmers of crops like corn and soybeans, many of whose markets have collapsed, “there is absolutely the potential, but we need the evidence to show it,” Armstrong said. There has to be work done to show the direct link between COVID-19 and the prices received for those commodities, which is a situation that might be more “iffy,” she said.

Now is a good time to start gathering any evidence and resources that would show that link is direct, Armstrong said.

For those who do meet the requirements, they can expect to receive the “regular” state benefit, which is generally between $300 and $500 a week, Armstrong said. Under the CARES Act, the federal government will kick in an additional benefit of $600 a week until July 31.

While the federal portion of the benefits is slated to lapse after July, self-employed individuals can receive the typical benefits for 39 weeks, but not after Dec. 31 of this year, Armstrong said.

Regardless of the federal funding going into the program, states will be the ones administering the program, and anyone applying should go through the appropriate state, said Sarah Vaile, an attorney with Farm Commons.

Each state should have instructions on applying for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, Vaile said.

So far, Vaile said she had heard that many self-employed people filing for unemployment have been confused or frustrated by the process. But, she reminded, this is something new that states haven’t had to deal with before and there are going to be kinks that have to be worked out.

“It’s asking the state employment agencies to do something that don’t ordinarily do, which is process claims for self-employed persons,” Vaile said.

The states didn’t get specific federal guidance on self-employed claims until the guidance letter was issued on April 5, Vaile said. The states then have to figure out how to work with the federal government under that guidance, create their own set of state guidelines on implementation and ensure their employees are trained and ready to receive questions. Essentially, a system designed for W-2 employees has to be retrofitted for the self-employed, Vaile said.

“That’s a lot to get done in a short amount of time,” Vaile said.

While the systems should be up and running soon and it can be difficult to have to wait for the money, Vaile encouraged people to “hang tight” and know that they can be paid retroactively even if the process of getting benefits initially is delayed. Even so, the process may remain awkward to a certain degree for some time, she said.

Farms that receive a Paycheck Protection Program loan have other considerations to take into account if they’re thinking about unemployment insurance.

The goal of the PPP is to keep employees on payroll and reduce pressure on the unemployment system, Armstrong said. While the extension of unemployment benefits to the self-employed and the $600 a week bonus may make that option more attractive, letting employees go just so they can collect the $600 a week would be fraud, she said.

It’s also unlikely that a farmer could use a PPP loan to pay employees and then turn to unemployment benefits for themselves, Armstrong said, but they’re still awaiting specific guidance.

There may be ways for someone to juggle a PPP loan, which has to be used within eight weeks by the end of June, and unemployment insurance in stages, Armstrong said.

If someone has already applied for PPP, it’s up to them to sit down and determine what unemployment insurance means for them specifically, Armstrong said.

But not everyone has or can get a PPP loan for a variety of potential reasons, though, Armstrong said. Unemployment benefits may be the next best thing then.

Farm Commons compiles resources for farmers on its website, farmcommons.org, and may host more webinars in the future as more information becomes available. This webinar can be viewed in its entirety at tinyurl.com/s7ltgpw.