November 27, 2021

State helps farmers, but future still bleak

Metro Creative Connection

No farmer wants to pour perfectly good milk onto the ground, but supply chain problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic have required it. Now, however, a new state initiative may send it to hungry people.

“There have been several days where they pick up our milk and dump it in a manure pit,” said Stewart Young, an owner of East River Dairy in Homer, whose cooperative, Dairy Farmers of America, dumped the milk when it couldn’t find a buyer.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration announced the Nourish New York initiative Monday, where the state will buy $25 million worth of excess milk and dairy products from dairy producers that would otherwise go to waste, process them and send them to food pantries across the state.

“It’s certainly a win for those in need but also takes product off the market that, unfortunately, is being dumped in many cases,” said Mark James, a senior field adviser for the New York Farm Bureau.

James, whose region covers Cortland, Cayuga, Onondaga and Oswego counties, said the frequency of farmers dumping excess milk varies from farm to farm.

The farms most susceptible to dumping milk are the ones that produce in large quantities for restaurants and milk-based products, like yogurt, as they don’t have the capability for smaller packaging, which is done by the processors, he said.

“It’s a win-win for farmers and those in need,” James said.

During the coronavirus pandemic, farmers have seen a decrease in their guaranteed payment on milk, Young said.

Recently, the Dairy Farmers of America, the cooperative that produces the milk from Young’s farm, guarantees paying farmers market rate for only 85% of the milk produced, leaving the other 15% unknown, he said.

This has put another strain on farmers like Young.

“It was supposed to be our first good year in five and it’s turning out to be one of our worst years,” he said.

Before the pandemic, Young said that the price per hundredweight — 100 pounds — of milk was nearing $20. That price may be closer to $13 or $14 per hundredweight for April, which will be announced in May.

While Young said the state initiative will help, more needs to be done on a large scale, including reopening businesses and restarting the economy.

“When the economy is working the way it usually works, the demand goes back up for dairy products,” he said.

Paul Fouts, the owner of Fouts Farm in Groton, said milk from his farm has been dumped by the Dairy Farmers of America, the cooperative he produces for, only once since the pandemic began, but he has come close on a few occasions.

When the cooperative dumps milk from one farmer, everyone is affected as payments are pooled, Fouts said.

“All the farmers are paying for it,” he said.

The initiative will help keep money in their wallets, he said, but Fouts said he must still look for ways to cut costs as the futures market for milk does not look good for the next few months. He has sold 50 cows and brought back heifers he normally boards at another farm.

“Right now we’re getting by but the next couple of months are going to be very bad and we’re doing everything to cut costs and see if we can make it through it,” he said.