‘We Will Lose Farms': Dairy Industry Struggles in Coronavirus Crisis

Agriculture officials in the Northeast are pushing for federal help for the industry, while farm advocates ask consumers for their support

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Vermont’s agriculture secretary and its lone member of the U.S. House of Representatives met with farmers Thursday, telling them in a virtual gathering that they are working to help them through the coronavirus crisis.

"This literally is the first pandemic that our county has experienced in a hundred years," observed Rep. Peter Welch, a Democrat, in addressing farmers who attended the online meeting.

Welch and Secretary Anson Tebbetts of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture said a series of requests have been filed with the federal government — both by the state’s congressional delegation and by a coalition of agriculture leaders representing each of the New England states.

The officials sent letters to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue. The letters asked for support, such as guaranteed minimum prices for dairy commodities, direct government payments to farm families and for the USDA to stock the nation’s emergency food shelves with more milk products.

Over the past decade, the nation has lost 17,000 dairy farms, Vermont’s congressional delegation said in a letter to Perdue.

In Vermont, where at least 23 people have died with the new coronavirus, the state university's main gymnasium is being filled with hospital beds.

Many in the agriculture community fear the economic toll of the coronavirus crisis could cause more farm closures.

"It’s quite a harrowing experience to go through," said dairyman Bill Rowell. "We will lose farms."

Rowell milks more than 900 cows at his Green Mountain Dairy in Sheldon, Vermont.

When restaurants and universities suddenly closed to help control the spread of disease, that meant huge disruptions to the milk supply chain, Rowell explained.

For example, the way milk is packaged for a college dining hall is much different than it is for your fridge, the farmer noted.

The jarring changes to production meant logjams at processing plants that left some farmers simply throwing their milk away.

"We don’t want to dump it," Rowell said of dairy farmers’ stance toward their milk across the country. "We want to sell it."

The USDA says almost 40% of food gets thrown away. When that trash rots in landfills, it releases methane into the environment.

Rowell noted the costs of milk production are now higher than the prices farmers are paid, elevating those fears of farm closures.

Marty Mundy, the executive director of the Vermont Cheese Council, said shoppers can help by buying artisan cheeses.

"Most of our cheesemakers have lost between 50 and 70% of their sales," Mundy told NECN & NBC10 Boston Thursday.

Mundy explained that those makers have struggled greatly with the loss of restaurant sales.

In response, she said the council launched a website telling folks in Boston, around the northeast and even beyond where they can order products for pickup or home delivery.

"The choice made by consumers will definitely have a long-term impact on the sustainability of some of our smaller farmstead artisan makers," Mundy said.

The dairy industry hopes public support plus government steps will protect a critical food sector and way of life in rural America.

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