Shuttered schools and restaurants are bad news for farmers trying to stay viable and healthy through the pandemic

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Dumping milk, rotting cabbage? The effect of COVID-19 is beginning to take its toll on farmers in the Finger Lakes region — where agriculture is a major economic driver and for many, a livelihood.

When farmer Kim Skellie, partner at El-Vi Farms in Newark, Wayne County, was asked by his dairy cooperative if his manure pit could take milk, it sent a chill down his spine. The thought of dumping any farm’s milk — his farm likely to become one of them —  drove home for Skellie what could be coming down due to COVID-19.

With schools, restaurants and other food businesses closed due to the pandemic, demand for milk and other dairy products has taken a nosedive.

“Milk and produce are getting destroyed,” said Mark James, a senior field adviser with New York Farm Bureau.

Destroyed, literally. 

Farmers can’t stop milking cows. Excess milk has to go somewhere. James said half of the dairy market goes for institutions such as schools, universities and restaurants. Even with demand from retail, plants equipped for institutional packaging of dairy products — packaging required for milk headed to schools and restaurants — can’t convert on a dime. James said it costs millions to retool a plant for packaging purposes. So millions of pounds of milk from dairy farms have nowhere to go. Raw, unpasteurized milk can’t be donated to food banks — and as a perishable product, milk can’t be stored.

Skellie, a member of the state board for New York Farm Bureau, said this week he is hanging on, remaining at full staff and operations for now, as the farm braces for plummeting milk prices, another result of decreased demand. “For May, we will see a significant drop,” he said.

At Hemdale Farms and Greenhouses in Seneca Castle, owner Dale Hemminger said that after several years of low milk prices, 2020 promised to be a good year. Then came COVID-19. “Now we are back in the red,” he said.

Hemdale Farms and Greenhouses relies heavily on its dairy and cabbage business.

“With surplus milk there is no light at the end of the tunnel,” said Hemminger. Cabbage is another worry. “If business doesn’t pick up in June, we will have to dump a lot of cabbage," he said.

Much of Hemdale’s cabbage crop typically goes to Chinese restaurants in New York City, where the coronavirus outbreak is the worst in the nation. Hemminger said his farm generally sells six or more loads of cabbage per week for Chinese restaurants in the city. The best he can do now is sell two loads of cabbage to a salad company in the Southeast, at a 40 percent discount.

Hemdale had to cut back on hours for some of his workers. Fortunately, work in the greenhouse remains busy and demand for wheat is way up. A very small part of Hemdale’s business, about 5 percent, is supplying wheat to Birkett Mills in Penn Yan. Hemminger said Birkett Mills is working round the clock to keep up with demand for flour.

Staying healthy, staying in business

New York Farm Bureau, like-minded organizations, programs through Cornell University and other institutions are providing updates and guidance for farmers. Staying healthy on the farm is crucial to staying in business. At Hemdale Farms, Hemminger said he is thankful everyone is healthy and they are taking all the necessary precautions.

Farms are taking very seriously social distancing and other practices required to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

At El-Vi Farms, Skellie said they are meeting frequently with employees, seated at least 6 feet apart, to reinforce best practices and share updates. Everyone is urged to stay home as much as possible, eliminating unnecessary trips to the grocery store and other places. The farm developed a more rigid cleaning schedule and tripled space in the break room for social distancing. Workers are provided masks.

On the economic side, New York Farm Bureau has asked for help from the USDA. Farm Bureau President David Fisher, in a recent letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, makes the case for federal assistance that spells out a number of ways USDA can help a diverse range of farms statewide weather the storm.

“While no one could have predicted the extent of this virus on the country or its food supply, the impacts have been real and unprecedented for America’s farmers, including those in New York. Not only have farmers experienced the loss of markets, dumping of products, and labor disruptions, also there remains uncertainty of when they may see any type of recovery,” wrote Fisher.

Major points of the request: 

— USDA should immediately purchase dairy products including, but not limited to, fluid milk, butter, cheeses and dry milk powders.

— A voucher program should be created for people in need through the Milk Donation Program, as authorized under the 2018 Farm Bill, to facilitate the distribution of donated milk through grocery stores and other venues, since some food banks and food pantries often do not have enough cold storage to accept large quantities of highly-perishable products.

— With the steep decline in purchases in the food-service sector, USDA should consider developing a purchase program that would quickly provide stability to all impacted fresh produce growers through the duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

— Provisions should be made for livestock, equine, horticulture, craft distilleries, maple producers and more who are facing closures and a significant loss of business.

Farm Bureau’s Mark James said it’s encouraging that the appeal has bipartisan support, at both the state and federal level. Advocacy for farmers is coming from U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both Democrats, as well as upstate legislators of both parties.

 “Our local farms need help right now, period. We need to extend a lifeline to the hardworking men and women who feed our families,” said Assemblyman Brian Kolb, R-Victor.

“As we see businesses large and small struggling, it is important that every level of government work together to ensure that local farms have the tools they need to weather this storm,” said state Sen. Pam Helming, R-Canandaigua.

Watch for continuing coverage as we explore the effects of the pandemic on produce farmers and farm markets.