TWIN FALLS — Restaurant closures are wreaking havoc on the food industry. The Magic Valley’s biggest agricultural sector, dairy, has been especially hard-hit, with some farmers having to pour milk out due to dramatically reduced demand for cheese, butter and cream.
Some Magic Valley residents have wondered why dairy farmers can’t donate that unsold milk instead of wasting it. If potato farmers can drop thousands of pounds of spuds in a field and invite people to load their vehicles with free food, why can’t dairymen extend similar invitations and have people fill up jugs of milk at their farms?
There are a handful of reasons the comparison isn’t a good one.
Supply chain challenges
Idaho Dairymen’s Association CEO Rick Naerebout said the way the dairy industry supply chain is set up, donations are a challenge.
“The dairyman does not own the bottling plant, so they cannot dictate what other businesses in the supply chain do,” Naerebout said.
Magic Valley dairymen might have a contract with a processor, such as Glanbia or Agropur, some of the world’s largest sellers of dairy products. Some farmers are part of co-ops, which have their own processing plants here.
But virtually no Magic Valley dairyman is equipped to bottle milk and hand it out.
Plus, Idaho doesn’t bottle much milk in general. About 97% of the state’s milk ends up as cheese, butter or dozens of other products, so there isn’t even enough bottling infrastructure in place if farmers wanted to go the route of handing out bottles.
The Magic Valley is also somewhat ill-equipped to donate cheese. That’s because much of Idaho’s cheese is shipped in massive blocks or barrels and sold in bulk.
“The packaging isn’t even close to what we buy in retail, and we can’t retrofit these plants in a short matter of time,” Naerebout said. “It is a very complex operation and requires a lot of capital.”
There’s a reason that dairy and potato farmers are struggling more than other Magic Valley food producers now: Their crops are relatively perishable. Potatoes are far less perishable than milk, but they go bad more easily than other major southern Idaho crops such as wheat, corn and beans. Milk would be easier to donate if it didn’t go bad so quickly.
High additional costs
Then there’s the issue of cost.
“The milk price has dropped so drastically that there’s an inability to break even right now,” Naerebout said.
If a Magic Valley dairy processor wanted to bottle milk and donate it, or process milk and donate the cheese, that would be a huge additional cost. It’s expensive to ship milk from the farm to a processing facility, and then run that facility, so given that farmers and processors are bleeding money right now, they probably don’t have the financial resources to pay for processing products that won’t make any money.
That’s essentially the main reason dairy farmers have to dump milk: Processing and donating milk would be more expensive than simply dumping it, and an industry that has lost massive amounts of business probably can’t afford the charitable — but more expensive — option.
“It’s hard to have the producer community find ways to cover that, the costs of all these donations,” Naerebout said.
Even if a big-hearted processor wanted to process and bottle for donations, the Magic Valley is pouring out so many thousands of gallons of milk every day that the donation would still only be a tiny fraction of all the milk being wasted.
“The sheer volume of what is being dumped I think is greater than what people perceive it to be,” Naerebout said.
While a potato farmer can safely dump spuds in a field and invite people to pick some up, it wouldn’t be legal or safe for most farmers to allow people to fill up bottles right at the farm. Only a very small number of Idaho farmers have the U.S. Department of Agriculture permits necessary to sell raw, unpasteurized milk.
“Even if a dairyman was told, ‘Hey, today you have to dump your milk,’ legally they can’t just jump on social media and say, ‘Hey, come get all the milk you want,’” Naerebout explained.
But even with all of those obstacles preventing dairymen and processors from being able to donate their products, the dairy industry could start donating food soon.
Naerebout said that the dairy industry is working to find ways to donate milk. There might be a way to donate a portion of unsold milk to food banks.
“That’s more complex than it would appear,” he said.
The likely way donations would work is the USDA would purchase dairy products and get them into food banks and other programs.
The U.S. government has stepped in to help the dairy industry in the past, buying cheese and other products and then both donating some and storing massive amounts in hundreds of warehouses — even underground caves. The main goal, however, was to improve milk prices for farmers.
This time the program would be different, Naerebout said. The goal would be primarily to help food-insecure families.
“The need to help those families is greater than it’s ever been before.”
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