A closer look

COVID-19 twists the knife further for Wisconsin farmers

More stories from Ta'Leah Van Sistine

Life in the city
December 8, 2021

Wisconsin was a dairyland in crisis, even months before COVID-19 began to heavily impact the nation. Farms were going bankrupt, farmers were facing financial ruin and suicide rates among farmers were skyrocketing.

Now the pandemic has twisted the knife further, as closed restaurants, schools, hotels and food service businesses have left farms with no market for their dairy products.

Golden E Dairy, a family-run farm near West Bend, Wis., was asked to dump 25,000 gallons of milk a day into a wastewater lagoon because of this problem. 

“We thought this would never happen,” Ryan Elbe, whose parents started Golden E Dairy in 1991, told USA Today. “Everybody’s rushing to the grocery store to get food and we have food that’s literally being dumped down the drain.”

Elbe said he has since received backlash on social media when he went public about having to dump the milk. 

“People were saying things like ‘how could I sleep at night,’ and that I should be ashamed of myself,” Elbe said. “Some people thought it was only happening on this farm. But it’s all across the country. There are a lot of farms doing this now.”

However, Elbe cannot donate the milk to charities because Wisconsin state law prohibits unpasteurized and unbottled milk from being distributed. 

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, some milk bottlers and cheese plants have made plans to donate processed dairy products to charities.  

But dairy product distribution systems are largely centered on food-service sales, so they can’t “quickly pivot to retailers and charities.”

The state milk sales alone have plummeted 70 percent during the COVID-19 pandemic despite grocery store sales rising. 

In some cases, farmers are being charged marketing fees for the milk they are being forced to dump. 

State law requires Wisconsin dairy farms to pay state and national milk marketing programs 15 cents for about every 12 gallons of milk they sell.

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, ten cents goes to state and regional programs, like Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin and the other five cents goes to national programs. 

“‘It’s just nuts’ to pay for marketing something flushed down the drain,” Mike Yager, a dairy farmer from Mineral Point, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “Farmers are the ones dealing with the losses, but the promotion boards still get their money.”

Yager said he asked Dairy Management Inc. for a suspension of the fees on dumped milk, but they told him not to expect any changes.

A New York Post article said several dairy groups in Wisconsin called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the end of March to purchase products such as dry milk, butter and cheese to help the struggling industry. The groups wrote a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue.

“Commodity dairy prices have plummeted and will result in milk prices lower than many farms can handle to sustain long-term viability,” the letter said, according to the New York Post. “Direct relief to dairy farmers and a substantial purchase of dairy commodities by USDA can ensure our industry will remain fiscally able to function in its primary role of feeding the nation and the world.”

Van Sistine can be reached at [email protected].