From Their Cow to Your Kitchen
People often have questions about the way their food is produced, but after experiencing COVID-19 supply interruptions, many of us are also more curious about how food gets processed, distributed and finally arrives on our table. The dairy industry is one segment of agriculture that has experienced a lot of disruption; in addition to facing many challenges and historically low milk prices.
Why has milk been difficult to find in stores, yet farmers have had to dump milk?
The American food supply system is extremely efficient, but unanticipated pandemic-related disruptions this past spring brought unique challenges that made it difficult to find certain food items, including dairy.
Jayne Sebright, the Executive Director of the Center for Dairy Excellence, acknowledges the difficulty many consumers had at one point or another finding milk at the grocery store even though dairy is one of Pennsylvania’s top commodities. “There were issues with both dairy processing and grocery store purchasing that had consumers looking at empty shelves. It was the perfect storm.”
With large dairy customers like schools and restaurants no longer purchasing their usual volumes of milk, some dairy cooperatives and processors were stuck with a surplus they were unable to rapidly repackage and transport for sale to individual customers.
Typically, these kinds of institutional customers purchase milk in a variety of quantities that can be significantly smaller (e.g. single-serve) or larger (e.g. 5-10 gallons bags made to fit into dispensing machines) than our standard gallon or half-gallon containers. Without the right packaging readily available, it took processors a few weeks to order and receive the residential-sized containers.
At the same time, grocery stores continued ordering their usual supply of milk, not fully anticipating the duration of institutional closures and additional household consumption they would be facing. So while there was milk available, the stores did not have it in stock yet.
This disruption caused some cooperatives and processors to ask farmers to dump the surplus milk on their fields (temporary environmental allowances were given) as a way to get rid of it until they could get the right packaging and grocery store orders increased.
Sebright explains: “Whether those farmers use a cooperative to market their milk or they sell directly to a processor, the economic impact is typically spread amongst the farmer-collective so that no single farmer bears the entire financial loss. Notwithstanding, as dairy farmers continued to milk their cows they were faced with the heart-breaking knowledge that some of that milk would go to waste. It was a frustrating time for everyone involved.”
How can I support Pennsylvania dairy farmers now?
Buy real milk and other dairy products!
Laura England, Director of the Bureau of Market Development at Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, says, “Buying real milk and other dairy products at the grocery store is something many consumers are already doing.”
She explains that milk is highly perishable; therefore, it is collected, processed and distributed as efficiently as possible.
In the state of Pennsylvania, milk is required to be delivered to the processor within 72 hours from the time milking takes place on the farm. It is standard dairy industry practice to deliver milk and other dairy products as locally as possible for both quality and cost-effectiveness. This means that if you buy milk at your local grocery store, it is likely to have come from not too far away.
But how can you be sure you are supporting Pennsylvania dairy farmers?
England says, “Look for the PA Preferred® logo or for the number 42 on your milk carton. The first two numbers of the codes stamped on milk cartons identifies the state where the milk was processed. Pennsylvania’s number is 42, therefore, milk with a plant code beginning with ‘42’ means the milk is processed in Pennsylvania and sourced predominately from Pennsylvania dairy farms.”
Chester County Commissioner Josh Maxwell notes, “Our Chester County dairies and farms also use their milk to produce an amazing selection of award-winning cheeses, ice creams and yogurts, which can be bought directly from the farms. I encourage everyone to try them – not just to support local businesses, but because they are all delicious!”