At a time when more Americans are cooking from home than ever, millions are depending on food banks, and many grocery stores are having difficulty keeping eggs and milk on the shelves; one may assume that now is a pretty good time to be a farmer. For weeks now, however, in scenes reminiscent of The Great Depression, both dairy and agricultural farmers have been forced to destroy some or all of their products. Agricultural farmers have had to plow their crops under, and many dairy farmers have simply been pouring their unprocessed product down the drain. At the same time, food banks and other charitable organizations have come under immense pressure as more Americans are depending on their services for survival at levels unseen since The Great Depression. These products are being destroyed instead of used due to the inflexible nature of the dairy and agricultural processing industries. Many processing plants that the industries depend on are so highly specialized that they are only prepared to provide finished products to schools or restaurants, not the retail market.
In the case of the dairy industry, the evaporation of the bulk dairy market and the slow adaptation to the new reality has made the difficult lives of dairy farmer across the US even harder. Before the pandemic hit, milk farmers were finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel after four years of record low milk prices. Milk farmer Jim DiGangi was quoted by CNN as saying “There was a shining light at 2020. It was going to be our rebound year.” The pandemic has, of course, put an end to those hopes, as dairy processing plants are unable to pivot towards serving the retail market quickly enough to make use of the milk that dairy cows produce each day. According to the nation’s largest dairy cooperative, Dairy Farmers of America, some 3.7 million gallons of milk are being dumped each day. Farmers could potentially cull their herd in order to reduce milk production, but many are concerned that such culling would lead to dairy shortages only a few months down the road, leaving the farmers in an even worse position than they’re in now. While the market is still in flux and dairy processors are still trying to adapt to the change in demand, dairy groups are scrambling to adapt. Some groups, such as the National Milk Producers Federation and the International Dairy Foods Association, are asking the USDA to provide compensation for wasted milk and are asking the government to purchase and redistribute dairy products to those in need; other groups are encouraging food companies to use more dairy in their products where possible. These efforts will hopefully ensure that the dairy industry is still extant and functioning after the pandemic.
Meanwhile, according to the New York Times, the closure of schools and restaurants across the country has left many agricultural farmers with no buyers for over half of their crops, and even the increase in individual demand for food cannot make up for the loss in institutional demand. These farmers have donated what they can to charitable organizations such as food banks and Meals On Wheels, but these organizations simply cannot store and distribute the massive amounts of excess produce that farmers have. These organizations not only lack the physical space, but they also lack the manpower to go out and pick up the produce from farms or to sort the retrieved produce into individual grocery orders. Some farmers don’t even have the option of donating their product to food banks. Shay Meyers, an onion farmer interviewed by the New York Times summed up his situation by simply saying that “People don’t make onion rings at home.” Meyers has been unable to find any productive use for the majority of his crop, leading to his simply dumping the excess into large pits and leaving them to rot, though he has been able to package some of his crop for individual purchase and preserve even more through freezing them, there is simply no demand for the remainder.
Dairy and agricultural farmers are not the only ones feeling the effects of the pandemic. Relatively soon, the meat industry is expecting to face the same problems that the dairy and agricultural industries are currently facing. Not only will the meat industry be dealing with the same dearth of demand, they are already facing problems with meatpacking workers, many of whom have not been showing up to work due to their fear of the virus. Meatpacking and slaughterhouse employees often have to work in close quarters and in conditions where the virus could spread very rapidly. Other sectors in the food industry have also been having problems finding employees to work their fields as stricter border controls and travel restrictions around the country have made it more difficult for farms to draw in the migrant labor that they depend on each harvest season. Travel restrictions have also restricted the speed at which food can be collected and delivered. This problem is especially apparent in Europe where border checks across the continent have stalled the transport of food to the point where the EU is looking at designating specific highway lanes for food delivery trucks. Furthermore, the longer the pandemic persists, the more likely it is that the delivery of fresh fruit and other such products from South America and Africa will become more difficult or dry up.
Our system for producing and distributing food as it exists now was never designed to be able to face a crisis like COVID-19. It’s high levels of institutional rigidity and specialization mean that it may never be able to fully adapt to the demands of the world as it is today. Much food will be wasted, and many farmers, employees, and consumers will suffer the consequences of this lack of flexibility. Hopefully, we will be able to adapt and learn from this situation and reconstruct our institutions to prevent such needless, heartbreaking waste from occurring again.
Joe Doner – Political Editor