Dairy farms have been diminishing in Pennsylvania, but the commonwealth still has about 7,000 of them, a figure that is second nationally to Wisconsin.
The Keystone State, according to centerfordairyexcellence.org, ranks seventh in milk production, with more than 10.2 billion pounds produced each year by a half-million cows.
Then in March, the coronavirus pandemic began to wreak havoc on just about everything in the commonwealth. With restaurants and schools closing, and facing processing challenges of a perishable product, dairy farmers faced a sudden quandary. They had supply, but low demand, so many had little choice but dump their product – and the dollar signs that went with it.
“Dairy was in a complete free fall,” state Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said Tuesday during a virtual conference with the media. “Milk consumption declined 98% in a few days.
“The challenges were monumental, and remember: you can’t turns the cows off. People were seeing all this good food being dumped. They were literally crying over spilled milk.”
Dairy farmers needed relief and got it through the Dairy Indemnity Program, funded by the federal CARES Act that became law in late March. Redding, two state senators, a Cumberland County farmer and a farmers co-operative official attested to the program’s positive impact during the 30-minute conference,
A total of 1,550 dairy farmers and four co-ops received $7.6 million in direct relief payments through the program, which was open to any dairy farmer who absorbed losses through discarded or displaced milk during the pandemic. Farmers were eligible for $1,500 in direct relief upon applying.
Sept. 30 was the application deadline.
“Dollars don’t stay on the farms,” Redding said. “They go to feed, veterinary bills, utilities and other items. But these reimbursements were important.”
The secretary said Gov. Tom Wolf and the Legislature devoted about $50 million in federal funds to food- and agricultural-related programs, “one of the largest totals of any state.”
Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks County, remembers the milk dumping all too well. A lot of it was done out in the open, which shocked some residents.
“People were calling our office, very upset,” Schwank said. “Consumers were worried. I think they realized how important the food system is and how important milk is.”
Republican Sen. Elder Vogel Jr., R-Beaver County, understands the issues first-hand. He is a fourth-generation dairy farmer in New Sewickley Township.
“Milk was being dumped for a couple of weeks, and things got a little tight and dicey,” Vogel said. “We got the money a little late, but it helped farmers recoup some of the cost of dumping.”
Vogel and Schwank are chairs of the Senate Agriculture & Rural Affairs Committee.
“We need to support the dairy industry at large,” Redding said. “It has a place that’s very real, very personal, very much needed.
“The CARES Act money enables us to care for this industry in Pennsylvania. As we enter 2021, we’re in a good position. We were in a free fall eight months ago; now at least there’s a foundation under the dairy industry.”