By Becky Streeter
The effects of COVID-19 are leeching into every aspect of our lives and the economy, and one of the hardest hit places is our farming industry. While supermarkets and grocery stores have seen an uptick in sales, many farmers who relied on restaurants, hotels and schools are struggling in a completely unprecedented way—with a huge surplus of goods. Farms were in tough shape before the pandemic, and now the situation verges on dire:
• Dairy Farmers of America estimates farmers are dumping up to 3.7 million gallons of milk each day into lagoons and manure pits.
• One chicken farm is smashing 750,000 unhatched eggs every week.
• An Idaho farmer dug ditches to bury 1 million pounds of onions.
• Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, Wisconsin was already losing 2.5 farms per day. If the current economic and farming trend continues, Wisconsin is on track to break foreclosure records for the nation this year.
• Pre-coronavirus, the average farmer made 14.6 cents for every dollar spent on food in the United States. Post-coronavirus, this small amount could be significantly less.
Food glut of this magnitude has no good solutions:
• Package in smaller quantities to sell to grocery stores, but everyone is trying this and stores can only take so much food.
• Freeze and try to store food, but there is only so much space for storage.
• Donate food to local food banks. Here farmers make no money but actually spend money and labor by packaging and delivering the food. Also, many food banks can only accept a certain amount of perishable items because of limited refrigerators and volunteers.
To help abate some costs, programs such as the Hunger Task Force are beginning to pop up. This partnership between the Wisconsin dairy industry and a Milwaukee-based food bank would spend up to $1 million on dairy products and distribute them to local food pantries in the farmers’ stead. This way the farmer still gets paid and doesn’t have to spend the time or money on delivery.
Unfortunately, $1 million might only be a drop in the bucket if the pandemic stretches on. Unless our farmers receive assistance soon, farm debt could worsen beyond repair for many.