Across New York, dairy farmers have faced a sudden collapse in demand. With milk, butter, and cheese no longer being ordered by restaurants and schools, dairy processors and transporters have lost their customers. As a consequence, the small farmers who rely on them have been left, in some cases, to pour their milk into the fields.

Two weeks ago, Phil Johnson said his dairy farmers’ cooperative in Orange County, New York began dumping their milk. “I actually fed some of my milk to the cows, a little extra of the calves, and we did spread some in the fields. It is a fertilizer, a very expensive one,” the fourth-generation farmer said.

Johnson said his usual processor was struggling with much of its workforce sheltering in place. He tried to get his product to Chobani, the yogurt company, and some local cheese manufacturers, but nobody could take it. The dumping continued for six days.

“It was kind of a shock really, but we were willing to do our part,” he said. “If that’s our part to get through this thing, we sacrificed at that point.” Less than a week ago, his cooperative started to get back on its feet. Midland Farms, a milk processor near Albany, began to take their loads of milk again. But many others have not been so lucky.

“We’re in uncharted territory, frankly,” said Richard A. Ball, New York’s State Agriculture Commissioner. “Fifty percent of dairy production went to the food service world.”

While demand for milk at supermarkets and food banks is up, dairy farmers have not been able to simply shift supplies that were destined for food service institutions like colleges and hotels, notes Cornell Cooperative Extension specialist Maire Ullrich. Milk needs to be processed quickly and packaged in different ways, depending on the buyer.

"Milk goes to a school or a college in a five gallon bag," she said. “You can't sell that in a grocery store. Now you've got a big demand for the one gallon plastic containers and even though you're blow-molding your own containers in the plant, that machine can only go so fast."  

With the food service industry in free fall, New York state agencies have tried to stoke demand by promoting farmers’ markets and providing food banks with funding to purchase produce. But state leaders concede that such initiatives are not enough to bring back business to pre-pandemic levels.

“The slowdown in New York’s economy, caused by Covid-19, the public health crisis, has meant another decline in state revenues,” said State Senator Jen Metzger (D), who represents the Hudson Valley and chairs the Committee on Agriculture. “It’s just the sad reality that the state does not have the resources to make that happen.”

That’s why Metzger along with other state lawmakers and New York’s Department of Agriculture and Markets have asked the federal government to provide relief. Their suggestions include large-scale federal purchases of dairy and compensation for farmers.

“We depend upon federal relief at this point,” said Sen. Metzger, who noted that New York’s dairy industry was already in crisis before the pandemic

As the economy stalls, some regional food distribution service organizations have tried to help make sure dairy products are at least not going to waste. Blessings of Hope is a Pennsylvania-based company that was already transporting excess produce to food insecurity programs before the pandemic. Now, David Lepp, Blessing of Hope’s CEO, says his team has had to handle even more excess product, especially from dairy farmers.

“We probably got ten to twelve thousand gallons in that way in the last week, and we’re looking at doing more,” he said, noting that they serve food banks in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

To mitigate the risk of infection, Lepp said, volunteers are now pre-packing food in warehouses and putting them into forty pound boxes for drivers to transport. “What we’re doing is like a drive-through style outreach where people stay in their vehicles, we put a box in their backseat or into their trunk, and then they leave again,” he said. 

Thus far, Lepp said they have not worked with New York dairy farmers, since they already have too much product to handle in Pennsylvania.

Johnson, the Orange County dairy producer, said he hopes the federal bailout and assistance programs for small businesses will do more to help families like his.

“I myself felt, like ‘Hey, if we have to dump our milk, we have to dump our milk,’” he said. “Hopefully, down the road, along with other wage earners and businesses, we’re going to get some compensation from the packages the government has put through to help us through this situation.”