COVID-19 is having a significant impact on Idaho's dairy industry

Posted at 6:57 PM, Apr 07, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-14 19:13:15-04

*Esta historia también se puso a disposición en español y Stephanie Garibay la tradujo del inglés al español. Si desea leer la versión en español, haga clic aquí.
Translation: This story has also been made available in Spanish and was translated from English to Spanish by Stephanie Garibay. If you'd like to read the Spanish version, click here.*

The coronavirus is impacting businesses all over the country, and Idaho is no exception.

As restaurants, schools, and other businesses close because of COVID-19 concerns, demand for milk is drying up.

"It went from a very optimistic year to very pessimistic in a matter of days," said Rick Naerebout, CEO of the Idaho Dairymen's Association.

Idaho is home to a massive dairy industry. It's the fourth largest milk-producing state in the entire country, but between demand for dairy going down because of major consumers closing their doors, and the prices the dairies are paid for their milk going down, dairymen are finding it hard to break even.

The unit of milk on the market is determined by weight, not gallons. Right now, the selling price per hundred pounds of milk, or hundredweight, is a third less than what it costs the dairies to produce it.

"The cost to produce milk is about 16 dollars a hundredweight, and where milk prices are currently settling, based on the value of cheese and butter and powder, there's about 11 dollars a hundredweight," said Naerebout. "We're now seeing milk price basically the equivalent to what we had during the 2009 recession."

Cows produce milk, and are milked, daily--and that doesn't stop while the rest of the state is under a stay at home order--but due to a huge supply, and not enough demand, there's nowhere for that milk to go except down the drain.

"With restaurants being out and schools being shut down, they're just saying there's nowhere to go with our product right now," said Herkie Alves, a Dairyman in the Magic Valley. ""You know that that's what you rely on day to day. That's what I take care of my animals with, that's what I pay my employees with. That's what I take care of my family with. It's a tough pill to swallow. It's hard to watch."

The Idaho Dairymen's Association is encouraging the USDA to buy some of that excess milk, and donate it to food pantries so it doesn't go to waste.

"We're trying to do what we can as an industry with the USDA's help to try to help to support those foodbanks and to provide dairy products there," said Naerebout. "It solves two problems: one it takes that excess milk off the market, and two it's going to provide great nutrition for families that are in need right now."

In a letter to the USDA Tuesday, Senator Jim Risch and Senator Mike Crapo both called on the Department to extend assistance to the hard-hit dairy industry struggling in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Senators wrote to Secretary Perdue requesting he use the agriculture assistance provisions in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to provide stability for the dairy industry and to prevent a collapse in farm milk prices.

“In this case, assistance for the dairy industry adds up to both help for farmers and nutritious food for the entire country,” wrote the senators. “Support for Americans suddenly in need of food assistance is a national priority at this time of need. Economic stability for the dairy industry will help ensure that a stable and abundant food supply is available to the public at reasonable prices now and long into the future.”

A decision from the USDA is expected later this week.

Moving forward, there are a lot of questions, and not many answers--but through the hardship, Alves says it's important for dairy producers to keep doing what they love and moving forward.

"Just keep going. I mean, we've been through tough times," Alves said. "Dairying has been up and down for the last three, four years. Just got to keep fighting."

Naerebout and Alves both agree the best way for consumers to support local dairy producers is to buy as much dairy products as possible--in order to make up for the demand they're losing from commercial consumers like restaurants and schools.

The Idaho Dairymen's Association has made resources available in both English and Spanish for local dairies operating in this unprecedented time. If you'd like more information, click here.