TWIN FALLS, Idaho — As Idaho News 6 has reported, COVID-19 is having a significant impact on Idaho's agricultural industries.
Idaho's dairy farms have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic--to the point they've had to dump milk down the drain.
The simple reason?
"Too much supply and not enough demand," said Herkie Alves, a Magic Valley dairyman.
With milk on the shelves in grocery stores, it's easy to wonder why--but according to Rick Naerebout, CEO of the Idaho Dairymen's Association, it's because the majority of the demand didn't come from retail buyers like grocery stores. It came from restaurants and schools--places now closed down because of the coronavirus.
"There's been a lot of disruption. In this country, half of all the cheese is sold through restaurants and 60% of the butter and cream is sold through restaurants as well," Naerebout said.
Many Idaho dairies and the plants that process their products, are geared up toward producing and packing huge amounts of products for restaurants to use on the commercial scale--something that isn't feasible for those of us buying for our kitchens.
"Everything is different from what you and I buy int he grocery store," Naerebout said. "The plants that are manufacturing these products, the machinery is very specialized and you can't just flip over and go from food service packaging to retail packaging."
With cows continuing to produce milk, it leaves farmers with lots of product, and nowhere else for it to go but down the drain.
"It's a tough pill to swallow. It's hard to watch," Alves said. "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."
Strict FDA regulations prevent the farmers from directly donating the milk to food pantries and other programs. Raw milk is legal in Idaho, but you have to have a special permit to sell it--something most dairies don't have. Put simply, someone still has to pay to process the milk to make it safe to drink before it can be donated.
"There's a process and there are food safety concerns there," Naerebout said. "We need to make sure that we don't, out of trying to do a good thing, end up making individuals sick and that we're giving them a safe product."
Starting May 1, the USDA is buying back some of the surplus milk from dairy farmers in order to distribute it to those in need across the U.S.
"They're going to spend $100 million a month to purchase dairy products and put them into feeding programs," Naerebout said. "That's what this is designed to help with so it's a win-win."
Naerebout says the buyback program won't completely solve the surplus issue, but it will give some of the products that would have otherwise gone to waste a chance to feed those struggling with food insecurity, especially those newly unemployed because of the pandemic.
"They're stepping in to purchase fruits and vegetables and meat across the board, to make sure they provide balanced meals for these individuals who are food insecure and find themselves in uncharted territories and having to go to foodbanks to try and feed their families," Naerebout said.