OKEECHOBEE — Okeechobee dairies have dumped more than 1 million gallons of milk since April 1, Colleen Larson, regional dairy agent, told Okeechobee County commissioners at their April 9 meeting.
She said the COVID-19 pandemic has caused hardships for farmers all over the country.
“There are effects throughout the agricultural industry, and those are going to continue,” she said. “In the last week in our area, 190 loads of milk have been dumped.”
The dairies have been asked to decrease production, she said. With schools using less milk and restaurants closed, processors asked dairies to reduce production by 18 percent.
“It’s a moving target,” she explained.
“This is happening because supply stream has been disrupted,” she said. With milk and perishable fruits it is not an easy process to alter.
Mrs. Larson said in order to reduce milk production, farmers cull cows from the herd and send them to market.
In a normal week, 100 to 150 cull cows go to market in our region, she said.
“This week there are probably 300 cull cows that will go to the market.”
Even sending the cows to market is problematic because the slaughterhouses throughout the country are short of workers and are not able to run at capacity, she said.
“They have been strained to increase production with people not coming to work,” she said.
“How many farmers is this going to put out of business? How many will be there when this is over?” she wondered aloud.
She said reports of government programs to pay the farmers for lost product is “a bit of a false hope.”
It is not a guarantee and if they are paid it will be at a significant loss, she said.
Mrs. Larson said social media have actually been helpful in regard to the milk situation. Farmers have gone on social media “telling people about what is going on in our industry,” she said.
When the pandemic started, some stores placed limits on how much milk a customer could purchase in order to prevent hoarding.
Efforts both at the higher level and the grassroots level are asking grocery stores to drop the limits on milk purchases so they can keep moving milk through the production chain.
She said they are also asking schools to increase milk distribution to children if they have any way to do that.
“We are encouraging people to pick up those lunches to help our farmers,” she said.
Dairies are also doing all they can to protect the health and safety of the workers, she continued. They use gloves anyway, she added, but dairies are providing additional hand washing stations.
The dairy workers have the stress of having kids at home just like everyone else, Mrs. Larson said.
“Down the road we could have the environmental impact of putting milk on the ground,” she explained. “The fields they are using are part of system to uptake the nutrients anyway. After all this is over we will look at this and make sure there are not any long-term consequences.”
Mrs. Larson said some people don’t understand why they can’t just stop milking some of the cows.
“The cow has a natural lactation curve,” she said. “We are in what we call the spring flush when most of our cows are increasing milk production. The cows are early in their lactation. If you try to dry them off, it could make them very sick and it could even kill them. It’s really bad for cows to do that.”
Another issue has to do with the USDA requirement that schools only give children milk that is 1 percent fat.
“Dairy farmers across the country are hoping they will allow any fat content of milk up to whole milk — which is 97 percent fat free — to be used for schools,” she said.
USDA requires 1 percent milk for schools.
“Processing whole milk is a quicker process,” Mrs. Larson explained. She said such exemptions have been made in the past after hurricanes.
She said it has been proven that whole milk does not contribute to obesity, especially for children.
Okeechobee County Superintendent of Schools Ken Kenworthy said as of Monday, April 20, they will increase food distribution to local children.
The school system currently has three “grab and go” sites at Douglas Brown Center, Okeechobee High School and the Okeechobee Public Library, feeding anybody 18 years and younger, he said.
In addition, six buses are delivering food out to 27 locations in the community.
“On Monday April 20, we will open up second kitchen — probably at South Elementary — and begin to serve both breakfast and lunch, essentially doubling our output,” Mr. Kenworthy explained.
“We will serve the noon meal according to current schedule and also provide breakfast for following day.”
He thanked the Emergency Operations Center for providing more coolers to put on buses to make sure hot food stays hot and cold food stays cold.
He said at that time they may also make some modifications to the bus deliveries to add more stops.
He said they have asked for more face masks for the employees working in the food distribution centers.
Editor’s note: If you see a store that is still limiting milk sales, please take a picture, note the location, date and time, and send to Beth Meyer at email@example.com so they can work with the chain to rectify the situation.