Rob Barley 1.jpg

Rob Barley, who is the chairman of the state milk marketing board, is pictured in one of the barns at Star Rock Farms, LLC on Tuesday, August 27, 2019.

THE ISSUE

Some Pennsylvania dairy farmers, after years of struggle with volatile and evolving markets for their product, entered 2020 cautiously optimistic about their financial situation. “Then, COVID-19 hit. And by mid-March, a government-ordered shutdown forced dairy-buying restaurants closed, instead sending customers to clear out grocery store shelves,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Sean Sauro reported for a story that appeared in the Sept. 27 Sunday LNP. “It was an abrupt change in the farm-to-consumer supply chain — one that left processors unable to quickly adapt, leading to waste and yet another round of profit loss.”

The pandemic has had devastating ramifications for so many aspects of our lives, economy and culture. LNP | LancasterOnline journalists and these Opinion pages, through editorials, op-eds and reader letters, work to bring the stories and concerns of all those in Lancaster County affected by COVID-19 to the forefront.

Sunday, Sauro examined the difficult and heartbreaking year that local dairy farmers have experienced. Their stories and their livelihoods are intertwined with the necessary shutdowns to keep the deadly novel coronavirus from spreading further in Pennsylvania, causing more deaths and potentially crippling the health care system.

But the necessity of the shutdowns doesn’t lessen the anguish for farmers.

“Overnight, the amount of places that were taking milk just slowed down completely,” Robert Barley, an owner at Star Rock Farms in Conestoga and chairman of the state Milk Marketing Board, told Sauro. “April and May were some of the worst months in recent memory.”

Farmers also found themselves dealing with an inefficient industry and government framework that — for a time — couldn’t provide enough places for perishable products to go.

In a May editorial, we wrote of “the incredibly frustrating scenes of milk being dumped by dairy farmers because there was no market for it amid a pandemic that has jolted traditional buyers and supply chains.” Additionally, “there was no appreciable infrastructure to distribute surplus food from farms to food banks before COVID-19.”

For dairy farmers, profits were literally going down the drain.

“The system is set up in a balanced way, where everything was working and then you had this huge disruption that just threw everything out of whack,” Barley told Sauro.

While the situation has recovered somewhat from that lost spring, there remain no easy answers moving forward for the Pennsylvania dairy industry. Not with the continuing double jeopardy of COVID-19 and an ongoing transformation of the dairy industry. In recent years, LNP | LancasterOnline has detailed the struggles of dairy farmers who have seen the value of milk drop more than 2% since 2012 and are battling to keep their farms viable. Said one dairy farmer in 2018: “I’d rather keep on going, but I don’t see any milk futures as being profitable, so there’s no sense in keeping cows. It’s not profitable.”

The numbers are troubling. More than 1,000 Pennsylvania dairy farms have ceased operation in the past five years, Liam Migdail, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, told Sauro.

We are losing an aspect of the county’s and the state’s agricultural heritage. The fear now is that COVID-19 may speed up the process.

Yet there are some hopeful signs for the dairy industry with wider and incremental reopenings of schools, colleges and restaurants across Pennsylvania. Restaurants are an especially good market for the cream, butter and cheese that make everything on the menu taste better.

And there are some things we should consider that might help those who are helping to put food on our tables by committing to dairy farming as a way of life.

Barley believes the milk market has been wrongly jolted by “what he calls erroneous reports linking whole milk consumption to health problems like obesity, which led to the removal of almost all fat from milk served in school cafeterias — one of the dairy industry’s largest fluid customers,” Sauro reported.

That’s one reason, perhaps, for the decreased consumption of fluid milk, particularly “whole milk,” which is only about 3.5% fat. There has been much debate in recent decades over what types of milk should be served in public schools and the federal government’s role in those decisions. This might be a good time to revisit those debates, assess the latest health and medical studies and reconsider the best approach for the types of milk to make available in schools moving forward.

Meanwhile, some farmers have received financial assistance from the CARES Act, the response to COVID-19 that was passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in late March. Some, though, find it morally objectionable to accept government aid, Lancaster County farmer Justin Risser told Sauro.

But for those farmers who are accepting aid to stay afloat during this unprecedented crisis — one that could still lead to renewed shutdowns if there are new outbreak clusters — we hope Congress doesn’t forget about them. Americans, small businesses and local governments need their elected officials in Washington, D.C., to do their jobs and pass the next COVID-19 stimulus bill.

No dairy farmer “knows for sure whether they will remain open or for how long this pandemic will continue,” Migdail cautioned, adding that too many dairy farms have been “left hanging on by a thread.”

We are rooting for them. And we hope lawmakers are paying attention to the urgency of the moment.