“Grandma taught me how to turn home-raised meat and vegetables into meals. I used a biscuit cutter, mixed batter and rolled pie dough before I could read. Soon I was pouring the leftover food scraps into the slop bucket at the basement steps, completing the whole cycle of growing vegetables from seed to basket to freezer to cast-iron frying pan and then back to the animals.”
This is an excerpt from Charles D. Thompson Jr.’s “Going Over Home: A Search for Rural Justice in an Unsettled Land.” It is a good example of responsible use of edible resources.
In the book, Thompson shares memories from his childhood on rural Virginia farms. As he grew up, he watched his family struggle to maintain its roots on the farm and remain fiscally viable. During that time, megafarms began to take precedence in the agricultural realm and families who subsisted off their properties became rare.
Today, people may more readily relate to a package of hamburger in a supermarket refrigerator than the cow the meat came from. Similarly, milk comes from a plastic jug. How many people think about cows while they are dunking their cookies?
Despite a run in March on toilet paper and some other shelf staples when people began hunkering down to avoid the spread of coronavirus, milk has been generally available.
Matter of a fact, there is too much milk.
During a worldwide crisis that saw many laid off, losing their jobs and on a limited income, milk producers are being told to dump it. Dairy farmers grappling with low prices and a sudden drop in demand from the lockdown are dumping out as many as 3.7 million gallons of milk every day, according to estimates from Dairy Farmers of America, the country’s largest dairy cooperative.
On April 13, the Indianapolis Star told the story of Brian Rexing, a southwest Indiana dairy farmer forced to dispose of nearly 30,000 gallons of milk by pouring it on his farm fields.
“Rexing said he’s never seen anything like this, and he struggles to find something to compare it to. The closest thing is a blizzard when the roads make it hard for the haulers to get from the farms to processors. Even still, he said, that means farmers might have to dispose of a half-days-worth of milk,” says the article, written by Sarah Bowman. “His 30,000 gallons was nearly three days-worth for his farm of 1,200 cows.”
“This is the longest blizzard we’ve ever been in,” Rexing said.
The University of Wisconsin Madison forecast at the outset of the pandemic that the dairy industry would have issues.
“Dairy is prominently featured in out-of-home eating and there may be some disruptions in food service sales. This will likely have an impact on markets and prices. There have also been bottlenecks at ports in other countries as ships wait to be offloaded with U.S. dairy and other farm products,” said a March 20 report published by the university.
As the coronavirus pandemic disrupts supply chains across the country, farmers are being forced to destroy their crops, dump milk and throw out perishable items that can’t be stored, says a May 2 report by CNBC. “With restaurants and schools shuttered during national lockdown, prices and demand for essential agricultural products has fallen. Farmers who have already endured a slew of financial hardships over the past few years — from the U.S.-China trade war that sent scores of farms out of business to floods that wiped out entire harvests — are now left with an abundance of food that they can’t sell.”
Farmers in Washington state are facing a surplus of 1 billion pounds of potatoes due to restaurant and school closures, according to the Washington Potato Commission. At least $5 billion of fresh fruits and vegetables have been wasted, according to estimates from the Produce Marketing Association.
The Indiana Dairy Producers web page provides a link to the application for a federal Small Business Association Economic Injury Disaster Loan. It also has a report from Cornell University about diet and management considerations in reducing milk flow without harming cows and threatening future production.
The Dairy Farmers of America has a plant in Goshen that dries milk into powders for use in other products. According to the article in the Indianapolis Star, that facility is running above capacity.
As is often said, these are unprecedented times. Large dairy farms producing multiple tankers containing 6,000 gallons of product were the norm until now. As the supply chain became compromised, so did the Indiana farm.
Another tossed-about saying these days is “the new normal.” Along with the typical tripe in daily Facebook feed, a new phenomenon is emerging — people are talking about growing their own vegetables.
Monday, Angola chiropractor Jamie Fidler posted a link to the web site for the Tower Garden. The vertical garden systems work without soil and can be used inside or outside. They take up less than 3 square feet.
“Using aeroponics — the same technology NASA uses — Tower Garden grows plants with only water and nutrients rather than dirt. Research has found aeroponic systems grow plants three times faster and produce 30% greater yields on average. That means you’ll be enjoying abundant, nutritious harvests just weeks after planting,” says the web site, towergarden.com.
For most people, it wouldn’t be practical to get a cow to produce their own milk. But, as the economic structure evolves, true security may include knowing how to buy — and sell — the things people need locally.
In Baltimore, Maryland, organic farmers immediately took a hit when restaurants were shut down in early March.
“This time of year, restaurants are 100 percent of our business,” said Joan Norman from One Straw Farm in the April 6 edition of Baltimore Magazine, “and that income just stopped.”
In lieu of restaurant orders, Beckie Gurley had to essentially reinvent Chesapeake Farm to Table, a small farm collective that sold directly to local chefs, says the article.
“We did a complete 180,” said Gurley. “We went from selling nearly 100 percent to restaurants to 100 percent home deliveries. Our volume has increased by tenfold. We have probably gained close to 1,000 new customers in the past two weeks.”
Smaller businesses may be more able to evolve in times of trouble. A giant dairy that is locked in with a particular customer base may have more difficulty switching gears.
As Thompson relates in “Going Over Home,” over the past 50 years, the economic forces of our country have favored big farms and swallowed the small family farms. The book was published in September — before the global coronavirus pandemic — but it is a well-researched look through the eyes of an expert at how small farms could still be possible and profitable.