Farming's COVID Crisis: Specialty Cheese Sales, Milk Prices Plummet
Laini Fondiller describes the scene in her Westfield barn as "organized mayhem." An excited goat chorus reverberates through her barn as the 30 or so Alpine and Saanen dairy goats – her “ladies” as she calls them – assemble for the morning milking.
Fondiller has been winning fans for her specialty cheeses since the late 1980s. The creamy, tangy delights she makes at her Lazy Lady Farm have gotten rave reviews in the New York Times and elsewhere. A good part of her business was sales to restaurants in the city. Not now.
“You call your distributors, and their hair's on fire,” she said. “And, ‘No, not this week.’”
Of all the workers and industries devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Vermont farmers are among the hardest-hit. Wholesale milk prices have plummeted. and some dairy farmers have been forced to dump their milk.
For years, the state’s specialty cheese industry was a bright spot in the state’s often-hurting dairy sector. But the state’s cheese producers are now struggling as well.
Fondiller said after an initial 90% drop in sales, her business has recovered – somewhat. She started discounting prices and selling through community supported agriculture (CSA) outlets.
But dairy goats, like their bovine counterparts, need to be milked daily. When sales drop, the milk has to go somewhere. So Fondiller has made some into cheese she is aging for later. She also had to let one employee go, and put off plans to hire a part-time evening milker.
Take a video-tour of Laini Fondiller's goat barn at Lazy Lady Farm:
She said her overall business is now down about 50%.
“And I understand, the restaurants are closed, people have lost their jobs,” she said. “And I understand all of that. But in the meantime, you just do try to figure out how to stay alive and trying to keep things moving.”
Many farms and cheese producers in Vermont are in similar survival mode. At Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, owner Mateo Kehler said he’s also seen about a 50% drop in sales.
“We’ve dispersed our herd to neighbors and to Andersonville Farm, another farm that we manage in Glover, in order to try and shrink the amount of milk that we’re producing,” he said. “When we see a drop in demand, you know, we’ve got to make less milk.”
And conventional dairy farmers, already suffering from five years of low prices, will see a tremendous hit from COVID-19 as demand plummets while schools and restaurants remain closed.
Catherine de Ronde, senior economist for the Agri-Mark dairy co-op, said the freefall in price will cause serious financial harm.
“Now for the average Vermont farm, this equates to about an annual revenue loss of $175,000," she said. "So, this is huge."
Prices are expected to stay low at least through August, she said.
“Farm prices are far below the cost of production. We know they're not sustainable,” de Ronde said. “And unfortunately, we know that if these prices play out, if we do not get immediate and substantial action, we're going to be facing a loss of dairy farms, and we're really jeopardizing the security of our local food systems and our rural communities.”
Vermont's Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts has an equally bleak warning.
“It's a real crisis. It's a real emergency,” he told Vermont Edition last week. “We have about 650 dairy farmers, and I would have to say if the forecasts are true on this, just about every one of them is at risk.”
Tebbetts has pushed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to use its authority to buy up dairy products to shore up the price and use the surplus for hunger programs.
“We’re encouraging the [USDA] secretary, particularly on the dairy side, to take action as soon as possible, to buy as much product as possible,” he said. “We’re also encouraging the secretary to set a floor price over the next four months to keep things and stabilize the industry. We believe that floor price should be at least $19.50 for our farmers.”
Tebbetts said that price of $19.50 is about the cost of production for many Vermont farmers.
Farmers were supposed to get immediate help under the recently passed $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package. But Congressman Peter Welch told a conference call with dairy officials that many farms apparently won’t qualify right away for a $10,000 emergency loan available to most other businesses.
That’s because they usually get their loans from the USDA. The Small Business Administration, which actually runs the new program, has said farms are not eligible, according to Welch.
“The problem we have with the bill, is that there's not a mechanism to get cash immediately to farmers,” Welch said.
He added farms do qualify for a second tier of federal assistance: The payroll protection program that the legislation also authorized.
“And the question is, whether it is going to provide any significant relief to the farm community,” Welch said.
Cheese sales go online
Executive Director Marty Mundy said consumers want to know where they still could find their favorite chevre or camembert.
“It helps folks decide if they know a cheesemaker whose cheese they love, they can go directly to the cheesemaker's online sales site, if that exists,” she said. “They also have an option to do things like reach out to a Vermont cheese shop and buy from someone who maybe has a prepared Vermont cheese box. We have some of those shops listed.”
Mundy said she hopes consumers and policy makers do everything they can to support an industry that’s become synonymous with Vermont quality food. She added the online sales are vital as sales for many producers dropped 50-70% almost overnight.
“From a cash flow perspective, that’s the real core problem that cheesemakers are going to have,” she said. “I would absolutely say it’s critical for folks to be able to find ways to buy local products, including cheese and dairy products."