Dairy farmers left with surplus, may need to dump product

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ALTO, Mich. (WOOD) — Family dairy farms across West Michigan are uncertain about their futures after a near 38% plunge in milk prices. 

Annie Link with Swisslane Dairy Farms in Alto says they would normally get about $18 per 100 pounds of milk, but now they’re only getting about $13, which is jeopardizing their business. 

“Four generations of this business being on the line is pretty heavy,” Link said. “Just going forward, it’s really not sustainable if we’re getting paid way less than what we’re able to produce the milk for. How are we going to do that?”

Link says a large part of the milk they produce is sent to processing facilities and made into a number of bulk sized products like cheese, yogurt and cream. Another percentage is bottled and sold to stores. Other products are packaged into smaller quantities to be purchased at local grocers. 

The bulk size products are normally sold to the cooking industry. Now that restaurants are all closed due to COVID-19 and social distancing orders, there’s a surplus in fluid milk, which drives the price down.

“It’s just how you’re getting your food and how you’re purchasing your food has changed and the supply chain hasn’t been able to keep up and change over night like that,” Link said.

Some farmers says because the demand for fluid milk is so low, milk trucks and processing companies are not taking the product at all. They say because milk has such a short shelf life, this means farmers could potentially have to dump out perfectly good product before it spoils.

“It’s just a total loss and I don’t like to see that happen, especially because I don’t like to see waste whatsoever,” farmer Fred Vlietstra of Vlietstra Dairy Farms near Kalamazoo said. “It is a product that God gave us to use and it is being thrown away.”

Vlietstra says his 300 cows produce about 2,500 to 3,000 gallons of milk daily. He says he hasn’t been forced to dump milk just yet, but the milk co-op he’s a part of has advised him it is a possibility that is looming daily.

“It has a big effect because you do depend on that income everyday to feed the different families and people that work for us,” he said. 

Vlietstra says over the last four years, the dairy industry has had a tough time selling their products at a profitable price. He says when they finally began to see light at the end of the tunnel, COVID-19 threw another wrench into things. 

“What we’ve gone through in the last four years is really quite devastating to us because finally at the last part of 2019 we’ve finally gotten milk prices up where we could operate somewhat comfortably,” Vlietstra said. “We had a good jump and it helped a lot and it sounds like were right back in the hole again.”

Vlietstra says they don’t have the option to just stop producing milk because the cows are on a schedule and will still produce the product anyway. He also says it could jeopardize the animals health. The farms also do not have the ability to sell their product independently of processing facilities due to legal issues and potential risk of customers consuming unpasteurized products.

The dairy farmers say they’re hoping things will turn around soon, but with schools being another large consumer of dairy products, they’re expecting impacts at least through the fall.


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