Insights Livestock

Why are farmers dumping milk? COVID-19 creates unfathomable food waste problems


Why are farmers dumping milk? By now you’ve probably seen the headlines as farmers all across the country — and the world — are forced to watch their hard work literally get dumped down the drain.

The old saying goes, “Don’t cry over spilled milk,” but in this instance, I think it’s perfectly acceptable to cry.

Here is the CliffsNotes’ explanation (to the best of my current knowledge) as to why this is happening:

  • Since restaurants, theme parks, resorts, hotels, schools, etc. are all shut down, there’s a huge shortage for milk demand. Factories take raw milk and pasteurize and process it into, say, huge 50 pound bags of cheese or huge bulk dairy products for these massive size customers. Since those industries are all closed, there’s no place to take the milk. Factories are set up to make very specific products, from huge bulk bags to tiny single butter or individual sour cream servings.
  • Consumer dairy buying habits have shifted over to grocery store shelves, but grocery stores are also often times putting limits (i.e. limit two gallons of milk per person) so now, again, too much liquid milk. Trucking logistics also play a role.
  • Also, there are container shortages. So even if you did want to take liquid milk and turn it into sour cream, cheese, or other products in smaller-sized packages for grocers, a lot of these factories are operating at capacity, and sometimes factories don’t have containers, since those factories are also shut down or at capacity with needing more packages. Grocers also only have so much shelf space.

It’s all bottlenecked and stuck.

Now, think of it also from a logistics perspective. Raw liquid milk has a pretty short shelf life. Most milk makes it from cow to grocer in under 48 hours. So … if factories are at capacity, grocers are limiting purchases (to make sure everyone gets enough), truckers have regulations to how often they can drive and deliver, AND you can’t legally sell milk unless it’s pasteurized first … well … it’s a perfect storm of imperfect outcomes.

You literally have to watch all your hard work go down the drain.

And it’s not just dairy that is having issues. Crops that are grown and sold for exports have problems getting anywhere as well due to COVID-19 and border closings. Market values for farmers have tanked just like the stock market. Fruits and vegetables are left rotting in the fields with nowhere to go.

Why not just donate it, you may ask. Well, dairy is first pasteurized and processed before it can be consumed, due to food safety regulations outlined here by the FDA.

Depending on the circumstances and legal requirements and regulations, some food may be donated, but we are talking massive amounts — tens of millions of pounds. The volume of food used for special events, catering, hotels, and other things is almost too large and unfathomable to even comprehend.

Then there are labor shortages. In places such as the U.S. and Canada, immigrant laborers from Mexico are depended on heavily for their strong work ethic, but what happens when borders are closed? You guessed it. If they can’t get into the country, farms are forced to shut down with no one to plant, tend, or harvest. They try everything in their power to get help, but the work is very tedious and difficult. Finding labor in agriculture is generally a challenge in and of itself, but couple this with border closings and rural communities suffer even greater challenges.

It’s absolutely devastating. Our hearts go out to the farmers and everyone who have been tragically affected by this. 💔


Michelle Miller, the Farm Babe, is an Iowa-based farmer, public speaker, and writer, who lives and works with her boyfriend on their farm, which consists of row crops, beef cattle, and sheep. She believes education is key in bridging the gap between farmers and consumers.

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