Some Wisconsin Dairy Groups Find Ways To Celebrate Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

After Months Of Low Prices, Lost Demand, Some Dairy Farmers Hopeful Industry Will Recover This Year

Cows are milked on a large carousel at the Rosendale Dairy in Pickett, Wis.
In this Dec. 4, 2019, photo cows are milked on a large carousel at the Rosendale Dairy in Pickett, Wis. At Rosendale Dairy, each of the 9,000 cows has a microchip implanted in an ear that workers can scan with smartphones for up-to-the-minute information on how the animal is doing, everything from their nutrition to their health history to their productivity. Morry Gash/AP Photo

During a typical June in Wisconsin, local dairy groups host community breakfasts and other events on farms across the state to celebrate National Dairy Month.

Beth Schaefer from milk marketing group Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin said the continued spread of COVID-19 has forced many groups to cancel or postpone this year’s events, much like county fairs and local festivals.

But Schaefer said some organizers are taking a different approach to promoting the dairy industry.

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“We’re definitely seeing a lot of pop-ups of virtual ways to celebrate, as well as some really creative, out of the box in-person ways that are going to meet the guidelines of social distancing,” Schaefer said.

She said one example is in Fond du Lac County, where organizers have changed their event to a driving tour of a local dairy farm.

The Pepin County Dairy Promotion Committee has also changed their annual on-farm breakfast to a drive-through pickup at two local businesses. Participants will receive free ingredients to make breakfast at home and links to an online video tour of a local dairy farm and a cheese plant.

“Once we came up with the idea of a drive-by, it was ‘Why not? Let’s make this happen.’ The focal point right now is on dairy, on families eating together at home,” said Randy Koller, president of the Pepin County committee. “There’s not a lot of things going on because everything’s being canceled, and we just felt that it was a really good thing to try and find a way to keep connected with the consumer.”

Koller said the group plans to give out 600 packages, which is enough to feed a third of Pepin County.

From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, dairy farmers like Koller have been hit with plummeting milk prices, lost export demand and sudden changes to domestic sales as the food service industry largely shut down.

Schaefer said these issues have made many people want to continue this year’s events as a way to celebrate farmers’ resilience and gain consumer support.

“National Dairy Month, I think, is coming at just a good time for our farmers,” Schaefer said. “We’ve really endured just some brutal months, and we’re finally at this place where a little bit of hope is on the horizon and now is a great time to stop and say, ‘Let’s recognize the work of our dairy farmers.’”

Koller said dairy prices have started to improve in recent weeks.

“The market has rebounded quite a bit; and if things don’t crash again, dairy could, as of today, end up with a pretty decent year in 2020, as compared to what we would have thought just six weeks ago,” Koller said.

The latest Dairy Situation and Outlook report from the University of Wisconsin-Madison attributed the price increase to recovering restaurant sales and purchases of dairy products through U.S. Department of Agriculture relief programs. The report also said dairy farmers have been lowering milk production by reducing their herd size or changing management strategies.

But Koller said it’s unclear how long prices will stay at a more profitable level. His committee is brainstorming ways to promote dairy products throughout the summer as traditional in-person events continue to cancel.

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