Multiple reports indicate farmers in Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio are forced to dump milk and eggs due to mass closures.
Family dairy farms across West Michigan are uncertain about their futures after a near 38% plunge in milk prices.
Dairy farmers in Northeast Ohio dump milk as demand dries up.
New York Times reports in Wisconsin and Ohio, farmers are dumping thousands of gallons of fresh milk into lagoons and manure pits. An Idaho farmer has dug huge ditches to bury 1 million pounds of onions. And in South Florida, a region that supplies much of the Eastern half of the United States with produce, tractors are crisscrossing bean and cabbage fields, plowing perfectly ripe vegetables back into the soil.
After weeks of concern about shortages in grocery stores and mad scrambles to find the last box of pasta or toilet paper roll, many of the nation’s largest farms are struggling with another ghastly effect of the pandemic. They are being forced to destroy tens of millions of pounds of fresh food that they can no longer sell.
The closing of restaurants, hotels and schools has left some farmers with no buyers for more than half their crops. And even as retailers see spikes in food sales to Americans who are now eating nearly every meal at home, the increases are not enough to absorb all of the perishable food that was planted weeks ago and intended for schools and businesses.
The amount of waste is staggering. The nation’s largest dairy cooperative, Dairy Farmers of America, estimates that farmers are dumping as many as 3.7 million gallons of milk each day. A single chicken processor is smashing 750,000 unhatched eggs every week.
Many farmers say they have donated part of the surplus to food banks and Meals on Wheels programs, which have been overwhelmed with demand. But there is only so much perishable food that charities with limited numbers of refrigerators and volunteers can absorb.
And the costs of harvesting, processing and then transporting produce and milk to food banks or other areas of need would put further financial strain on farms that have seen half their paying customers disappear. Exporting much of the excess food is not feasible either, farmers say, because many international customers are also struggling through the pandemic and recent currency fluctuations make exports unprofitable.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Paul Allen, co-owner of R.C. Hatton, who has had to destroy millions of pounds of beans and cabbage at his farms in South Florida and Georgia.
The widespread destruction of fresh food — at a time when many Americans are hurting financially and millions are suddenly out of work — is an especially dystopian turn of events, even by the standards of a global pandemic. It reflects the profound economic uncertainty wrought by the virus and how difficult it has been for huge sectors of the economy, like agriculture, to adjust to such a sudden change in how they must operate.
Even as Allen and other farmers have been plowing fresh vegetables into the soil, they have had to plant the same crop again, hoping the economy will have restarted by the time the next batch of vegetables is ready to harvest. But if the food service industry remains closed, then those crops, too, may have to be destroyed.
Farmers are also learning in real time about the nation’s consumption habits.
The quarantines have shown just how many more vegetables Americans eat when meals are prepared for them in restaurants than when they have to cook for themselves.
“People don’t make onion rings at home,” said Shay Myers, a third-generation onion farmer whose fields straddle the border of Oregon and Idaho.
Myers said there were no good solutions to the fresh food glut. After his largest customer — the restaurant industry — shut down in California and New York, his farm started redistributing onions from 50-pound sacks into smaller bags that could be sold in grocery stores. He also started freezing some onions, but he has limited cold-storage capacity.
With few other options, Myers has begun burying tens of thousands of pounds of onions and leaving them to decompose in trenches.
“There is no way to redistribute the quantities that we are talking about,” he said.