COVID-19 creates challenging dairy market for Lansing farmers

Walnut Ridge’s rotary milker allows for social distancing among their employees. Steve Palladino said he and others there are ensuring everyone remains safe.
Walnut Ridge’s rotary milker allows for social distancing among their employees. Steve Palladino said he and others there are ensuring everyone remains safe.
Photo by Holly Hardie
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News broadcasts of milk being poured out raised questions about the health of Lansing’s dairy farms.

“It’s not only the economic loss but the fact that the general consumer may think that farmers don’t care and are throwing milk away, and that’s not the fact,” said Steve Palladino of Walnut Ridge Dairy. “Everybody staying home has disrupted the whole supply line. There’s no room at the processing plant, and this is a perishable product.”

Larry Moore of the Moore Family Organic Dairy explained further.

“It’s a paradigm shift, where the processing plants are not set up for the current demand,” he said. “There’s a change in the kind of demand for milk. The processors can’t revamp their whole business – who knows how long this will last?”

Steve Patt of his small cooperative dairy shared similar concerns.

“The processors were backed up, and we didn’t have a market,” he said. “We just dumped 380,000 pounds of milk, seven days’ [worth] of milk. That’s going to hurt. The market prices for the next three months are looking terrible. It’s just one more stress on the cumulative stress of the last five years.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently announced that the state would be buying local food to provide much-needed supply to food banks, a move that Palladino said will help minimize some of the dumping.

The three farms represent a cross-section of Lansing’s dairy community. Walnut Ridge milks 1,600 cows with 1,250 younger animals; Patt milks 450 head; and Moore’s organic dairy milks 40 cows and has 90 animals all together.

Most of Walnut Ridge’s production goes into powder for export, and Moore’s organic output goes to processing plants already set up for the gallons and half-gallons used at home. Patt’s production, however, has no place to go.

“We did apply for payroll protection and got funding for a couple of months,” Patt said.

Meantime, the cows keep making milk regardless of market conditions, and that raises another set of problems for farm owners.

“All farmers I know of have taken measures to make sure employees are safe,” Palladino said. “They are in business 24 hours a day, taking care of cows and getting food out to the public. If we had all of our workforce down, it would be terrible. So, we put practices in place to minimize the risk to everybody.”

Patt said he locked the farm down and tries not to leave.

“Our employees used to go to the store to get checks cashed and get food, and we do that for them now,” he said.

Walnut Ridge has a 60-cow rotary milking parlor with workstations at least 12 feet apart, Palladino said.

“People are social-distanced naturally, and anybody operating equipment is by themselves,” he said.

The farm also makes hand sanitizer available in each vehicle cab and provides face masks for their employees.

“We are a little isolated here,” Moore said. “It’s been a good thing – I haven’t experienced what I’ve read about.”

Spring weather has not been kind to planting plants.

“We planted spring grain in March,” Moore said. “That was the earliest ever. To plant corn, we have to wait for the ground to get good and warm.”

Palladino said he’s waiting for warmer, drier weather more typical of spring.

“We applied manure but are waiting for conditions to get right to plant alfalfa and corn,” he said.

Patt agreed.

“We are waiting for this stretch of weather to pass,” he said. “Soil temperatures were seven degrees warmer a month ago. Farmers are used to dealing with stress, and this is just one more thing.”

In the meantime, farm supply stores are busy with people buying seed, Moore said.

“They are realizing just where food comes from, that a healthy immune system is a good thing – a good healthy diet, balance,” he said.

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