In an effort to avoid the dumping of milk at local dairies, Assembly Member Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove), local dairyman Arlin Van Groningen and Anja Raudabaugh with Western United Dairies gathered last Wednesday at New Hope Dairy in Galt to encourage the public to keep buying dairy products and to assure everyone that there is no danger in the food supply in California, despite grocers putting limits on dairy product purchases.

“The economic downturn caused by the pandemic is most acute for our small businesses,” Cooper said. “Small businesses like New Hope Dairy are impacted the most and already have thin margins and small cash reserves. One way we citizens can help is to buy local. It is always vital that we buy local, but especially important in these unprecedented times. We need to keep our local farmers strong so that they can ride out the crisis.”

The California dairy farmers and the markets that they service have been heavily impacted by COVID-19. With the closures of schools and restaurants statewide, the demand for dairy products has plummeted, as half of all dairy products go to just those two outlets. And with 35% of the California dairy industry normally being shipped internationally, the closure of ports and shortage of port workers has proven to strike another staggering blow for dairymen.

Grocers putting limits on dairy product purchases has only added to the supply and demand problem. Local consumers have been restricted to just one gallon of milk at the register, only to hear that farmers have to dump excess milk. This has caused confusion and frustration for everyone.

“One of the bigger challenges we have at the consumer level and the grocery stores is this purchase limit on dairy products,” Raudabaugh said. “That’s got to be lifted in every situation possible. That’s sending the wrong demand signal to our processors and we want to make sure that we keep that demand signal up so that we don’t end up in a situation where we have shortages. And that’s not just for dairy, that’s for ag across the board.”

Raudabaugh encourages shoppers to speak with their local grocers to ask them to lift the limitations.

With schools and restaurants closed, the dairy industry had to scramble to shift production for a different demand. According to Raudabaugh, it took about 10 days to make this change.

“There was a terrible crisis in terms of shifting our distribution centers around, moving overnight from delivering milk for the school lunch program – that was a completely [different] set of manufacturing tools that we needed to shift around on the creamery side,” Raudabaugh said. “A lot of that has been done, and the same goes for the restaurant sector. The large restaurant chains typically process cheese in a very different form than other manufacturing used for the grocery level. A lot of those changes have been made now so there is not a distribution challenge, and that’s why we are really confident in asking retailers to lift the grocery limits.”

And because dairy is safe, nutritious and affordable as a protein and calcium source, “we want to make sure that those kids that would otherwise be getting it at schools, can have access to it at home,” Raudabaugh said.

But despite the shift in the supply and demand chain, the California dairy industry has been asked to cut production by 10%, but as Van Groningen said, “you can’t turn off the cows.”

Van Groningen’s New Hope Dairy is one of the larger dairies in Sacramento County, with 14 employees to tend to the 1,250 head of cows. Van Groningen said that’s 14 families that rely on employment for their own health and welfare.

“I wanted to stress to everyone that we’re still here, we’re still doing the work, we’re still caring for our animals, and our employees,” Van Groningen said. “We as dairy farmers are getting it done, and we have to feed our cows and we will continue to feed our cows – one thing you don’t have to be concerned about.”

Luckily Van Groningen is part of the co-op California Dairies Inc. (CDI), which has helped to soften some of the impact, albeit just a little.

CDI has shifted some of their production to a product with a longer shelf life – butter and powdered milk. However, CDI is limited to the creamery capacity, as different creameries are set up for different products, be it cheese, milk, or butter and their byproducts.

“Our co-op is dedicated; if we can help it, we’re not going to put one drop down the drain,” Van Groningen said.

But ultimately it all boils down to economics, with agriculture California’s biggest industry; Cooper stresses just how important it is to support the local farmers.

“It is so important that we support our dairy folks,” Cooper said. “California family dairies are an important part of California’s vibrant agricultural industry that helps feed the world. Anything we eat and wear comes from dairy, comes from ag. As far as the dairy industry, they employ approximately 180,000 people. Their economic value is $20 billion. That’s roughly a third of our agriculture industry. It is critical in California to support the dairy industry that provides Californians with healthy, safe and affordable products.

Raudabaugh said to look for the “Real California Milk” seal on dairy products to ensure you are supporting local dairies.