Although it seems unfathomable in a state where food insecurity is present without a pandemic, some Connecticut dairy farmers have had to resort to dumping milk as some sectors of the food industry implode on themselves.
A large percentage of dairy products produced in the state are for institutions including schools, hotels, casinos, colleges, universities and restaurants. With virtually all of them shut down, wholesale demand has dried up. The farms that are set up for wholesale don’t have the infrastructure in place to make products in smaller quantities, explained Agriculture Commissioner Bryan Hurlburt, who said the state is doing its best to make sure food banks and pantries have all the dairy products they need.
“If a farm is set up to make five-pound containers of sour cream, they don’t have the machinery to make smaller-sized quantities right now,” said Hurlburt. “There is a lot of pain right now in agriculture.”
The Dairy Farmers of America estimated that between 2.7 million and 3.7 million gallons of U.S. milk could be dumped per day as a result of the crisis.
“It’s painful to know that this is happening. I feel for those farmers,” said Anne Smyth-Dugas of Symth’s Trinity Dairy Farm in Enfield. “Farming is a 365-day-a-year job and I know that they work hard, long hours to put out the best product they can, we all do, and to have to just dump that product. It’s horrible.”
Her farm has not had to dump any product, but they have had to adapt to the new circumstances brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.
“On a good day farming is a very hard job, so this has just made it harder,” said Smyth-Dugas. “We have adjusted our operation to change with what’s going on right now, using a skeleton crew and doing what we can to help.”
‘We are all in this together,’ is not a new catch phrase for farmers: they have lived by it for decades, supporting one another, connecting and empathizing as a group. If there is a bright spot to the pandemic, it is seeing some people come back around to locally grown goods, choosing to stop at their local farm stand, or plan their weekly shopping at farmers’ markets.
“Farmers are entrepreneurial by nature and Connecticut farms have been around for centuries. Our hope is that they take advantage of this new opportunity to meet customers’ needs,” said Hurlburt.
“As far as direct-to-consumer retail, farmers are the best,” said Joan Nichols, Executive Director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau Association.
To that point, Fred Penney of Swampy Acres Farm in Canterbury started the Eastern Connecticut Farmers’ Facebook page as a way to connect consumers looking to buy local. The page already has 500 farm members.
“Farmers have always worked together to recommend one another,” said Penney, whose farm offers, chicken, eggs, goat meat, lamb, beef, turkey and pork. “We are a community that has always sent people back and forth to one another, to help each other out. The Facebook page is now one place where consumers can go to get recommendations on which farmers have what available and where.”
Agreeing, Smyth-Dugas has carried other farms’ goods, like eggs, maple syrup, honey and coffee, at her stand for years. She is always happy to point her customers in the direction of other farmers who have goods she doesn’t offer.
“Right now, farm stands and farmers markets are places that people feel safer going to than grocery stores, and that’s a good thing for our farmers,” said Nichols, who is delighted to see the return of the milkman in many areas throughout the state. Smyth-Dugas and her family have been delivering milk to loyal customers since the late nineties. Equipped with a full-scale bottling operation on her property, keeping her dairy farm small-scale has helped protect her business during this pandemic.
With the high season of farmers’ markets approaching, these local gatherings will look different now, with social distancing, more space between vendors, prepackaged items and emphasis on non-cash payment.
“We are encouraging people to go support local agriculture, get to know where your food is from, meet your local farmers and neighbors,” said Hurlburt, pointing out that Connecticut also has a large aquaculture industry that is struggling, as is the nursery industry. He has been in close communication with Congressman Joe Courtney’s office regarding the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s handling of emergency money earmarked for farmers.
“The vast majority of farmers are not eligible for the small-business loans that are available. In fairness, Connecticut farmers should expect the same kind of programming from the USDA to help them during these times,” said Hurlburt. “There are ongoing farm expenses that don’t go away because there is a pandemic, such as animal feed, crop tending, high energy costs for greenhouses, etc. There are a lot of costs that farmers incur on a daily basis and we need to help them.”
Locations of farm stands and markets that are open now are posted here.