MILFORD — The agriculture industry is undergoing a severe pummeling by the coronavirus shutdown, but some area farmers are keeping a gritty but hopeful outlook.
Milford hog farmer Sam Beer’s operation has taken a hit through no fault of his own. The shutdown “has affected the demand” for pork, he said, “because people are not going out to eat and they are not using as much pork cooking at home.”
The downturn in Beer’s business has also been caused by problems at another level. “We sell to Tyson in Logansport, who provides processing for Iowa and Indiana. They have stayed open but they have had poor attendance in the workforce, so they cannot keep up to capacity. That has backed up hogs in the pipeline and made a problem for us.”
Beer has nowhere else to turn. “We have an agreement with Tyson as our exclusive buyer,” he said.
Beer remains upbeat, however, and hopes the quarantine is resolved by summer. “Typically there is more demand in the summer because of cookouts and ball games. We are still hoping with the lifting of the shutdown and the warm weather, things will get better in the June and July time frame. We just need to get people out and traveling and having cookouts and getting back to work.
“I am optimistic it will rebound,” he said, “not really quickly but over the next few months. We have a great God and a great country and I am just being prayerful for our leadership and our president and hoping God is merciful to us.”
Regg Beer, co-owner of a Milford family dairy farm with his father, Fred, and brother Jeff, said processor Prairie Farms in Fort Wayne is “still taking all our milk, but has asked the dairy farmers in our area to cut back.”
Unfortunately, the Beers’ 875 cows don’t know how to do that. “Cows are going to produce,” said Beer. “You can’t just turn it off or slow it down. So we started rationing our feed. We are still feeding them a good nutritious diet but feeding them less efficiently” to reduce milk production, which is about 100 pounds, or 12 gallons of milk, per cow per day.
Area dairy farms have not been asked to dump milk, Beer said, but excess production could lead to that.
The “big hit” on demand comes from two sources: diminished restaurant service, which accounts for “one-fourth to one-third or more of the milk product,” and schools being closed for the academic year.
“Another side of it is ice cream sales in restaurants have really dropped,” he said, “and we missed the spike in demand this year from McDonald’s shamrock shakes.”
Some of the reduced demand was compensated for by “an initially strong demand for fluid milk for individual consumption,” and processors scrambled to keep the shelves stocked. “I know Fort Wayne was definitely working long hours to get the milk out,” said Beer, “but you can’t just flip a switch from producing sour cream to bottling milk.”
Some processors are diverting their supply to the production of dry and powdered milk, but risk the burden of having to maintain surpluses later on. Dairy exports are anticipated to plummet because of the worldwide pandemic and some dairies are selling part of their herds to make ends meet.
“On top of all that, the price the dairy farmer gets dropped by one-third in January and February, and we are anticipating dairy prices to be on the lower end at least into a part of next year. We’re an industry in adjustment right now,” said Beer.
Overall recovery depends on “how fast things get going again. There are just a lot of questions we don’t really know. It’s hard to know when people will get confident and start getting out.”
One thing Beer is certain of, though: “We are proud of what we make and we are thankful to be blessed with the opportunity to serve our community.”