In yet another sign of the chronic milk glut that’s forced down prices paid to farmers, the federal government has allowed Northeast dairy co-ops to dump milk if they can’t find a market.
Nobody likes to dump milk, but sometimes it is necessary says Bob Wellington, a dairy economist and senior vice president with Agri-Mark, New England’s largest dairy co-op.
“It’s a horrible, horrible image," Wellington said. "And we worked hard to try to see if there’s some way we can get that milk processed, at least to donate it. The problem is there’s no plant at all to process it.”
Wellington says two kinds of dumping occur.
In one scenario, milk is trucked to a processing plant and the cream is removed to make butter.
But the skim milk that’s left is sometimes dumped because, Wellington says, the plants don’t have the capacity to make the product into powder that can be stored long term.
This happened recently with Agri-Mark. A dryer at its processing plant in West Springfield, Massachusetts was broken, so the leftover skim was discarded.
“We had to dump a small amount of milk because of that,” he says.
The second kind of dumping was authorized recently by the federal milk market administrator, who sets regional wholesale prices.
The administrator’s order, which is effective through July 15, permits milk to be dumped at the farm, yet still allows the farmer to get paid.
“What happens in most cases is a truck would go in, take the milk out of the bulk tank so they can measure how much is there, and literally probably go around the other end of the farm and dump it into the manure pit,” Wellington says.
The Land O'Lakes dairy cooperative asked for the dumping order, and was joined by Agri-Mark, St. Albans Cooperative Creamery, Dairy Farmers of America and other regional co-ops.
In its request, Land O'Lakes noted that this was not the first time permission to dump was sought.
"The inability to find homes for all milk has caused handlers to petition the Market Administrator for these temporary procedures ... for milk dumped at the farm for the last four years," its letter said.
It’s not clear how much milk has been discarded in Vermont or the Northeast. The market administrator tracks milk that has been dumped, but that number includes spoiled milk, milk that’s lost in an accident, or milk that’s made into animal feed.
In 2017, some 170 million pounds of milk were dumped in the Northeast market order region that includes Vermont, up from the 119 million pounds dumped in 2015.
Milk production in the Northeast rose 1.8 percent last year compared to 2016 and is down somewhat his year. Meanwhile, demand for fluid milk has also gone down slightly.
Bob Wellington of Agri-Mark says the problem is not too much milk but rather too little processing capacity.
But Sheldon dairy farmer Bill Rowell disagrees. Rowell says the fact milk is being dumped shows that farmers need to cap their production.
“The farmers have nothing for a tool to manage their supply,” said Rowell. “And if the farmers produce more milk than the processors can handle, where does it go? At times it goes into the manure pits. If you’re told to be more efficient, the first place I would look for inefficiency is to stop dumping milk.”
Rowell wants to see a supply management system that puts limits on how much a farm can make. But supply management is a tough sell in Congress, and even among the dairy co-ops which represent farmers.
But Rowell says many large-scale operations oppose supply management.
“The problem is systemic, but you’ve got to look at like this: Last year in this country, the U.S. produced 215 billion pounds of milk; 2.9 percent of the farms, which is about 1,200 farms, produced a little over half of it, 50.3 percent of 215 billion,” Rowell said. “Those guys don’t want talk about a supply management tool.”