Dairy farmers throughout Wisconsin who are members of Foremost Farms of Baraboo received a letter around March 20 from the milk processing company asking them “to voluntarily reduce your milk production to the best of your ability.”
Director of Communications Syd Lindner wrote in an email Thursday that the company understands “the frustration farmers and others feel during this unprecedented time.”
“We have asked our members to manage their milk production due to the current market uncertainty,” Lindner wrote. “We are working with our members on a plan that best works for their individual business.”
The market uncertainty is being caused by the novel coronavirus, according to the letter.
“Due to the extreme nature of the coronavirus situation and the impact on the economy, we believe the ability to pick up and process your milk could be compromised,” states the letter signed by CEO Greg Schlafer and Board Chairman David Scheevel.
The letter tells members “now is the time to consider a little extra culling of your herds, or drying off some cows early,” and “to be prepared for scenarios that would require our members to dump milk on member farms, ship milk to digestors, or dispose of in some other manner.”
Lindner did not say why the company has concerns over its ability to pick up or process milk, but the letter says Foremost is preparing for reductions in employees at Foremost plants and in their customers’ processing plants.
Dan Benish has been a farmer for decades. He still serves as a partner running Aspirin Acres along Highway V near Lodi. His multi-generational farm, which currently milks about 380 cows three times a day, contracts with Foremost Farms.
Benish read the letter, which also references “follow up” with field representatives. Talking to someone directly helped him better understand what Foremost means to do.
“To me, it’s more or less precautionary,” Benish said. “Having gotten some clarification, it’s like everybody else, it’s pre-planning. If you’re not thinking ahead, you’re behind.”
Benish said in talks with his field representative, he understands it’s a possibility, not a directive to dump milk on their land just yet.
In conversations with the representative, Benish said he knows that as long as plant employees are healthy they can process the milk. But if companies they serve can’t purchase it, they won’t be able to take members’ milk. Benish, who runs the farm along with his brother and a nephew, said Aspirin Acres’ milk has been insured at 50% because of financial concerns he’s had for the last year in a struggling dairy market that saw more than 800 Wisconsin farms shut down in 2019.
“Having talked with the field man, I feel much more confident,” Benish said, adding that “things could change.”
Other members who received the letter said they thought COVID-19 may be an excuse for the company to cut costs after struggling in a tough market. Foremost Farms sold a plant in Rothschild (near Wausau) and cut 110 employees in March 2018, according to a release from the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.
Dave and Judy Kirchner of Kirchner Dairy Farm in Kenosha wrote a letter to state Rep. Samantha Kerkman and Sen. Robert Wirch asking for help in bringing attention to a possible food supply issue.
“Our biggest concern is that we may not get paid for our product because they are so far in the hole,” the co-owners wrote. “We believe Foremost Farms is using the COVID-19 as a scapegoat for their financial problems.”
If it is an excuse, it’s a good one, Benish said.
“It’s not like it’s not out there,” he said, referencing a son in New York currently recovering from the coronavirus.
Two other of his children recently lost their jobs because of the financial effect of state-mandated business closures.
“There’s a lot of things that aren’t doing so well right now,” Benish said.
Lindner did not provide a response to the claims that the company may be looking to regain revenue with COVID-19 as an excuse.
“The success of our member owners is critical to us,” she wrote in the email. “We operate in their best interest. Everything we do is to ensure the short and long term success of the cooperative. Farmers and the dairy industry have faced many challenges over the past few years. Our cooperative is no exception.”
Follow Bridget on Twitter @cookebridget or contact her at 608-745-3513.
Concerned about COVID-19?
Sign up now to get the most recent coronavirus headlines and other important local and national news sent to your email inbox daily.