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Coronavirus Disrupts Milk, Meat Markets; What Will Robot Trucks Deliver When We’re Better?

The sign on the dairy cooler at Targets limits customers to two jugs of milk each, due to increased demand, yet dairy farmers are dumping good milk in their sewers because of decreased demand. What gives?

As Marketplace reported this morning, a lot of dairy products are shipped in bulk to big users, like restaurants and schools. The dairies and factories can’t adjust to produce lots of little packages for individual buyers, and trucking is starting to get tight, so even if they have product to send to grocery stores, producers may have trouble putting that product on the road.

Livestock producers are also in a bind due to the sudden shift in consumption and shipping patterns. Plenty of people would like some beef and pork, but they aren’t going to restaurants for steak or other fancy cuts. Folks laid off or working fewer hours or only getting half a rent check from their tenants are going to stick with ground beef and sausage and use even that sparingly with bigger helpings of bread, potatoes, garden tomatoes, and wild asparagus. (Anyone cooking up possum stew yet?)

Supply chain issues could be solved by robot trucks. Chinese cities are adopting self-driving trucks and vans for in-town deliveries; with fewer people on the road, now is a good time to road-test more autonomous vehicles.

But even if man and machine can keep deliveries flowing, factories aren’t going to be able to keep producing as much meat or milk or anything else as fast until we get a vaccine. Two Iowa meatpackers just announced they are shutting down to completely scrub their facilities. One of those, the Tyson slaughterhouse in Columbus Junction, handles 2% of the country’s hogs but has more than two dozen workers who’ve tested positive for covid-19. We just can’t produce as much under these conditions, and we just can’t eat as much, or at least not as much of whatever we want.

(Suddenly, it occurs to me, as I finish my peanut butter and jelly on toast, to wonder: when we finally get our coronavirus vaccines next year, will any of us want to eat at Pizza Ranch or the Twin Dragon Buffet again?)

This pandemic may inspire greater automation in delivery and production to make the economy more durable during the next outbreak. But it may also inspire changes in our psychology, our sense of needs and wants, and our eating habits that reduce the total amount of goods and services that we want produced and delivered. Such changes will require a serious rethinking on the part of every dairy, every ranch, and every corporate farm about what they make, what they sell, and where they sell it.


  1. John Taylor 2020-04-06 15:22

    Um, Cory, what do you know about agriculture? “But even if man and machine can keep deliveries flowing, factories aren’t going to be able to keep producing as much meat or milk or anything else as fast until we get a vaccine.” Factories don’t produce milk or meat, ranchers and dairy operations do. Suggest an edit here….

  2. jerry 2020-04-06 17:29

    China understands that to keep people safe and fed, you must keep them safe and fed.
    In China, they didn’t dump their milk, they’ve gone about their business of making sure the people are cared for and provided for.

    “Two months into the coronavirus epidemic in China, tens of millions of people are still under quarantine and much of the economy remains in a deep freeze.”

    Yet China has largely succeeded in keeping its stores filled with food and other essentials—even in hard-hit places like the city of Wuhan—a crucial factor in maintaining public order”

    Limits on milk purchases while farmers dump milk in the sewer, all of this comes from a faulty archaic supply chain that hasn’t been upgraded since ever. Our supply lines show what a failed infrastructure we have here compared to damned near anyplace. We continue to use the oldest most expensive ways to produce milk and store that there is, and yet, we call ourselves advanced, a leader. Take a look at how advanced we are, we are failing. The only thing that we are leading is in piracy. We can’t manufacture what we need, so we’re like bandits. This tells me that we should not have an aversion to the wearing of masks.

    Milk limits and ammunition limits should be of a concern to all citizens. Both show how unprepared we are for anything serious…anything.

  3. Debbo 2020-04-06 18:04

    I wonder if this is illustrating the deficiencies of a system that is too centralized, too vertical, too monopolized? For instance, if there were more smaller dairies and milk companies, larger versions of the independent creameries that used to exist in every town, would it be easier to switch deliveries of homogenized /pasteurized milk? In this crisis, could those places be allowed to sell milk to customers who bring their own containers?

    I don’t know if I’m being clear. My terminology is shaky for sure. My thought is that smaller businesses are more nimble than behemoths and supply lines are shorter.

  4. Debbo 2020-04-06 18:06

    I’ve heard that local farmers are selling to their neighbors because demand is great. This Friday I’m heading to Gertens in St. Paul to buy tomato and pepper plants. I’ve heard that the gardening market is huge, so I hope that I’m in luck. I will let y’all know.

  5. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-04-06 18:20

    John T, focusing on minor word usage technicalities instead of the big picture is a great way to keep us from having serious discussions and solving problems. If a farmer produces milk and meat in the woods and no factory is there to produce the finished product, did they really produce anything?

    Does milk getting dumped into Wisconsin ditches count as “produced”? Will it show up in GDP?

    Factories produce the finished food products that we expect in our stores and cupboards.

    Now if you want to discuss a revolution in American agriculture, cutting out the middleman, cutting out mass production and turning to a local self-sufficiency model in which farmers produce food that they sell directly to their neighbors to eat and/or directly to their local grocers, butchers, creameries, etc., to sell in the local market, then let’s talk about how to bring that about. The problems above arise because we have an Earl Butz/Sonny Perdue “Get big or get out” ag-industrial model in which 99% of the farmers in Brown County don’t put one edible thing directly on my plate. They depend on factories and the global supply chain, both of which are unable to produce at normal levels amidst sensible pandemic response measures and thus cannot support the dairy operators and livestock producers who are plugged in to that industrial model. A local self-sufficiency model would mitigate the problems described above. Dozens of small dairies designed to serve Brown County would not depend on a nationwide trucking network. They would not depend on the big dairy factories in Grant and Hamlin counties to buy their product.

    We both know that milk and meat start on farms. Yay. Tell us, John, how that basic knowledge affects the policy and economic discussion we need to have to put affordable milk, meat, and other food in the stores and on the people’s plates throughout the coronavirus lockdown.

  6. o 2020-04-06 18:22

    Again, profit over people when it comes to the foundations of our economic system. If people get fed along the way, all the better, but chase the economics first.

    Let food be added to the list of what a decent society ought not to put at the whim of shareholder capitalism. (Already on the list: health care, decent housing, and a living wage, voting.)

  7. Richard Schriever 2020-04-06 18:56

    John Taylor – when is the last time you bought any food from a farmer? How’s that corn and bean diet going?

  8. John 2020-04-06 19:13

    Cory, spot on reply to John T.
    JD Scholten, candidate for the 4th Congressional District in northwest and northcentral Iowa, observed that district only has 2, TWO farm-to-restaurants. This is indicative of how broken, how unsustainable is the current “get-big-or-get-out” agriculture economic model. How anti-rural community is that broken economic model. (As Beth Ford, Land-‘O-Lakes CEO said, ‘we’re losing rural America’.) It would be instructive to learn how many, if any farm-to-restaurants exist in South Dakota. Probably none.

    Another of Scholten’s cogent observation was that, ‘Dollar General is not a grocery store.’ Rural towns grocery stores are closing at a frightful rate. The dollar stores then roll in offering often over-priced processed foods, short on fresh vegetables, fresh fruits, fresh dairy and meats. Often the very products that contribute to our societies eroding human health and increasing diet-related diseases. Scholten had a small town tour where he listened and learned from the concerns from every town with a population of less than 1,000.

    Similar to your experience, South Dakota farmers and ranchers contribute about 1-2% to my dinner plate. Much of that 1-2% may come from the Hutterites and the turkey plant.

  9. jerry 2020-04-06 19:20

    Subsistence farming may be the new normal. Producers have gotten used to subsidies…and they need more, much more. Now would be a good time to reevaluate what the farming and ranching operations are going to be for the future. The BRIBES are not sustainable when there is now such a need for everyone to be subsidized. That government that republicans bragged about drowning in a bathtub is now the only employer in town.

    “For many farmers, the aid represents both a lifeline and an awkward reality of government dependence.

    “It’s uncomfortable and embarrassing to talk about it, because the grocery store doesn’t get this kind of help; the dry cleaner doesn’t get this kind of help,” said Charlie Zanker, a corn and soybean farmer in Hamburg, Iowa. “But without it, too many of us would be out of business.”

    With the trade aid adding to existing government disaster programs and taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance, government subsidies accounted for about a fourth of U.S. net farm income in 2019, according to data from the U.S. Agriculture Department’s (USDA) Economic Research Service. And net cash income is expected to fall sharply this year without those subsidies.

    Dozens of farmers interviewed by Reuters said without more assistance they may not be able to plant this spring. China was the top buyer of U.S. soybeans in 2017 and a top importer of sorghum, dairy and other products.”

    This article was one month ago. As we know today, their is no plan from Washington. None, natta zip. That last couple of trillion went into the pockets of the banks, promptly. The only thing it helped was keeping the Wall Street numbers to trumps liking so he and his band of outlaws can raid it further.

    Farmers better have a plan B they can work on to get their products to market that is clearly not corn or beans. Stop producing them and the price will rise. Start producing something else that can be used for more than livestock feed. You know what it is, get after it.

  10. T 2020-04-06 19:36

    “Trucking is starting to get tight” real tight even for local hauls
    It’s only Monday and feels like a Friday. Some hauls are getting $6/mile
    I’m hauling local all day long. Restrictions lifted so its go go go.
    Restrictions lifted for even long hauls. Try and get some help, B4-19 you could, now impossible, drivers have kids and/or counting on “the check” and unemployment (which I do not get because SD unemployment app, you put down CDL, they have to know your lying)
    Hauling is good job right now. No restrictions, but people aren’t taking the chance with 19 when they can stay at home and get paid, at least that’s what we r running into

  11. Debbo 2020-04-06 20:44

    John Taylor, I worked at a pork processing plant in Huron, SD. Over 3000 live, on the hoof, not-ready-to-eat hogs came in every day. Every day we sent out truck loads of pork chops, ribs, bellies, chitlins, loins, boneless butts, etc, that you could cook and put on your plate.

    THAT is where the ham hocks in your soup comes from.

    You must not know much about farming, like the one I grew up on. You might want to make an edit there.

  12. Edwin Arndt 2020-04-06 21:26

    Debbo, the farm I presently have an interest in is the farm I grew
    up on. The farm I grew up on has little resemblance to what the
    farm is today. Those kinds of farms are not going to exist again.
    That makes me a bit sad but it is also reality. Very few people
    know much about the farms you and I grew up on.

    How we got from the butcher shop to the mega packing plant
    would be worthy of a doctoral thesis. Possibly there is one already.

  13. jerry 2020-04-06 22:21

    I guess Sonny has not told trump about the shut downs and so on.

    ““As of April 1 … it seems like [China is] buying,” Trump said at a press briefing. “So we’ll let you know how that’s going, but they’re buying anywhere from US$40 billion to US$50 billion worth of our agricultural product that would have a huge impact on our farmers.”

    Analysing coronavirus impact on China: trade, force majeure and economic crisis
    Trump said he was confident that China would follow through “because I know President Xi [Jinping], who I like and respect, and I think he will honour the deal he made with us”.
    “In fact, I called up just a little while ago, I said, how are the farmers doing with respect to China, are they buying the product as anticipated?” Trump said, without specifying whom he had checked with.
    “And the answer was ‘yeah, I think so’, but it wasn’t the most positive, but it was starting.”

    So there ya go. “Called up just a little while ago” I don’t know about the rest of you, but for some reason, when trump says something, it just seems like something you might hear in a middle school conversation. Must be the Adderall he ingests.

  14. Debbo 2020-04-06 22:26

    I agree Edwin.

    We sold our cattle, sheep and hogs at the sale barn, except for one or two of each. Depending upon our level of busyness, we might have butchered a lamb, sheep or hog ourselves, but the 800 lb +/- yearling went to the locker in town. On the occasion we had an old cow that had to go, she went to the locker and came back as Lots of Hamburger or maybe some salami too.

    We always dressed (butchered) our own chickens and pheasants, sometimes our own deer.

    We had a winter’s worth of canned vegetables from our garden, but flour and similar pantry staples had to come from the grocery store. Same with fruit, except plums, which we made into jams for the winter and ate fresh in the summer.

  15. Debbo 2020-04-06 22:28

    Liar-in-Chief in action again. He probably made up the entire thing.

  16. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-04-07 06:08

    Edwin, why can’t those erstwhile farms exist again? Wouldn’t you see the kind of farm you miss in the farms that Debbo sees in Minnesota who sell to neighbors in the local farmers’ markets? Couldn’t we make a conscious choice to revamp our production model to focus on crops immediately consumable by local eaters?

    The problem with revolutionizing farming to the local self-sufficiency model is that 99% of the farmers in Brown County have accumulated massive plots of land and massive equipment to cultivate it under the assumption that they will produce massive amounts of single commodities that are mostly inedible without factory processing. You can’t grow fresh vegetables for local consumption with a combine.

  17. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-04-07 06:12

    I’m trying to figure out whether we are at an advantage or a disadvantage to have this crisis happen right before planting season begins. If this pandemic had caught fire in July, more people would be closer to having tomatoes and other garden goodies available to eat. But with the pandemic starting now, we have time to plant bigger Victory Gardens, and farmers may have time to pivot to crops for local consumption.

    Alas, I suppose for farmers, that pivot is awfully hard, since they probably have already contracted for their seed and industrial-scale fertilizer and pesticide and whatever other inputs they need to crank out another harvest of monoculture commodities instead of food their neighbors can use.

    But CAFOs don’t have to wait for harvest season. They have goods they can sell to hungry neighbors right now, if they can only figure out how to package and ship to a different set of smaller but more numerous buyers.

  18. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-04-07 06:17

    T cites an interesting feature of the supply-chain kink: even with opportunity abounding, some truckers are choosing not to hit the road, out of a desire to protect themselves and their families from sickness. Can you blame them?

    That sensible choice leaves us with these options for the duration of the pandemic: we can dispatch soldiers to haul vital supplies around the country, we can draft CDL holders and require them to drive (with government-provided masks, gloves, Lysol, and whatever other protective gear we can muster), or we can shut down long-distance travel and hope local economies can pivot to providing for their own needs for several months.

  19. T 2020-04-07 06:38

    Drivers are safer than nurses and doctors
    My opinion? Get out and haul. I have a mask, hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes (food and drink so I. Don’t have to stop)
    I pull into dairy farm call and someone unloads the hay bales no contact. Same with other commodities paper work is snap a pic via phone and texted to the person again no contact,
    Any other commodities hauled same thing no contact,
    Hauls into Colorado, fuel is paid w CC and with mask and gloves at pump. Some places only thing open is the 24 hr pumps unattended
    I disagree with government getting involved on this one for hauling safer conditions than our frontline people.

  20. Edwin Arndt 2020-04-07 10:50

    Cory, you ask why those farms can’t exist again. Basically
    because they are no longer economically viable. You have to
    try to understand that the amount of land was roughly the same
    then as it is now. I’ll grant that some pasture land was broke up.
    Some that shouldn’t have been. Be that as it may—
    We didn’t sell anything to the neighbors, they all had their own.
    If every farm raised sweet corn and peppers and onions most of it would
    rot. The fact is that the overwhelming share of the land in North and South
    Dakota and Minnesota is dedicated to raising bulk commodities
    because that’s what there is a market for. The farm of my youth
    still hauled grain to the elevator and from there it was shipped to
    Minneapolis much as now, although there are not as many elevators
    now, and a lot of the corn goes to the ethanol plant.

    As an example of how things change,, many years ago, there were
    local flour mills scattered about the country. With the advent of
    electricity, electric flour mills were built in Minneapolis, and it became
    cheaper to ship the wheat to Minneapolis and have it ground to flour and
    then have it distributed back to the countryside.

    You just can’t put that paste back into the tube.

  21. Debbo 2020-04-07 17:55

    Edwin is right about how big farms function now and Cory is right about the advance orders of seeds and such.

    There are vegetable farms, beef, sheep, hog, alpaca and dairy farms around Northfield so those foods are available. In addition, lots and lots of people are either beginning or enlarging their vegetable gardens, buying hens, etc.

    What they’re doing is returning to the farming patterns of a half century ago, as much as possible. People are seeing the advantages of producing more of their own foods. There are a few small, local flour mills in Minnesota and a market for oat, wheat, buckwheat and other flours. I wonder how many farmers might be modifying their plans to produce a more locally useful crop?

  22. jerry 2020-04-07 18:07

    Very good questions Debbo. We have an opportunity now to change farming and ranching practices here. We abuse the migrant’s that come here to feed us and then cage them into slavery types of situations. The same questions are now being asked in Europe. Those special grains you speak of are grown near Belle Fourche now, so there is a market for them. My guess with people staying at home and cooking, there will be more opportunities for those special grains.

    “European Union institutions and national governments are scrambling to address the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic for European farming, vowing that food supplies will not be affected. Procedures for accessing the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidies are being relaxed and funds are being pumped into the sector to keep farmers and businesses afloat.

    Meanwhile, farming associations have sounded the alarm about large labour shortages, highlighting the fact that, whatever Europe’s populists claim, our farming depends to a large extent on migrant labour.”

  23. John 2020-04-07 18:49

    A big economic model difference is that western Europe has few industrial farms. The Cargills of the world built upon the Soviet-era collective farms in eastern Europe , though, selling massive industrial farms as the “new” economic model. Wealth for a few. Anti-community. Ultimately unsustainable as was the Soviet economic model.

    Rural farm / town economic models can work — if we want them to work. The added kicker is that western Europe has the world’s highest standards for food purity.

  24. Debbo 2020-04-07 19:10

    Denmark has an enormous ag sector and exports lots of food. Their farms often resemble US farms in scale and the machinery used on them. The enormous equipment is Klaas brand- combines, tractors, etc. They have automated much of vegetable farming. Look for videos on FB. Try “Tractor Spotting”, I think. I haven’t watched their videos for months, but I believe that’s where I found them.

  25. John 2020-04-07 19:35

    Danish farms, like the Dutch farms, are the most productive in the world, by acre / hectare.
    They do not have massive spreads. They do not have the scale of US farms. The average Dutch farm in 2010 was 26 hectares. By 2015 the average Dutch farm size increased to about 30 hectares. Dutch farmers make up for lack of acreage by producing 2-3 times the yields of other farmers. One does not find a ridiculous 1200 acre corn field in Denmark or Holland. The average Danish farm is 75 acres. Large Danish farms are 150 acres.

    The Dutch are the world’s 2d largest exporter of FOOD, despite the US land mass being 270 times larger. They often base ag production on a per square meter basis — not a hectare. The finer measurement allows the Dutch to optimize production. For example, European farmers often drill corn and have for decades. Corn, after all is a grass, so why wastefully plant it in rows.

    We have much to learn from the Old World.

  26. jerry 2020-04-08 08:38

    On a positive climate change due to the virus report.

    “Speculation that the demand destruction from the coronavirus will be long-lasting and result in a smaller airline industry after the pandemic is starting to become a reality.

    On Tuesday, Deutsche Lufthansa AG (CXE: LHA) announced a significant restructuring that includes a permanent reduction in capacity and the consolidation of several flight operations within the airline group. The company said the board of directors made the decisions because it expects global travel restrictions won’t be completely lifted for months and that it will take years until worldwide demand for air travel returns to levels before the coronavirus crisis.

    Vasu Raja, American Airlines’ senior vice president for network strategy, said in The Wall Street Journal that few people are making plans to travel in the next three to five months.

    The Lufthansa Group has already cut capacity by more than 90% and parked about 700 aircraft.”

    This is a big deal because these particular planes are very toxic to the climate. So yeah, we’re dying and dying, but this may be nature’s way of change.

    Now to cut the defense bloat in half for starters, we might be onto something.

  27. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-04-09 05:43

    “economically viable” is a function of the choices we make as a society. If we all stop using internal combustion engines, ethanol isn’t economically viable. If we all go vegetarian, ranching isn’t economically viable. If we all buy and eat local, large-scale export-oriented farming isn’t economically viable.

    Edwin describes what is. I describe what could be, if we consider other options for our economy.

  28. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-04-09 05:46

    Commenters above give good examples showing other models are possible. John and Debbo point to Western Europe, which shows America’s Earl-Butz model is not inevitable.

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