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.