Milk is Back!

Jay Matteson

For too many years, fewer and fewer Americans were drinking milk. There were many more choices for consumers to quench their thirst than ever before and honestly, the dairy industry had not done a good job of keeping up with marketing their product in a modern, exciting manner. The old white jug had lost its appeal. The previous administration in the White House changed the school lunch program removing whole and 2% milk options and forcing schools to offer only skim milk. This change reduced the desire by children to drink milk. 

    Then the Coronavirus disaster set in. Food service businesses closed their doors. According to an April 3, 2020 article written by P.J. Huffstutter on Reuters website, the closure of food service businesses – restaurants, schools, and fast food restaurants sent a shock wave through the dairy industry. Plants that manufacture dairy products used in food service are not easily converted to retail manufacturing. With the onset of Coronavirus shutdown of food service businesses, the outlook for dairy initially was very dark. American diets typically consisted of 35 – 40% food service purchases. Dairy products are extensively used by food service to add flavor and nutrition to many products. The Virus also disrupted distribution systems and plant workforce. Dairy cooperatives told their member farms to dump their milk because there became a tremendous glut of milk on the market. Dairy Farmers of America estimated at one point that 3.7 million gallons of milk a day was being dumped. 

    At the same time, people did not know what to expect when told to shelter at home. Store shelves emptied of food, paper products and milk! People were buying two gallons at a time and freezing it, just in case. It appears that consumers turned to what they knew was very healthy, satisfying and comforting, milk. According to an article published online on June 15, 2020 on the AgDaily website, from March 9 to March 22, 2020 fluid milk sales increased by 45,000,000 gallons compared to the same period in 2019. Plant based beverage sales in the same period increased by approximately 7.9 million gallons. This was huge news for American dairy farmers. 

    Those of us in the agricultural industry saw the initial demand for fluid milk and were hopeful, but worried that after the initial run on the grocery stores, consumers would return to old habits. Consumers, however, appear to want nutritious and tasty milk and dairy products back in their diets! Ag Daily reports that from March 23 to May 31, 2020 fluid milk consumption increased by nearly 60,000,000 gallons compared to the same period in 2019. Plant based beverages increased by just over 10,000,000 gallons. Also noticed was consumers were trending to whole and 2% milk. Many enjoy the taste and satisfaction of whole milk compared to skim milk. 

    It appears, when difficult times arose, the American consumer came back to a food product they knew was wholesome, nutritious, and tasty – milk. In Jefferson County, we saw two dairy farms begin bottling their own milk. Next Generation Milk from Grimshaw Farms and Old McDonald’s Farm Milk from North Harbor Dairy Farm were an instant hit. Both operations had difficulty keeping up with demand. When a very local option became available to consumers, they swung quickly to supporting local dairy as much as possible. I can personally testify that my 19-year-old son will travel out of his way to make sure we always have milk from both farms in our refrigerator. Most times, he pays for it! 

    The dairy industry will still have challenges with balancing supply and demand fluctuations. Our dairy farms are coming off five years of difficult prices for their product. But if the demand for dairy continues to grow as people realize what they have been missing, perhaps we will see a brighter future for our dairy farms and the American consumer. Thanks to consumers, we see a path out of this current quagmire we are in. We are looking out to 2025 and building a path forward. 

    Welcome home, America!