As we enter our traditional June Dairy month, nothing is traditional this year. What is normally a time for celebrating our state’s rich dairy history has unfortunately taken a much different course thanks to COVID-19. June usually kicks off with a county dairy breakfast on a farm, where we get together with our neighbors and have a wonderful breakfast in a barn or machine shed. Sadly, these events are canceled this year. These community breakfasts provide an opportunity to learn where our food comes from. For most Wisconsin families that were not raised on a farm, a dairy breakfast is a chance to learn firsthand that milk actually comes from a dairy cow from one of many Wisconsin farms, and not just from the store where it was purchased.
The June dairy breakfast in each of our counties is really an institution, and for many of us it is the beginning of summer. Over the years, I have worked at more than 68 dairy breakfasts in the five counties I had represented when I served in the legislature, and I’ve had breakfast at many more. By the time I was done with the dairy breakfast circuit, I had a hard time eating eggs for a while because my job usually was making eggs in the big frying pan at the front of the tent where people came in to get breakfast. These weren’t one-at-a-time eggs like we might do at home—no, these were five gallons at a time. So making thousands of eggs each season can have an impact on you; I know it did on me.
COVID-19 has upended everything we know and do, and for many, it has meant the loss of a job, the ability to go out to eat, complete school in the traditional way, and so much more. When the Safer at Home order went into place, it closed restaurants and food establishments in Wisconsin along with all schools in our state. Some restaurants serve carry-out, but I fear it will be a long time before we see a restaurant full of patrons. Restaurant and school closings are happening all across the United States, and the results have been devastating to Wisconsin dairy farms. The cancellation of school milk programs and closing of restaurants, unless they have a drive-through, have resulted in a huge loss of market for both fluid milk and cheese, not to mention a drop in sales for ice cream, sour cream, and butter. This has had a cascading effect on all dairy farms in the United States and is especially hitting Wisconsin’s farm economy very hard since we are the dairy state.
I have shared with you in earlier columns that 57 percent of all Wisconsin dairy farms get their electricity from one of Wisconsin’s 24 electric distribution cooperatives, so we see firsthand the devastation this is causing. We have had members tell us they have been forced to reduce their herd size by 10 percent, and some have even been forced to dump milk. This is having an untold impact on the health and well-being of our farm neighbors and is affecting the economy of Wisconsin. Hopefully, we each can step up and help, and there are signs all across our state that is happening. I have seen 4-H clubs and FFA chapters doing their part by giving away gallons of milk, and we are starting to see yard signs all across our state saying “Support Wisconsin Dairy.” It is so uplifting to see people springing into action, like a Wyocena man who bought and gave away 120 gallons of milk to help his struggling farmer neighbors in Columbia County. It is so rewarding to see the countless creameries giving away their products to food banks and people in need instead of dumping the milk.
We don’t all have the ability to make the grand gestures I just mentioned, but we can all do a little to help these farm families in need. How can you help? There are many simple steps we can all take. For example, if you’re homeschooling school-age children, take some breaks during their lessons just like they would have at school and give them a snack that includes milk and other dairy products. Use the recipes you find in this magazine this month that make ample use of dairy products; search past issues to revisit other recipes that call for dairy products. We are all spending more time preparing meals at home, so plan menus that call for dairy products. And if we can’t enjoy a breakfast on the farm this year, make it yourself at home. Start with pancakes and eggs, yogurt, and milk just like you would at the dairy breakfast on your neighbor’s farm. Together, we can change the course of things to come.