Shouldn’t we be crying over spilt milk?

By Matthew McCully

The COVID-19 pandemic, which put the province on hold, also put a major kink in the agriculture supply chain leaving farmers holding the bag (of milk). The sudden dramatic drop in demand from the restaurant and hotel industry has left some dairy farmers no choice but to dump milk down the drain. “Today they took it,” explained local dairy producer Shane Coates during an interview earlier this week. But last week, the driver of the truck that normally picks up the milk from Coates recorded the amount listed on the tank, and then opened the valve.
Over 10, 000 litres poured down the drain, Coates said.
Like every other dairy farmer in Canada, Coates’ production is controlled by the country’s supply management system. Coates owns quota, basically the right to produce a specific amount of milk, to answer the demand for dairy products. The problem is with the bulk of the country staying home, demand dropped, but cows didn’t get the memo. A milking schedule still needs to be followed to maintain the health and productivity of the animals.
“I still have cows, I still have bills to pay,” Coates said, explaining while the economy can be put on pause, it’s not so easy for the stewards of all things living and growing. While Coates said he will still be paid, at least a percentage because he filled his quota as requested, and the Quebec Milk Producers’ Federation will help with financial losses, the bigger issue is waste. “There are local people who can’t afford a proper grocery basket right now,” Coates said. “There are hungry people and shelves aren’t full.” He feels for the cows too. “We keep them as comfortable as possible, but it’s their job in life to make milk,” Coates said, upset it is going down the drain. Adding insult to injury, Coates said Canada is still importing dairy products from other countries. The problem isn’t exclusive to dairy, Coates added. He has talked to other farmers in the area with livestock who are equally worried about the market.
Coates said he already got a letter to put a hold on culled cows, normally sent to slaughter when their milking days are over. For the time being they will remain on farms, additional mouths to feed.
“It’s the whole supply chain,” Coates said, wondering how large-scale pork, chicken and beef producers are dealing. Depending on the animal, the profit marginal can be quite low, so needing to feed and care for an animal for an extra month can present financial challenges, Coates explained.
Looking for the blue logo helps, Coates said, to support Quebec dairy producers.
Marcel Blais, a local representative on the Quebec Milk Producers’ Federation board of directors, confirmed that 2.3 million litres of milk was poured down the drain in the third week of March.
“That’s just one week,” Blais said, explaining the province produces 66 million litres each week.
Last week 600,000 litres were dumped.
“The whole chain has to work. When it breaks, we have to make drastic decisions,” he said.
Blais said that once milk leaves a farm on a truck, it reaches stores within 24 hours.
Because of sanitary and refrigeration requirements, dairy doesn’t loiter. It needs to be transformed immediately.
While processors are doing what they can, there are limits.
“There has to be a demand,” Blais said. The restaurant and hotel industries accounted for 35 percent of sales, according to a press release from the federation. In the case of cream, the restaurant and hotel industry represented 60 per cent of sales.
“We’re at the mercy of a lot of things,” Blais said, referring to the weather and other factors on a regular basis. “We’ll manage the best we can,” he commented, “I hope this crisis doesn’t last too long.”
Laiterie Coaticook owner Jean Provencher said things aren’t much better on the transformation side of things.
“There has been a big impact,” Provencher said, explaining that sales have dropped by a third. Ice cream sales are alright, but cheese is suffering.
According to Provencher, it’s the poutine effect.
The popular Quebec staple is a restaurant favourite, but not something many people make at home.
Curd cheese, the star ingredient in poutine and normally a big seller for the Laiterie, has taken a big hit.
While he recognized the struggle of farmers with milk overages, Provencher said he is limited in what he can do as a transformer. With production, packaging and inventory costs on top of the drop in sales, Provencher couldn’t afford to just process the milk slated to be dumped and provide it to food banks.
Looking at the industry as a whole, Provencher said it might be wise for Canada to put a hold on dairy imports during the economic shutdown to help support local producers.

Published in the Thursday, April 9 edition of The Record.

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