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Empty milk, smashed eggs, plowed vegetables: food waste from the pandemic



In Wisconsin and Ohio, farmers dispose of thousands of gallons of fresh milk in lagoons and dung pits. A farmer in Idaho dug huge trenches to bury 1 million pounds of onions. And in South Florida, a region that supplies much of the eastern half of the United States with products, tractors cross bean and cabbage fields and plow perfectly ripe vegetables back into the ground.

After weeks of worrying about bottlenecks in grocery stores and insane efforts to find the last box of noodles or toilet paper rolls, many of the country’s largest farms are struggling with another terrible impact of the pandemic. They are forced to destroy tens of millions of pounds of fresh food that they can no longer sell.

By closing restaurants, hotels and schools, some farmers have more than half of their crops without buyers. And even if retailers see an increase in food sales to Americans who now eat almost every meal at home, the increases aren’t enough to accommodate all the perishable foods planted weeks ago that are meant for schools and businesses.

The amount of waste is breathtaking. The country’s largest dairy cooperative, Dairy Farmers of America, estimates that farmers dispose of up to 3.7 million gallons of milk a day. A single chicken processor smashes 750,000 eggs that have not hatched each week.

Although Mr. Allen and other farmers plowed fresh vegetables into the soil, they had to replant the same crop in the hope that the economy would pick up again when the next batch of vegetables was ready for harvest. However, if the gastronomy remains closed, these plants may also have to be destroyed.

Farmers also get to know the country’s consumption habits in real time.

The quarantines have shown how much more vegetables Americans eat when preparing meals for them in restaurants than when they have to cook themselves.

“People don’t make onion rings at home,” said Shay Myers, a third generation onion grower whose fields span the Oregon-Idaho border.

Mr. Myers said there were no good solutions to the flood of fresh food. After his biggest customer – the restaurant industry – closed in California and New York, his farm began to redistribute onions from 50-pound bags into smaller bags that could be sold in grocery stores. He also started to freeze some onions, but has limited cooling capacity.

With a few other options, Mr. Myers has started to bury tens of thousands of pounds of onions and have them trenched.

“There’s no way to redistribute the amounts we’re talking about,” he said.

Over the decades, the country’s food banks have tried to move from offering mainly processed meals to serving fresh produce. However, the pandemic has led to a shortage of volunteers, making it more difficult to serve fruits and vegetables that are time-consuming and expensive to transport.

But at some point the system ran out of memory. Last week, Mr Funk worked until 11 p.m. one night and was fighting tears when he called farmers to deliver the plant to explain the situation.

“We won’t pick up your milk tomorrow,” he told them. “We have no place to put it.”

One of the farms that received the call was the Hardshoe Dairy Farm, which has nearly 200 cows on a property in northern Ohio.

A week ago, Rose Hartschuh, who runs the farm with her family, watched her father-in-law flush 31,000 pounds of milk into a lagoon. It took more than an hour for the milk to flow from the cooling container into the drain pipe.

Dairy farmers have been struggling with low prices and bankruptcies for years. “This is another hit under the belt,” said Ms. Hartschuh.

To prevent further dumping, groups of farmers try everything to find places where the excess milk can be sent – and even advocate pizza chains to increase the amount of cheese on each slice.

However, there are logistical obstacles that prevent dairy products from being properly shifted from food service customers to retailers.

For example, for many milk processors, the machine is designed to pack chopped cheese in large bags for restaurants or to put milk in small boxes for schools, rather than placing the products in trade-friendly containers.

In recent days, Sanderson Farms has donated some of its chicken to food banks and organizations that prepare meals for emergency workers. However, hatching hundreds of thousands of eggs for charity is not a viable option, said Mike Cockrell, the company’s chief financial officer.

“We are ready to sell this chicken,” said Mr. Cockrell. “That would be expensive.”


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