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.
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.
Many farmers claim to have donated part of the surplus to Food banks and meals on wheels programs that were overwhelmed by demand. But there is only so much perishable food that charities can accommodate with a limited number of refrigerators and volunteers.
And the costs of harvesting, processing, and then transporting products and milk to food banks or other needs would further burden the farms where half of their paying customers have disappeared. According to farmers, it is also not possible to export a large part of the surplus food, since many international customers are also struggling with the pandemic and the recent currency fluctuations make exports unprofitable.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Paul Allen, co-owner of R.C. Hatton, who had to destroy millions of pounds of beans and cabbage on his farms in South Florida and Georgia.
The widespread destruction of fresh food – at a time when many Americans are financially injured and millions suddenly unemployed – is a particularly dystopian turn of events, even by the standards of a global pandemic. It reflects the profound economic uncertainty that the virus brings and how difficult it has been for large sectors of the economy, such as agriculture, to adjust to such a sudden change in how it works.
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.
“It takes time to buy from a whole new group of farmers and suppliers, it takes knowledge, you have to find the people who are developing contracts,” he said Janet Poppendieck, an expert on poverty and food aid.
The waste has become particularly heavy in the Dairy industry in which cows have to be milked several times a day, regardless of whether there are buyers.
The main consumers of dairy products, such as public schools and cafes, have almost disappeared, and milk processing companies have fewer customers at a time when cows are the fastest producing milk. According to the International Dairy Foods Association, about 5 percent of the country’s milk supply is currently being dumped, and this amount is expected to double if closures are extended in the coming months.
Before the pandemic, the Dairymens processing plant in Cleveland produced three loads of milk or about 13,500 gallons for Starbucks every day. Now the Starbucks order is limited to one load every three days.
For a while after the pandemic broke out, the plant collected twice as much milk from farmers as it could process and kept the excess in refrigerated trailers, said Brian Funk, who works for Dairymens as a liaison with farmers.
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.
To reuse these plants to add cheese to the 8 ounces. Bags sold in grocery stores or bottle milk in gallon jugs would require millions to invest. At the moment, some processors have come to the conclusion that it is not worth spending the money.
“It’s not that restaurant demand has gone forever,” said Matt Gould, a dairy industry analyst. “Even if it were possible to reformat the format to make it an 8-ounce package instead of a 20-pound bag, the dollars and cents couldn’t come out.”
The same logistical challenges are difficult Poultry plants set up to distribute chicken to restaurants rather than shops. Chicken processor Sanderson Farms destroys 750,000 unhatched eggs, or 5.5 percent of its total production, each week and sends it to a rendering facility to convert it into pet food.
Last week, Sanderson Farms CEO Joe Sanderson told analysts that the company’s employees had even considered euthanizing chickens to avoid being sold at unprofitable prices, although the company ultimately didn’t take the step.
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.”