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Wisconsin dairy farmers hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak

March 30, 2020 GMT

MILWAUKEE (AP) — The coronavirus has delivered a severe blow to Wisconsin dairy farmers who rely on selling milk to restaurants, schools and the hospitality industry.

About one-third of Wisconsin dairy products, mainly cheese, are sold in the food service trade, the Journal Sentinel reported.

“The coronavirus outbreak has caused milk prices to drop down to unprofitable levels this spring, right when we need money to buy supplies for the spring planting season,” said dairy farmer John Rettler of Neosho, president of FarmFirst Dairy Cooperative in Madison.

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Dairy farmers are concerned about processing plants shuttering or slashing production since their product is perishable.

Baraboo cooperative, Foremost Farms, recently asked its members in a letter to brace for scenarios that may include dumping milk or scaling down the amount they produce, noting “the extreme nature of the coronavirus situation and the impact on the economy.”

Farmers’ milk prices gradually returned to profitable levels last month after struggling for more than five years. About 820 Wisconsin dairy producers quit in 2019 alone, a rate of more than two per day.

But Rettler said that optimism has faded due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Now, farmers are simply looking for ways to ensure their milk continues to get picked up in the coming weeks as the situation continues to play out,” he added.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

President Donald Trump on Friday signed an unprecedented $2 trillion economic stimulus package that comprised of $14 billion for supporting farm income and crop prices and $9.5 billion for specific producers that included dairy and livestock farmers. It’s still unknown how the money would be allotted and when farmers would receive it.

“It is hard to have perspective when the rules of how things work are continuously shifting under your feet,” said Kevin Bernhardt, a dairy economist at University of Wisconsin-Platteville.

Darin Von Ruden, a dairy farmer from Westby and president of the trade group Wisconsin Farmers Union, still believes the stimulus package may help their businesses stay afloat.

“Markets are evaporating as restaurants and schools shutter and exports stall,” Ruden said. “Farm labor is in short supply with borders closing and falling commodity prices are decimating farm income. Without this important support, many farms won’t be able to last the summer.”