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Dairy Farms Say Business Up

Published Wednesday May 27, 2020

Author Patrick O’Grady, Granite State News Collaborative

Dairy Farms Say Business Up

Contoocook Creamery made its first delivery of milk this week to the New Hampshire Food Bank through a federal program created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jamie Robertson, who owns the creamery at Bohanan Farm in Contoocook with his wife and sons, said they delivered 900 gallons and expect to deliver about the same amount each week through at least July 1 and likely into the fall.

“For us to be able to pick up the contract and put milk in the food bank is huge for us,” Robertson said, adding that the bid they submitted priced the milk lower than the price to stores. “We are now processing about 25% more than we used to, so it is a big contract.”

The creamery is a subcontractor under a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) contract awarded to the Organization for Refugee and Immigrant Success (ORIS), an organization in Manchester that aims to increase access to healthy foods. ORIS will likely begin supplying the food bank with fresh produce in July, said Jameson Small, the project manager for ORIS’s Fresh Start Farms.

The USDA program - Farmers to Family Food Box Program – is through a grant under the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security), passed by Congress to address the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Milk producers were hit hard when restaurants and schools were forced to close, eliminating a major customer base for dairy farms and other farmers.

“It rattled the whole supply chain,” Small said.

As the price paid to farmers for milk plummeted, surplus milk was dumped all over the country. Robertson said at one point some 70,000 gallons a day were being dumped, though he said his dairy was fortunate that it did not have to resort to that action. However, Contoocook Creamery was told to cut production 6% by the dairy co-op, Agri-Mark. The other big co-op, Dairy Farmers of America, forced farmers to cut production by 15%. Because of lower demand, milk prices fell from $20 to $13 per hundredweight, an industry measurement. That affected all dairy farms, Robertson said. However, he said the market has come “back into balance” and milk isn’t getting dumped the way it was in March and April.

Small said the contract with the USDA has three phases, with the first phase ending June 30. He fully expects ORIS will be allowed to continue with phase 2 and deliver produce and milk into the summer and fall until the last phase ends Nov. 30. Because they cannot deliver produce now, Small said the subcontract with Contoocook Creamery was critical.

“If not for the milk contract, we probably would not have been considered,” he said. "Milk is what saved us."

ORIS, which assists refugees and immigrants interested in starting their own farm, became aware of the program through regular Zoom meetings with the NH Food Alliance and quickly put together an application.

Small said the USDA set a goal of buying $150 million worth of dairy products, $150 million of fresh produce, and $150 million of chicken and pork.

“It wanted to alleviate the stress on the supply chain with the closure of schools and restaurants,” Small said. “It puts money into farmers’ hands and relieves the pressure on local food banks.”

ORIS will supply produce from its own Fresh Start Farms as well as other farms it is working with throughout the state in Derry, the Kearsarge Food Hub in Warner, Hollis, and in the Seacoast area. Some of the boxes will be packaged and delivered by ORIS to the NH Food Bank. Others will be packaged by the participating farms and given to local nonprofits trying to meet the increased demand for food, a result of a dramatic increase in unemployment because of the pandemic.

“We hope to get to 200 boxes a week plus milk if everything goes as planned,” Small said.

The contract values each box at $26 and Small said the total contract value for all three phases is $330,000.

Eileen Groll Liponis, executive director of the New Hampshire Food Bank, said demand from the 400 agencies they work with throughout the state has increased 50% since the pandemic’s effects told hold locally in mid-March. The food bank’s mobile pantry will deliver a 46-pound box of food to 1,000 families this weekend.

Groll Liponis said that because grocery stores are experiencing supply issues and demand pressure there is less “salvage” for the food bank to purchase, so the milk delivery and anticipated produce later this summer is important.

“This will help us tremendously,” Liponis said. “It is huge.”

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