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What life looks like coming out of COVID-19 for the Wisconsin dairy farmer

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Posted at 5:41 PM, Jun 29, 2021

THORP, Wis. — The Wisconsin dairy farmer has faced down two crises in the past few years: a surplus of product that has led to falling prices, and the pandemic.

It has caused farms across Wisconsin to close up at a rate of nearly two per day in the last year. Marieke Penterman of Penterman Farm has survived both, but she says just barely.

“We had a hard time paying bills,” said Penterman.

We first met Penterman last fall in Milwaukee. She was donating cheese from her farm to the Hunger Task Force to help people facing food shortages from COVID-19. She talked about how devastating it was to see dairy farmers dumping milk.

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Marieke Penterman of Marieke Gouda, holds up cheese her farm is handing out at the Hunger Task Force on September 3, 2020.

The Hunger Task Force got donations from the public and bought cheese, milk and yogurt that were going to be thrown out by producers.

“We’ve all had a difficult 16 or 18 months, and when the COVID came in March of 2020, we lost 50% of the food service market. That’s almost half of the cheese in Wisconsin that goes into food service,” said Patrick Geoghegan of Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin.

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Marieke Penterman (left) carries a bag of food to a car getting a donation from the Hunger Task Force on September 3, 2020.

That helped farmers like Penterman make it through. Wisconsin’s dairy farms have been in crisis for a while. In 2019 alone, 780 dairy farms closed across the state, according to the Farm Bureau. In 2020, the Farm Bureau says there were 610 closures. Overall, that’s a rate of nearly two per day.

The Farm Bureau reports dairy farmers have been struggling with low milk prices from supply outweighing demand. Penterman says it’s made even worse by the cost of taking care of cows.

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“High feed prices, low milk income, we have to see that we find a solution for those,” said Penterman.

Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin says a lot of little things need to change to help the industry. They want to see cheese exports increase. They also want plant-based products to not be labeled as milk or cheese products.

“We’d love to see the FDA enforce the rules that they have in place and not allow other products call themselves or trade on the good name of dairy,” said Geoghegan.

Penterman says they also need more people to continue to support local farmers.

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Marieke Penterman talks about the state of the dairy industry at her farm in Thorp, Wisconsin.

“You don't choose this profession, but you have a drive in you, and you have a certain love for dairy farming. So it's not, we're not driven by money but, at the end, we do need money to make an income,” said Penterman.

The Hunger Task Force is still running its program to support Wisconsin Dairy Farmers like Penterman who are struggling. You can donate to the Wisconsin Dairy Recovery Program here.

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