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Pennsylvania Uses CARES Funds To Help Dairy Farmers

Lisa Rathk
Cows on pasture at the University of Vermont dairy farm eat hay in a Thursday, July 23, 2020 file photo, in Burlington, Vt.

State officials have disbursed more than $7 million to Pennsylvania dairy farmers to help them cover COVID-19-related financial losses.

Early in the pandemic, when schools closed and restaurants shuttered indoor dining, many dairy farmers were forced to dispose of milk packaged for institutions that could not be quickly converted to be sold to grocery store shoppers.

Those rapid closures turned the dairy supply chain “upside down for a while,” said David Smith, executive director of the Pennsylvania Dairymen’s Association. Some of this milk was shifted to charities, but some had to be discarded, he said.

“Folks didn’t understand why milk in particular was going to waste, but if there is an upside to the pandemic” it might be that people better understand how complicated our food system is and the logistics that go from getting it from a farm to your table, said Shannon Powers, a spokesperson for Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture.

“During this difficult time, there was an even greater appreciation for the role dairy farmers plays in our economy and to the families of Pennsylvania,” said State Sen. Elder Vogel, who chairs the senate’s Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee.

Farmers were eligible for $1,500 in direct assistance, and in some cases additional funds, state officials said. The money, from the federal CARES Act, went to 1,550 Pennsylvania farmers, state agriculture officials announced last week.

The aid is a big help, said dairy farmer Rick Ebert, of Ebert Family Farms. He knew several farmers who had to dump milk.

"Margins are very tight on farms these days. To have to milk the cow and then dump it down the drain, that’s devastating,” he said. "The cows still needed fed, those bills still came in…but there was no revenue from that milk being dumped. You just can’t shut a dairy cow off one day and turn her back on.”

According to the Harrisburg-based Center for Dairy Excellence, there are more than 5,700 dairy farms in Pennsylvania, and the commonwealth has more dairy farms than any state other than Wisconsin.

“Our dairy farmers and our farmers continued to work through the crisis to care for their animals, and …I like to think of them as unsung heroes because they are frontline workers that were still providing food through everything,” Smith said.

Kate Giammarise focuses her reporting on poverty, social services and affordable housing. Before joining WESA, she covered those topics for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for nearly five years; prior to that, she spent several years in the paper’s Harrisburg bureau covering the legislature, governor and state government. She can be reached at or 412-697-2953.