Some of Erath County’s leading dairy producers are struggling to deal with the downturn in their business as a result of the COVID-19 precautions.
The economic impact of COVID-19 on businesses across the nation also has Erath County’s milk producers extremely concerned about how long the situation will continue.
An April 6 online article by Business Insider states, "Supply chain disruptions are to blame for the thousands of gallons of milk going to waste."
That followed a Reuters News report that stated, "Mass closures of restaurants and schools have forced a sudden shift from those wholesale food-service markets to retain grocery stores, creating logistical and packaging nightmares for plants processing milk, butter and cheese."
The Business Insider article reported that some nationwide grocery outlets had been limiting how much milk customers can purchase.
The Empire-Tribune spoke with three of Erath County’s leading dairy producers about their outlook on the situation.
Veldhuizen Family Farm of Dublin, the 2019 winner of the Empire-Tribune’s Best of Erath award for Best Dairy, is trying to deal with a severe impact on its cheese business.
Meanwhile, Blue Jay Dairy of Lingleville and Triple S Dairy of Stephenville are also facing major challenges.
This is the second in a series on the topic, following an interview that was published in Saturday’s E-T with Darren Turley, the executive director of the Texas Association of Dairymen.
VELDHUIZEN FAMILY FARM
Stuart Veldhuizen and his wife, Connie, produce about 100,000 pounds of cheese in a good year — but this is definitely not one.
"This COVID-19 thing hit us pretty broadside. Our major market is high-end restaurants, and sometimes to distributors," Stuart Veldhuizen said, noting that they started their artisan cheese business 18 years ago. "It has made a huge impact. Those (types of restaurants) are all closed up. Our income has dropped probably 80 percent."
Veldhuizen Farm has eight employees and makes 25 different types of cheese, currently using 55 milk cows. Their top seller is their creation called "Redneck Cheddar."
"It’s pretty devastating when you’re the maker of specialty products like this. We’re more greatly impacted," he said. "We literally have not had a truck come on our yard to pick up anything (since the shutdown began). We usually have trucks coming on the yard weekly. It’s just been shut off."
The farm, at 3364 County Road 299 about five miles from Dublin, also features a walk-in farm store called the Veldhuizen Cheese Shoppe (phone: 254-968-3098). In addition to cheese, the shop also sells meats, eggs and yogurt products to the public.
Even if the economy opens back up soon, Veldhuizen fears that the retail marketing side of his business won’t rebound quickly. He is hearing more and more chatter that some restaurants won’t be able to survive the wait.
"To get our market back, it’s going to take a long time," Veldhuizen said. "It’s not a pretty outlook at all. Our costs continue the same. What are we going to do with our inventory?"
Veldhuizen said that they are not part of any of the various milk producer co-ops, leaving them without that type of support. He isn’t sure about the future.
"I don’t know, to be honest," he said. "It looks pretty sparse right now. It depends on how long it goes. To regain even 50 percent will probably take the rest of the year. I don’t foresee it. It looks pretty bleak."
Asked if he is considering expanding his business by opening up farm shops in other areas for walk-in business, Veldhuizen said that would cost about $700,000 to $800,000 to open each outlet.
Veldhuizen compared the suddenness of the impact to getting kicked in the teeth.
"It takes capital," he said of the expansion possibility. "If we had had advance notice, we could have planned. We’re looking at things, but you have to have something that’s viable."
Veldhuizen said he understands that COVID-19 is causing deaths in parts of the population, but thinks that the magnitude of the statewide restaurant order shutdown went too far.
"Where does it end? I think it was very much overkill," he said. "It’s good to be concerned, but to shut down the whole economy … there’s been bigger threats to our society than this one. I don’t like seeing people die, either."
TRIPLE S DAIRY
Marten Stoker’s son, Blayne, along with Ruurd’s sons, Jayden and Colbe, help with the farm work at Triple S Dairy, and there are four employees.
In addition to having approximately 650 milk cows, Triple S Dairy has a few beef cows, and also grow wheat, sorghum and native grasses.
"At the moment, we don’t have to dump milk," said Marten Stoker, who along with his brother Ruurd Stoker has owned and operated Triple S Dairy of Stephenville since 1993. "Our co-op (Dairy Farmers of America) is asking every member to cut back production by 10 percent in April, compared to March. About this time of year, production is down anyway. We can dry off the cows a little early."
Starting the dry period early for the cows is a method dairy farmers are using in an effort to avoid having to dump out excess milk that doesn’t currently have a market because of the industry downturn.
"I have hope that it’s going to get better pretty soon," Marten Stoker said. "Part of the problem is that a lot of milk was going to bulk cheese to restaurants. You can’t convert that to bottled milk.
Stoker said he isn’t aware of any retail grocery stores in this area that are limiting sales of milk and cheese.
"I’m hopeful that in a few months everything is going to get somewhat back to normal," Marten Stoker said.
BLUE JAY DAIRY
Johan Koke, the owner/operator of Blue Jay Dairy near Lingleville along with his wife Sonya, have about 1,800 milk cows. He said that they are currently doing about 10 percent less business than last month, but so far has not had to dump unsold milk.
"Everybody is dealing with the situation — the whole economy," Koke said. "It’s a scary time for everybody. This is just a whole different situation with the coronavirus. We always have to deal with prices going up and prices going down."
Koke noted that the other difficult time for the dairy industry in recent years was in 2009.
"I hope we’re going to survive," Koke said, adding that that help from the government could be a key factor. I encourage more people to eat more cheese and drink more milk. It’s a good, healthy product for everybody."
Like the Veldhuizens and Stokers, Koke is feeling uncertain about the future of the business.
"We still don’t know what’s going to come out of this, or what effect it’s going to have on the economy," he said. "It’s a whole different ballgame."