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East Tennessee dairies endure dire market amid COVID-19

The impact of the coronavirus is felt up and down the agricultural supply chain from the grocery stores, food service groups, back to the local farms.

LOUDON COUNTY, Tenn. — Dairy farmers in East Tennessee are trying to deal with a difficult downturn in the market as the COVID-19 pandemic drastically impacts supply and demand for milk.

So far, UT Extension said only a few dairy farmers in East Tennessee have had to dump milk, a sight that has been frequently shown at dairies in other parts of the country.

Although sales of gallons of milk and ice cream have gone up during the coronavirus pandemic, it does not come close to making up for the lost demand for milk, butter, and cheese created by restaurants and schools.

"It's just definitely unprecedented. We're seeing our markets fall day after day. And the biggest problem is there's no food service for us anymore. So milk and cheese and butter and all those things going into food service, it's just not there," said Sam Craun at Davis Brothers Dairy in Loudon County.

Credit: WBIR
Davis Brothers Dairy farm in Loudon County, Tennessee.

Craun and her husband took over Davis Brothers Dairy around 10 years ago. It was started by her father, Randy Davis, and his brother in the 1980s.

Craun's livelihood relies on a perishable product that is made for nearly immediate consumption. When there's a drastic shock to the demand for the product, the short-term impact is devastating.  

"It is the worry and anxiety of what our milk will be worth in two months. We are told what we are going to receive. And that price is dropping every day. It is looking like a 40 percent loss in May compared to what we received in January for the same product."

Credit: WBIR
Cows feed at Davis Brothers Dairy in Loudon County, Tennessee.

Craun and other dairy farmers have to keep the milk flowing and crops growing no matter what the market is doing at the moment.  This year's crops in the field will feed the animals next year.  As the sign says at the entrance to Davis Brothers Dairy, "It takes years to grow a glass of milk."

"COVID-19 has affected everything," said David Bilderback with UT Extension. "For the first quarter of 2020, receipts for agriculture in Tennessee were down around $370 million. And the thing about it is a farmer is going to keep farming. They can't change what they do. The cows still have to be milked. The calves still have to be fed. The crops still have to be planted."

Craun said you can help local farmers by purchasing brands that rely on local milk. For example, Mayfield relies on local farms for its milk and ice cream. You can look at the code on the carton to ensure it was made from milk in East Tennessee. The numbers 47-131 indicate the milk is from farmers in Tennessee for the plant in Athens. The code for the Athens ice cream plant is 47-225.

Credit: WBIR
Cows graze in the pasture at Davis Brothers Dairy in Loudon County, Tennessee.

Weigel's also announced in 2019 it would only sell milk that is produced at farms in Tennessee.

RELATED: April 26, 2019 - Weigel's will only sell milk that's produced in Tennessee

RELATED: April 2, 2020 - Dairy farmers begin to flush away milk due to coronavirus