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Farmers Struggling To Get Food To Consumers

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One of the effects of this pandemic has been that farmers across the country are having to deal with excess food now that restaurants and schools are closed. In some places, dairy farmers are dumping thousands of gallons of milk, and in some places, vegetable farmers are plowing their harvests under or abandoning them altogether. Meanwhile, there are reports of long lines at food banks and empty grocery store shelves.

We wanted to understand why that path from farmer to consumer seems to be breaking down, so we've reached out to Randy Romanski. He is the interim secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Secretary Romanski, thank you so much for joining us.

RANDY ROMANSKI: Oh, thank you for having me with you today.

MARTIN: Mr. Secretary, if you're a person who's spent your life feeding people, I can think of few worse feelings than having to dump perfectly good food. On the other hand, a lot of people will have had the experience in recent weeks of going to the grocery store and not being able to find what they're looking for - and, of course, as we know, many people are lining up for food baskets because they don't have any food at all.

So if there's a shortage of certain foods, why are farmers dumping food - or, in Wisconsin, milk? What's causing this? Can you explain this, as simply as you can?

ROMANSKI: Well, there's a disruption in the supply and demand of a product. So the example you gave in the lead-in is right. The - with the demand from schools and restaurants being way down, farmers don't have a place for that product to go. The product can't get through the supply chain to be processed, distributed and go to an end location because there's no place to buy that product, or there are limited places to buy that product. And as a result, it winds up an excess product.

MARTIN: So, for example, like, you're saying that people who are used to selling their milk to schools - they can't just sell it to grocery stores instead.

ROMANSKI: There's a production capacity. So milk that goes to schools is typically in smaller cartons or bags, and facilities are set up to handle that kind of processing. It's really difficult to dial in an entire processing line - to change from being producing that smaller product to be gallons of milk, pounds of cheese, butter, etc.

MARTIN: So yesterday, President Trump announced a $19 billion relief program to help farmers cope with this. The Agriculture Department will start buying meat, vegetables and milk from farmers and is supposed to distribute some of the surplus to food banks around the country. Have you heard from the Department of Agriculture about this program? And do you know how it's supposed to work?

ROMANSKI: In fact, the - April 1, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection sent a letter to Secretary Perdue asking the USDA to do just that - to purchase excess products that were available from farms across the country and distribute it to food banks. So even in advance of the Trump administration announcing this package, Wisconsin, the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, developed a partnership with the Hunger Task Force in Wisconsin and the dairy farmers in Wisconsin to make some strides in that direction.

I mean, our goal through all of this has been to try to protect that supply chain so that whatever product is being produced can find a home somewhere. And with unemployment in our state going from less than 5% to about 27% in a very short period of time, I'm assuming that they're seeing similar trends in other states. There's a lot of insecurity out there. There's a lot of stress out there. And it's really important that we find a way to link that product back to a final home. And so our agency has been working to connect the dots.

MARTIN: Have those dots been connected yet, though? You're saying this is still a work in progress.

ROMANSKI: Actually, fluid - the fluid milk arrived through the Hunger Task Force that they purchased on Friday. So they are starting to distribute that through their food distribution network. We've had discussions with the agriculture industry and other organizations as well. And we got a report from the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin yesterday that well over a million pounds of cheese has already been donated from every corner of the state. And that amount is growing by the day. And this is in advance of any program that would be delivered by the USDA.

MARTIN: That is Randy Romanski. He is the interim secretary of agriculture in Wisconsin. Mr. Secretary, we'd love to keep in touch with you. Thank you so much for talking with us.

ROMANSKI: Thank you for the opportunity. I appreciate the chance to be speaking with you today.

(SOUNDBITE OF II:LO'S "ALMA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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