In early April, Pennsylvania dairy farmer Ben Brown got a call from his processor that they wouldn't be able to pick up his milk for a few days. A few days meant hundreds of gallons of milk from Brown's 70-plus Holsteins and Jerseys. Asked what he should do with all that milk, Brown was told to dump it.
Farmers all over the country are facing similar scenarios during the coronavirus pandemic as the food supply chain transforms. In many cases there's plenty of food but no transportation or re-packaging to get it to the people who need it. So farmers are forced to let produce rot in the field or throw away gallons of milk.
Brown and his wife Mary Beth weren't going to let that happen. Their Whoa Nellie Dairy had been in business since the 1700s. The farm is located in Acme, just south of Pittsburgh. They had been bottling and selling about a quarter of their milk in a small farm store with the rest sold to the processor. Sales weren't always good in the store, but they figured they'd spread the word and sell what they could. It was better than letting it go to waste, says Samantha Shaffer, a Whoa Nellie employee and close family friend.
So, Mary Beth posted on Facebook telling friends and followers that they were being asked to "dump down the drain" a total of 12 milkings. "We are totally disgusted by this kind of waste. (We also do not get paid for the dumped milk obviously.) We can only pasteurize and bottle 30 gallons at a time, but we are going to work around the clock to try and bottle as much as we can this week. We are REALLY going to try to not waste a drop!"
She announced that they'd open up the farm store with an extra day and more hours to sell directly to consumers.
She shared the post on a weekend and the next day the store was open was Tuesday. Shaffer wasn't supposed to be working that day but she got an "SOS" text from Mary Beth asking her to come in.
"The SOS was that they had a line of cars up the road that wanted to get the milk," she says. "They were shocked and in disbelief that this was really happening. She says to me, 'This is just milk, right?'"
That first day they sold out within hours.
Trying not to waste a drop
Just three days later, Mary Beth posted again.
"It's almost midnight here at Whoa Nellie Dairy and all is not silent. I'm answering messages and keeping myself busy until I wake up my husband Ben at 12:45am to start another batch to bottle ... The shock of the last couple days and the out pouring of love and support is something that we will not get over quickly! Stunned is pretty much the best way to describe how we are feeling," she wrote. "I just got to say THANK YOU to everyone that stood in the cold today. To the ones who didn't get milk and had to be turned away when we sold out...thank you for being understanding. If we hold steady this week, we won't have to waste 1 drop! That's the true accomplishment!!"
They've sold out every day since they've been open with people waiting patiently, the line often snaking a half mile or more up the road.
Some people have been driving from far away to purchase milk and others have been showing their support online.
"We drive almost an hour, stood in line for almost an hour in the rain. Would do it again in a heartbeat. The milk is that good!," wrote Sharon Bobich wrote on Facebook. "I would support other Farmers if they decided to sell directly to the public whether it be milk, cheese, meat and of course vegetables. It's good to know where these items are coming from. We owe everything to our Farmers. Thanks for all you are doing Whoa Nellie and continued success to you."
"Something I'm starting to see, a huggge positive impact of this whole pandemic... people as a whole finally reengaging with local resources," wrote Shaun Yasalonis. "You're story is an example, right. You're demand is going to be so high now even when we 'go back to normal' Awesome blessing in disguise! Keep grinding!
Keeping farms alive
Every single person who has stopped by to purchase milk has been nice and has kind words to say, Shaffer says. Even if they've waited in a long line and the milk has run out, they never complain. Many still come back a couple days in a row, hoping to be able to buy fresh milk.
"They're kind of bummed, but it doesn't stop them from coming back," she says. "I think a lot of it in the beginning was they wanted to support the farm and local businesses. But you also know exactly where the milk’s coming from. Everyone is getting milk that’s been bottled within 24 to 48 hours."
The dairy makes creamline milk, which is minimally processed. It has been pasteurized at a low temperature, but not homogenized or separated. That means the rich cream rises to the top and you have to shake it before you can drink it. It doesn't taste like the milk you buy in stores, Shaffer says.
"I think it’s better," she says. "It's richer with a thicker consistency."
The farm is selling whole white milk, whole chocolate milk, and whole strawberry milk in pints, quarts, half gallons, and gallons. They've had to limit how many products people can buy and had to upgrade from their 30-gallon vat to pasteurize milk to a 45-gallon vat. They're talking with a supplier about a 100-gallon vat, Shaffer says, but that won't happen until late summer or early fall.
The Browns recently found out that their former processor had dropped them permanently, so right now the farm stand is their only way of selling milk.
In response, Ben Brown sent a message to friends and fans on Facebook, "At first I was mad and maybe a little scared but that all went away and a peace came over me knowing that God is with us. Over the last couple of years, hundreds of farmers have gone under but yet we remain. So I'm not mad at our old milk company they were simply a stepping stone from where we were to where we are going and I want to thank all of you who have stood in line for our milk. It is you who are keeping us going and keeping this family farm alive. Thank You!"
The farm owners and employees are amazed at the feedback they keep receiving from new fans as far away as Australia, the U.K., and Canada. Many ask if they'll ship milk. Instead, they encourage them to look locally.
"We try to encourage everyone to try to find their local farms who are trying to do the same thing and support them," Shaffer says. "We appreciate all the support. It's so heartwarming."