Marieke Penterman, originally from Holland, is the co-owner with her husband, Rolf, of Marieke Gouda, in rural Thorp, Wis. The award-winning gouda cheese company employs 40 people and has its own dairy farm that produces milk used to make their cheese. The dairy farm was co-founded in 2002 with Rolf’s brother, Sander, and his wife, Amy.
That puts Marieke Penterman in a position to recognize what’s going on in the farming community, as the pandemic deals another blow to already struggling family farms. “You supply everybody with food, but a lot of farmers don’t even have food on their own tables,” said Penterman. “That’s so wrong.”
This year, Marieke Gouda is involved in the massive effort to feed people in Wisconsin – and to help keep the dairy industry going.
Through Hunger Task Force, a nonprofit based in Milwaukee that supplies food pantries and shelters, and a grant from Wisconsin Department of Agriculture Trade and Consumer Protection, 2,581 wheels (about 18 pounds each) of Penterman’s cheese will be distributed to families in need for Thanksgiving. Depending on size, each family will receive one to two pounds of gouda.
Marieke Gouda is sold across the U.S. at various Whole Foods, supermarkets, and specialty shops like Murray’s Cheese. It’s also exported to several European countries.
“We’re very grateful that we can contribute this way to Thanksgiving,” said Penterman, who says, as a Dutch woman she will probably use Thanksgiving as just another workday.
Hunger Task Force’s reach is huge. It distributes 10 million pounds of food annually and uses about 11,000 volunteers, according to executive director Sherri Tussler.
Some dairy farmers and cooperatives are relying on a nonprofit like Hunger Task Force to buy their milk, funded by grants or individual donors. Tussler said that Hunger Task Force has purchased milk and cheese from cooperatives that might have otherwise failed.
They’re part of a growing movement – farm to food bank – that pays farmers to supply food to people who otherwise might be hungry. In 2019, an estimated 35 million Americans lacked enough food to get through their days successfully; that number is expected to rise to 50 million in 2020.
The Changing Economics Of Dairy Farms
Dairy farms have been coping with declining demand for fluid milk, coupled with years of consistently low regulated market pricing dictated by a complex formula that includes the fluctuating rates of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
The economics of the dairy business have completely changed over time, too. Milk production has soared from 11 billion pounds of milk production yearly to more than 30 billion pounds since 1930, while the number of farms has decreased from 167,000 to fewer than 8,000 in that same period of time, according to the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin,
Between 1992 and 2018, over 94,000 family dairy farms closed their operations, a rate of 10 per day, according to the National Farmers Union.
It’s harder for small farms to compete – but some specialty markets and ancillary businesses, like Marieke Gouda, had been springing up. Dairy farmers started 2020 with optimism that signing of a new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada would widen international markets, and an easing of trade tensions with China would help, too.
At the beginning of 2020, Marieke’s sister-in-law, Amy Penterman, the vice president of Dairy Business Association, gave an interview to a local television station, WSAW.
“We’re just hopeful, and we have a lot of optimism on the horizon, we just hope to continue to build on that,” Penterman said. “Farmers are so resilient, and when times are tough—they just keep going…We’re gonna see through the end of the tunnel, and we’re gonna make it.”
Then came the pandemic.
The American Farm Bureau Federation, a trade group, reported on the impact on farms this spring:
When the pandemic prompted stay-at-home orders, the market for several crops disappeared almost overnight, causing prices paid to farmers to drop drastically. It came at a time when farmers were already facing economic challenges following two years of trade wars. Farm bankruptcies for the 12-month period ending March 2020 increased 23% from the previous year and are expected to climb higher as a result of the pandemic.
During the early days of the pandemic, some farmers had to dump thousands of gallons of their milk due to loss of food services demand, primarily schools and restaurants, and disrupted supply chains. Certain dairy sectors have slightly rebounded, some are even doing well, like smaller farms selling directly to consumers at famers markets, food coops and CSA’s (Community Supported Agriculture). However, even though the regulated milk prices have risen slightly, the dairy market as a whole remains precarious for most farmers.
“The farmers have been struggling now for years, they are in a crisis. And then this hit,” Marieke Penterman said of the pandemic.