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Remember the farmers behind the food, even after pandemic

Heidi Fischer
Kevin Costner in "Yellowstone," which concludes its third season Sunday on the Paramount Network.

Like many people in agriculture, I was quickly sucked into the television series “Yellowstone” starring Kevin Costner as John Dutton, the patriarch of a large ranching family. Dutton, a rancher out West, fights to keep his rights to ranch and raise cattle while fighting off urban sprawl, all while trying to hold together what remains of his family.

The show has plenty of drama and, of course, a dash of a love story. At the end of Season 2, viewers were left feeling that the worst was behind Dutton and his family, and that Season 3 would be more promising for ranching and for John himself.

I can’t help but to see similarities to how many of us in the dairy community have felt this year. After 4½ years of low milk prices, sluggish markets and trade deals that didn’t seem to ever find a conclusion, the worst was behind us. Our year of hope was 2020. The horizon was glimmering with the promise of rising milk prices, secure trade deals and more favorable weather patterns.

Then COVID-19 hit.

Overnight the markets reacted to the fear. We saw restaurants and food delivery shut down and people panic-buying at grocery stores. The terms “essential worker” and “safer at home” became regular parts of our language. People in sectors like health care, energy, public safety, communication and information technology, transportation and logistics, and food and agriculture were looked upon to keep going. They were not able to shut down.

We also saw demand for fluid milk, blocks of cheese and butter jump. Fearful they wouldn’t have enough to go around, stores started to limit the quantity.

Behind the scenes, food processing facilities and transportation experts were figuring out ways to get the products from their storage facilities to customers as quickly as possible. That meant determining how to repackage food intended for restaurant use ready for retail stores. The whole distribution system basically stopped and changed directions.

All the while, farmers kept farming. Kept milking and caring for their cows. Kept wondering what lie ahead. The future was so uncertain, but we knew we had a country to feed, and now was the time to rise up and meet the challenge with grace. Farmers had low prices thrown at them, requests to dump milk, mandatory herd reduction orders — all reasons to give up. But we clung to hope that the pandemic would only be temporary. That, just as we had done for the past 4½ years, we would persevere and prove that despite all the factors working against us, customers could depend on a consistent and safe supply of food. And we did just that.

As the ranch hand character Lloyd Pierce said in “Yellowstone,” (Season 3, Episode 1), “Makes you wonder, who’s gonna feed this world when there is none of us left?” Dutton responds with a chuckle, “Nobody, Lloyd. World is just gonna go hungry.”

The next time you reach for a container of milk, pound of butter or block of cheese, I encourage you to remember the farmers behind the food. The ones who have ridden out every sort of catastrophe, and are still here. Providing for you.

Heidi Fischer

Fischer, a dairy farmer that owns Fischer-Clark Dairy Farm in Hatley, Wis., serves on the board of Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative, which represents farmers throughout the Midwest on federal policy issues. Edge is among the top cooperatives in the country based on milk volume.