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When disasters hit, dairies find strength in industry families

Jen Bradley for Progressive Dairyman Published on 11 December 2017
After Hurricanes Harvey and Irma

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma devastated areas of Texas and the East Coast, while wildfires scorched more than 8.8 million acres this past year alone.

Amid the death tolls and damage costs, there came stories of hope and neighbors helping each other, including efforts from the dairy industry.

Hurricane damage in Florida

“Farmers are highly involved in their communities,” says Jennifer Giambroni, director of communications for the California Milk Advisory Board (CMAB). “You depend on each other. The response by the dairy farmers and processors to the need has been tremendous to see. This is a group of very dedicated people.”

On the West Coast, she says the challenging weather patterns first brought flooding after a long drought and then a very wet winter last year. Now they are dealing with wildfires.

On the other coast, Colleen Larson has been assessing the damage caused by Hurricane Irma in southern Florida. She is a regional dairy extension agent with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Larson explains that from extreme flooding to power outages and major debris to clean up, weathering through a hurricane is no easy task for dairies.

Hurricane damage in Florida

“We’re going to feel the effects of it for several months to come,” she says. “These little things just add up to make ongoing issues.”

David Darr, president of Farm Services at Dairy Farmers of America (DFA), says the requests for help from member farms has increased across the country, not surprisingly. In North Carolina, a farm was impacted by a tornado.

Hurricane damage in Florida

“It’s catastrophic to farms,” he says. “Regardless of whether a weather situation is known to be coming days in advance, or it happens unexpectedly, I think it just is crisis mode for the farm, and their first concern is how to care for the animals.”

Finding safe haven in Florida

Larson couldn’t agree with Darr more. In Florida, she says dairies knew the hurricane was approaching and, while the surrounding towns and cities were evacuating, farmers were figuring out how to protect their cows from heat stress as well as dangerous winds, blowing at 100-plus miles per hour.

Tropical storm-force winds lasted from Sunday afternoon until mid-day Monday when Irma hit land in early September. Some farms shut down completely and didn’t milk cows, Larson says, while others pushed up their milking to an earlier time, hoping the storm would slow.

Safety measures were imperative, and maybe three people would go get the cows versus one, she explains. Generators were also a prized piece of equipment, and even some didn’t operate fully enough to cool milk, which had to be dumped.

Larson was charged with assessing damages in her area, which she says can’t be fully realized yet. When asked what the first impressions were after stepping out into the post-storm, she comments: “A lot of water.”

Then, there were the knocked-down grain bins, flooded commodity barns and roofs that “looked like someone had put it through a cheese grater,” Larson explains.

Today, the damage is estimated at $2.5 billion from the Florida Department of Agriculture, but those figures don’t calculate the calves lost, animals that became lame or suffered lost pregnancies from a variety of stress factors.

An industry responds

The response to natural disasters by the dairy industry has been instrumental in pulling farms through the toughest parts of recovery. Alltech alone raised and gave more than $142,000 in financial and crop/feed product support to those affected by Hurricane Harvey in Texas. A team of employees also helped herd cattle in the flooded area of Winnie, Texas.

In California, even as the wildfires raged, the CMAB reached out to Feeding America to provide dairy products such as cheese, yogurt and protein drinks to those affected in Florida and Texas. “We went to our processor partners and asked if we could get a truck and if they wanted to participate,” Giambroni says. “We were blown away by the response. We had a very short window, and we thought if we could fill a truck, we’d be thrilled. We filled two.”

DFA truck

In total, the trucks carried more than 70,000 pounds of dairy products, one truckful to each state. The Treasure Coast Food Bank in Florida and the Houston Food Bank helped distribute the items once they arrived.

Giambroni explains while milk is one of the most requested, but least donated, items for food banks, the CMAB decided to partner with Feeding America through the Great American Milk Drive. The CMAB’s Seals for Good campaign has committed $10,000 to each state (Florida, Texas and California) in milk vouchers.

Alltech's Hope

Darr says DFA also connected with Feeding America to raise funds for relief efforts, approximately $15,000 from members and employees across the country. He said they’ve been working with a group called Convoy of Hope, based in Missouri, to distribute shelf-stable dairy products to areas in need, even down to Puerto Rico. More than 50,000 pounds of products has been donated to disaster relief groups from DFA members and brands.

Teamwork gets them through

Darr says the crux of the support from any organization is the family attitude that runs through the dairy industry. “It’s such a small industry in the big picture, and we all need to watch out for each other, support each other in challenging times,” he says. “Even through our members are geographically dispersed and diverse, there is a strong alignment in values, beliefs, ethics and commitment to their operations.”

Jon Glanini

In Florida, Larson says this sentiment of “family” was evident before, during and after Hurricane Irma’s path crossed theirs. The area she oversees at the extension was completely out of gas before the storm, as many people were evacuating through their area.

People were making sure each other had generators, and she’s thankful suppliers worked to make sure farmers had enough diesel fuel, and the Department of Agriculture helped with the gas situation.

“Agencies helped a lot, but it was really the farmers helping each other that made the biggest difference,” she says. “They really came together. They were on the phone with every legislator they knew, emphasizing how important this was, and we even had a group text thread going with several farmers in the area.”

When one would get power, she says it encouraged the others there was a light at the end of the tunnel, somewhere.

Giambroni sees the same family atmosphere with the farmers in California, and she says while many of the dairies were lucky, “We love them because they have to think on their feet and pivot constantly.”

She says from storing livestock to moving feed, the dairy family relies on each other in these types of natural disasters. “We saw that with the floods,” Giambroni concludes. “We saw that with the fires. We saw it south with the hurricanes. People really network, share information and make sure everyone is OK.”  end mark

PHOTOS 1-4: Florida extension agent Colleen Larson was responsible for assessing damage from the 100-plus-mile-per-hour winds during Hurricane Irma. Photos provided by Colleen Larson. 

PHOTO 5: DFA brand, La Vaquita, donated more than 3,000 pounds of cheese to hurricane victims. Photo courtesy of Dairy Farmers of America.

PHOTO 6: Alltech’s Hope After Harvey campaign resulted in a donation of $42,607.12 to Texas Farm Bureau’s Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund. Pictured left to right are Brian Lawless, business development manager, Alltech; Si Cook, Texas Farm Bureau executive director/chief operating officer; Lee Pritchard, account manager for Ridley Block Operations, an Alltech company; Neil Walter, Texas Farm Bureau District 8 state director; and Randy Asher, regional sales manager for Alltech. Photo courtesy of Alltech.

PHOTO 7: Jon Gianini from HarbyrCo helped CMAB line up transportation for food bank donations. Photo courtesy of California Milk Advisory Board.

Jennifer Bradley is a freelance writer in Chilton, Wisconsin.

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