Regardless of a pandemic, cows still need milking.
“Milk is our crop, so every day is harvest day on a dairy farm,” Sam Schwoeppe explained.
Sam, her husband, Darren, and their two adult sons, Wyatt and Ethan, operate a 116-cow dairy farm near St. Henry. Each day starts at about 5 a.m. with feeding, milking, cleaning, and bed fluffing (cows get their stall beds fluffed daily); all designed to “keep the cows as bored and as comfortable as possible.”
“This whole COVID-19 thing has completely disrupted everyone’s lives, but for the cows, the routine is the same,” Sam said, adding that every day on the farm is focused on taking care of cows in one way or another.
There have been some disruptions in the supply chain for certain items needed on the dairy farm. It’s become hard to find gloves, for example, and although their farm doesn’t rely on ethanol byproduct as an additional feed source, the shutdown of bioethanol plants in response to low oil prices is making that food source scarce for those farms that do use it.
“We aren’t one of those exciting farms with major impacts from the coronavirus,” Sam pointed out.
Their farm produces milk for Prairie Farms, who, according to Sam, is working their hind ends off so they don’t have to dump out any milk.
Along with helping run the family’s dairy farm, Sam’s full-time town job is as the dairy manager for Feeding America. The national organization operates a network of 200 food banks associated with about 60,000 community partners across the country. Those partners consist of soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and any of the myriad of agencies providing relief for food-insecure populations. Locally, Shared Abundance, Community Food Bank, and Jasper Apostolic are some of those community partner agencies.
In her position, she connects dairy processors like Grande Cheese, Saputo and Sargento — last week she was attempting to facilitate the distribution of 1.5 million pounds of cheese — with food banks. A job that has taken on a whole new level of dedication since the coronavirus response began.
Sam saw the beginning of the impact the coronavirus would have on food demand as early as January. She was part of a committee planning a conference set to occur in Seattle in April. The food banks she was working with there began seeing demand for food spike as Seattle reacted to the coronavirus that was quickly spreading through the county and city.
While New York and Seattle began to battle the pandemic and work with the increased demand on food banks, the rest of the country had more time to respond — although a recent report from the Indiana State Department of Health indicates the coronavirus was likely active in Indiana much earlier than thought. As the rest of the country rolled out shutdowns in March, demand everywhere began growing at about a 10 percent per week rate. Last week, the demand on food banks across the country was about 70 percent higher than it was this time last year.
“We (Feeding America) were getting ready to begin a deep dive study to find out how much refrigeration capacity there was and how much demand there was for dairy across the U.S.,” Sam explained.
With dairy filling a unique position of supplying essential nutrients missing in the diets of food-insecure families and children, there is a national demand for dairy at food banks, but refrigeration is an issue.
Before the study could start, schools and restaurants began to shut down, and an excess of dairy developed in the supply chain. The study became a live exercise.
“This excess needs to find a place to go,” Sam said. “So, instead of doing a theoretical study of what the food banks can handle, we are actually testing the capacity.”
“In the dairy industry, there is a very strong, organized response to what is happening across the country.”Sam Schwoeppe
Since then, Sam has been working to connect food banks with any excess dairy she has available. Typically that process begins when a co-op contacts her saying they have a certain amount of milk they would like to donate. She gets on the phone to her contacts in different regional organizations to let them know so many gallons available if they have a need at food banks in that area. Word is passed on to the food banks who, in turn, reach out to the entities they support to see how much they can use — this is done with simple questionnaires using a Google form or similar software. Truckloads are calculated — a truckload is 4,500 gallons — and then Sam takes that information and connects them back to the co-ops to arrange distribution.
Last week, Sam worked with food banks in Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, California, Colorado, Kansas, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, New York, Ohio, Virginia, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.
In her own words, her work is on steroids in response to the coronavirus.
While the media has sensationalized images of producers dumping milk out or spreading it over fields, Sam explained these activities are isolated incidents occurring in certain regions as processors lower their demand for dairy. This is not what is happening to the vast majority of the excess milk as dairy producers and processors respond to those hated words, the new normal.
“It’s dependant upon whether the processor they are supplying can do something with the milk,” Sam explained adding that dumping isn’t widespread. “In the dairy industry, there is a very strong, organized response to what is happening across the country.”
There is a lot of innovation going on in the dairy industry to meet the higher demands on food banks but also develop new markets and distribution models. Sam explained this is leading to new distribution systems that will carry over as restaurants and schools begin to reopen.
A fourth-generation dairy farmer, Sam’s love for farm life is entrenched in her upbringing on her own family’s farm in Warrick County. Her parents, Martha and Willie Ingram, were also foster parents. So growing up, Sam saw the direct impact of proper nutrition for some of the kids who ended up on the farm.
“I will never forget one little boy who was in such bad shape,” Sam said.
Sam, a teenager at the time, was struck by how this boy looked when he arrived in their home. “He was eight years old and had gray hair. His skin was flaking off, and his bones were sticking out. He looked like a little old man,” she explained.
He had been horribly abused, but Sam watched his hair turn back to red, and his skin heal and freckle over in about a month as he gained access to nutritious food and a supportive foster family. He ended up staying with them for about two years before being adopted.
There were other moments of clarity for her growing up with these children coming into her home. Like when the foster children were surprised to be invited to eat at the dinner table with the rest of the family.
“It just, like, blew them away,” Sam said. “These kids were used to literally eating the leftover scraps that you give the dog.”
With that foundation of recognized need and appreciation for those facing food insecurity as well as a love for cows — it’s true, Sam has been an advocate for the nutritional impact of dairy most of her life.
“It’s my goal to access the nutrition in milk and make sure it’s going to nourish people,”Sam Schwoeppe
“A cow is a miracle,” she said.
While hosting a veterinarian from Egypt through a program with IU, she learned from him that in the Koran, there is a verse describing the miracle of cows eating grass and turning it into a beautiful nutrient package (Quran 16:66).
“It’s my goal to access the nutrition in milk and make sure it’s going to nourish people,” Sam explained.
“But, not only do they provide all this fantastic food, this perfect nutrient package for us, cows are also economic engines,” she added.
She has an analogy that compares dairy farming to a tree. The cow is the trunk, and the roots are the inputs that support the cow. The seed that grows the feed; the products and equipment the farmer has to buy to support the cow; and all the items required to operate the dairy farm.
The cow produces the milk, and then the branches are the processors, the truck drivers taking the milk to the processors, the employees at Holland Dairy, and the truck drivers who deliver the milk.
Then, the leaves are all those access points for the public: the restaurants, the cooks, the bakers, the servers, the grocery stores, and their staff, and so on in a cycle that starts at the roots again.
The engine produces, the harvest continues, the producers churn out the product, and while her family keeps the cows bored at home, Sam works at the forefront of helping to feed the country facing a pandemic.