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NYS may buy excess food and dairy from farmers

New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets

Struggling farmers in upstate New York may soon get a reprieve from the state, which is considering a plan to buy products, like excess milk, that aren’t making it to the shelves in stores, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Sunday.

Farms in upstate New York are used to economic uncertainty, but the COVID-19 pandemic has added a new layer of anxiety to the mix, with many sources of revenue now shut down.

Restaurants, for example, have either been closed to the public in New York, or transitioned to a model of take-out only. With less demand for fresh produce and other products from those eateries, farmers have found it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.

Cuomo said Sunday that farmers have also lost a reliable source of revenue from schools in New York City, which have an agreement to procure their produce from upstate New York. That’s left farmers with more product than they can sell.

“One of the things is New York City schools bought a lot of the product from upstate New York because we worked very hard to develop that relationship,” Cuomo said.

There’s still demand in grocery stores for products produced in New York, but farmers have said that doesn’t make up for their losses with restaurants and schools being closed.

Without somewhere to sell their products, farmers have few options. Dairy farmers have started to dump milk they’ve produced, which isn’t unheard of. But many, before the pandemic, expected a relatively positive year for the state’s dairy industry.

Cuomo said the state Department of Agriculture and Markets is looking into ways the state could help farmers in the short-term, given that the state hasn’t set a date for when schools and restaurants will reopen. It’s possible that schools won’t reopen this year.

There’s a disconnect, he said, between the concept of stocking food banks for low-income communities while milk is being dumped by farmers in upstate New York. State officials are now looking at ways they can help, he said.

One option the state’s considering, Cuomo said, is to purchase food from farmers in New York who haven’t been able to sell it on the open market. Those products would then be sent where they’re needed, he said.

“That’s the exact issue we’re looking at and if there’s a way that the state can purchase, as part of these food bank programs for example, we will do that,” Cuomo said.

Farms have been allowed to operate as usual during the COVID-19 pandemic after the state deemed them an essential business. The federal government has offered aid to farmers, through forgivable loans and direct aid, but many have continued to struggle.

The New York Farm Bureau has asked the state, in recent days, to ramp up testing for COVID-19 in rural areas of the state, particularly at farms. That way, they said, they’ll be able to prevent a situation where farms are caught without enough workers to maintain operations.

David Fisher, the president of the Farm Bureau, also wrote in a letter to Cuomo last week that farms are seeking guidance for testing workers, and isolating them, given that many live on-site in congregate housing.

“We urge you to increase testing and treatment for COVID-19 in rural parts of New York with an emphasis on farms and processing facilities, for workers that may have been exposed to COVID-19 regardless if the worker is showing symptoms,” Fisher wrote.

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