Dairy survives pandemic by helping those in need

Jun 18, 2021  | 7 min  | Ep4644

From adversity comes creativity and ingenuity. When a door closes, another may open or some will just build a new door. The Great Pandemic caused many operations and organizations to pivot to stay profitable or in business at all. John Torpy documents a dairy that was able to do just that. Producer contact torpy@iowapbs.org

In the spring of 2020, the COVID-19 virus cut the power line for the longest running economic growth period in U.S. history. Stay-at-home orders slowed economic growth to a crawl. According to the Congressional Research Service, between January and April of 2020, the nation’s businesses shed more than 22 million jobs.
In rural America, revenue streams for some small farms and businesses dried up.
Mike Naig, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture: ”What we saw was a need to help some of our specialty crop producers or on-farm processors with a marketplace there, the restaurants that they sold to the food service, uh, demand just absolutely fell off. And so what could be done to, uh, to help accommodate for that, you know, farmer's markets weren't able to function largely like they normally would expect. And so their marketplace was, was, uh, was significantly disrupted.“

One Iowa dairy saw the economy deteriorating and switched into survival mode. The owners of the small operation changed their revenue model to focus on serving those in need. As one of the only farmstead-based yogurt makers, Country View Dairy found itself uniquely positioned to keep its production line moving and continue to service their markets in seven Upper Midwest states. 
As the pandemic spread, the company’s 22 employees began sending products normally destined for refrigerator shelves in retail stores, to coolers in food banks and schools across the Midwest.
Bob Howard, Marketing Director, Country View Dairy: “USDA came up with the Farmers to Family Food Box program, um, which really benefited us in that we were able to actually still use some of those bulk containers in our smaller sizes and ship it out to distributors in the Chicago area. And then they could distribute it through their areas of distribution there to get it. They create these food boxes for people in need.” 

Country View Dairy is a small farm operation located near West Union, Iowa. The dairy’s owners, Dave and Carolee Rapson, are first generation farmers who moved to the area in 2002 to follow their dream of owning a dairy. The Rapson family are members of the Mennonite and Amish religious orders, and preferred to not appear on camera for this story.
Nat Sound Break
Country View Dairy narrowed its focus and began supplying just its yogurt to food banks and schools. As they filled the orders from various federal food assistance programs, the Rapson’s realized their products were getting noticed in venues that had previously been out of reach.
Bob Howard, Marketing Director, Country View Dairy: ”Normally, we send yogurt to maybe a dozen schools and, and it was over 30 schools in Iowa./ Schools that we've never worked with in the past. So that was, that was great. In fact, it built some new relationships, uh, and we've got orders for this new school year, regular orders for some of these same schools. So it's been, uh, it's really been a good thing there.”

Some of the new connections were made when the Iowa Department of Agriculture began encouraging schools and food assistance agencies to purchase local food products. The agency hoped to keep businesses afloat that were hit hard by the global pandemic while simultaneously helping those who were food insecure. 
Mike Naig, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture: ”We use some of the CARES Act money to help try to, again, reconnect to, to connect producers with, with buyers locally. And one of those things was to incentivize or provide, uh, uh, some match dollars for schools to be able to buy local. And we know that many of our dairy producers in particular were, uh, uh, took advantage of that opportunity and saw a tremendous increase in their sales.”

Jessy Sadler, Director of Nutrition Services for the Urbandale Community School District in Urbandale, Iowa used USDA funds to help find local food products for her free meal programs.
Jessy Sadler, Director of Nutrition Services, Urbandale Community School District: ”We received $10,000 through the CARES act money. It was a grant that we got awarded and we sourced that from Country View Dairy farm, and we brought the yogurt in and kids absolutely loved it. So we continue sourcing it. We're adding it to our summer meals and then starting next year, we're also going to add it to our breakfast menu.”

Sadler has continued to purchase Country View Dairy products even though USDA assistance programs have expired. Since March of 2020, her staff has handed out over 500,000 free meals at the seven locations served by the Urbandale School District.
Jessy Sadler, Director of Nutrition Services, Urbandale Community School District: “We're providing free meals to all students. Free breakfast and a free lunch, but at the same time, we're focusing on the nutritional part of it. So we're providing all fresh fruits and fresh vegetables. We're making sure it's a hundred percent, whole grain.”

Sadler is using her recent purchasing experience as a template for procuring other local products.
Jessy Sadler, Director of Nutrition Services, Urbandale Community School District: “…that way we make sure that kids are actually learning what Iowa local food is. And we're promoting that part of our farm to school initiative as well/ Our plan is to make sure a hundred percent of the breakfast and a hundred percent of the lunch menu is only Iowa local sourced items.“

Howard is happy about the part Country View Dairy played in supplying food where it was needed and hopes the new relationships built during COVID-19 will continue.
Bob Howard, Marketing Director, Country View Dairy: 
”People are trying it for the first time saying, ‘Wow, this is, this is great yogurt.’ ‘I didn't know such a product like this existed out there.’ And, uh, a lot of these people have never been unemployed or they certainly have never gone to the food bank in their life. And things are, uh, things are getting,/and be in a position to go to the grocery store and, and purchase the locally made items like that, that they find in the food bank box.”

For Market to Market, I’m John Torpy.

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