The restaurant shutdown caused by the pandemic has hurt independent dairies in Illinois and prompted them to revert to practices that faded out in the 1970s and '80s: home delivery.
"A couple weeks ago we felt like we really bottomed out," said Matt Kilgus of Kilgus Farmstead in Fairbury, a fourth-generation, family-owned dairy.
Kilgus said at one point sales were down by more than 50%, but after marketplace adjustments they are down by only a third. A couple Chicago suburban food pantries also have begun distributing milk and Kilgus sells to them.
"I think the need could continue to grow as people are off work and out of work," he said.
Before COVID-19, Kilgus said he was selling 6,500 gallons of milk a week. At the low point, it was about 3,000 gallons. Now it's about 4,000, he said.
"A lot of our markets before were the restaurants and coffeehouses. So, we have shifted and picked up a few more retail outlets. And overall the retail outlets we're in are much stronger than they were before with most people staying in and eating at home," said Kilgus.
In some parts of the country, dairies have begun disposing of excess milk by spreading it on the land as fertilizer, said Kilgus, noting he has not had to do that, and in Illinois it has not been an issue.
"Just kind of the general pulse I have from the Illinois Milk Producers Association, I think producers are hanging in there and moving milk without having to dump," said Kilgus, who has allowed 35 cows to dry up from his herd of 150.
In Normal Township, the Ropp Dairy Farm and Ropp Jersey Cheese did not have to dry up any of its herd. Ken Ropp said they have 50 cows milking now and were naturally at a low point during calving season for some others in their herd of 130 when the pandemic hit. He hopes the timing works out that more cows will be milking in late summer when pandemic restrictions are lifted.
"When the first word came across the wires, we lost 40% just in restaurants alone. And the other thing that is compounding that right now is the loss of the Illinois wineries. We had a lot of cheese service throughout the state. And that ramped up to 45%," said Ropp.
Ropp Jersey Cheese sold to about a dozen wineries in Illinois. As with Kilgus and its milk, Ropp said grocery stores have made up for some of the drop in cheese sales.
"They're all ordering more cheese just because they got hit so hard initially," said Ropp. "The fortunate part for us on the cheese side is we can put stuff in inventory, unlike the bottlers. And so when the grocery stores started putting a cap on people buying no more than one or two gallons of milk, it didn't have a bearing on us, but it had a significant impact on the bottlers."
Ropp said current cheese sales are similar to the milk side, down by about a third.
They are making 300 pounds of cheese on a daily basis; it takes about a gallon of milk to make a pound of cheese, said Ropp.
"We're gearing up to do something a little different next week. We're going to do some delivery in McLean County within a 20-25 mile radius of Bloomington-Normal. We have to do something to build those numbers back up. And I think the tighter the restrictions on the public, the more we've got to be able to come to them. We have to be able to go from farm to porch," said Ropp. "And I think that's what we're going to have to do for the next month or two to make survival of it."
Ropp said the business is revising its website to include home delivery. They will deliver Kilgus-bottled milk and their own cheese in a throwback to dairy practices of decades ago.
"My initial thoughts are we could probably handle 10-20 customers on a daily basis," said Ropp. "That's with one of us staying home and delivering local while the other person is running the regular wholesale routes."
The Ropp Jersey Cheese store west of Normal remains open, and Ropp said workers will take products to the curb if people don't want to come inside.
"The golden question is what does the other side of this whole thing look like? These restaurants, it's going to change the landscape of Bloomington-Normal and McLean County. There's no doubt about that," said Ropp.
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