Image: Fred Lopez

Jerry Dakin, who owns Dakin Dairy Farms in Myakka City with his wife, Karen, has a problem. "I can't turn these cows off," he says. And since sales of milk to restaurants have fallen sharply because of the shutdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the milk his cows produce is going down the drain.

Dakin estimates that his farm is dumping 7,000 gallons of milk, worth roughly $12,000, every day. And that's just the milk. Dakin also typically sells a lot of cream to restaurants. With much of that business gone, the dairy has also been forced to dump 3,000 gallons of cream, worth roughly $20,000.

"It's been like hell," Dakin says.

Dakin is not alone. Nationwide, milk supply exceeds demand by at least 10 percent, according to the National Milk Producers Federation, a dairy industry trade group, and the organization expects that gap to widen in the coming weeks and months.

"As most of the country shelters in place and large swaths of the foodservice sector come to a standstill, dairy sales outside retail channels have plummeted," says Jim Mulhern, the federation's president and chief executive officer, according to a press release. "Market prices have fallen rapidly, creating a crushing economic outlook for producers of nutritious, and necessary, milk and dairy products."

Dakin is currently home to 2,200 cows that need to be milked three times each day, and employs 70 people. Dakin says he has not yet laid anyone off or reduced their hours. The dairy's restaurant sales may be down, but you can still find jugs of Dakin milk at Detwiler's Farm Markets, Sprouts Farmers Market, some Publix locations and elsewhere.

One bright spot for the dairy? Community support. Dakin's farm store is open to the public 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, and Dakin says big crowds have stopped by to stock up on milk, particularly on Saturdays. Dakin calls the turnout he's seen "humbling."

"Right now is a real depressing time," Dakin says, "but it was like light at the end of the tunnel."

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