The Cheese Ministry

Jan 31, 2018

Dairy farmers are facing hard times due to a flooded milk market and low prices. At the same time, many hungry families lack quality protein in their diets. Now some congregations in Harrisonburg are hoping to help alleviate both problems with one ministry: cheese. WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz reports.

First, a sermon, because long before Virginia’s dairy industry, there was...Jesus.

MARK WHITE: We do feel called to do this because of the example that we have seen in Jesus.

Mark White is senior pastor at Harrisonburg Baptist Church.

WHITE: People know of the miracles of feeding the 5,000 and the 4,000. There are just so many different examples of Jesus using food to connect with people, to provide them with hope, meet a physical need, and then draw them closer to himself.

Hunger is a reality White and his parishioners try to alleviate a bit each week in their Saturday lunch program, but recently they also started thinking about another problem, too: struggling dairy farmers. Now, they’re buying cheese made in part from local surplus milk, and distributing it to the hungry.

[Sounds of the milking parlor]

To learn more about what dairy farmers are facing these days, I visited Randy Inman, a third generation dairy farmer. He farms east of Mount Crawford, milks several hundred cows. He knows too well the current financial reality of milk production.

RANDY INMAN: We have already seen several dairies go out in the area, and I will suspect that we will see several more that will get out of the dairy business because of the lack of cash flow.

He expects that for at least the first half of this year, his farm will be operating at a loss.

INMAN: We’re eating equity every month, because we cannot make the milk for what they’re paying us for it for the next sixth months, what they’re projecting to be paying for it for the next six months. So you’re eating equity, and some of the guys are like, “I’m old enough, I’m done eating up my equity, I’m just going to sell.” 

Eric Paulson of the Virginia State Dairymen’s Association said that one of every seven days’ worth of milk production in the U.S. is exported. He is concerned about proposed changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement, which could impact a significant portion of exports. He also said that when markets pay too little for dairy farmers to get by, a natural response is for them to produce more in order to compensate – which only furthers oversupply.

Paulson said that a lot of dairy farms across the country have ceased operating.

ERIC PAULSON: We’ve lost about 10 percent of the dairy farms in Virginia over the past 18 months. That’s a nationwide problem. Wisconsin, for instance, is losing about a dairy farm and a half every day. They lost 500 dairy farms last year. Pennsylvania, same thing.

And this year?

PAULSON: The beginning of 2018’s actually looking a little bit worse. There’s just too much milk out on the market.

At the same time,

JANE COLONY MILLS: It’s amazing how many people actually need food, or don’t have enough to feed their children on a monthly basis.

Jane Colony Mills is the executive director of Loaves and Fishes, a food pantry in Charlottesville that gives a week’s worth of food to about 1,500 families a month. She said the food that people and businesses donate to the pantry is “beautiful.” But she also has faced a reality: some foods are less readily available than others.

MILLS: It would be brilliant if food pantries, if people in the distribution industry could give healthy protein-filled meals on a regular basis, but our only consistent protein is beans. That’s the most consistent protein that we have.

[Blue Ridge Area Food Bank warehouse sounds]

In Verona, in the warehouse of the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, which distributes food for about 22 million meals a year across 25 Virginia counties and eight cities, CEO Michael McKee said that dairy products are hard to come by.

MICHAEL MCKEE: Those are items that are staples in every refrigerator in America, it seems. That means that it’s very difficult for food banks to acquire dairy and cheese as donations. When we get it, it flies off the shelves, but they’re just not very common.

It’s in this context – hungry people in need of protein, dairy farmers facing dire financial realities, and Jesus – that the cheese ministry emerged two months ago. The Harrisonburg initiative has raised funds to buy cheese for local distribution to those in need, from the Lanco-Pennland milk marketing cooperative, which has dairy farm members here in our area, and a cheese plant in Maryland.

KEITH TURNER: This is a totally different category than most people are familiar with.

Keith Turner works with farmers every day as the feed division manager for Rockingham Cooperative in Harrisonburg, and regularly attends Harrisonburg Baptist Church. He helped hatch the cheese ministry idea, and said many other church groups are participating, too, including congregations of Mennonites, Brethren, Episcopalians, and United Methodists.

He knows that the cheese ministry’s impact on the hurting dairy market will be incremental – but he said it’s really good cheese.

TURNER: This cheese is made with whole milk, salt, and enzymes. That’s it. There are no artificial additives to increase yield. This is pure. This is pure cheese.

As of last week, the ministry had raised more than $50,000. Already 4,000 pounds of cheese have been ordered and distributed locally, and Turner expects another delivery in February, this one of 15,000 pounds of cheese, with more to follow in the coming year.