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‘Curds for Kids’ helps farmers, boosts school free meal programs

Dairy farmers had been kicked in the shins plenty of times before the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in March and took away prime sources for marketing of their products. So, when Lisa Artac saw a news bite on Facebook about a prospective way for a little of that possibly unused milk to get into the mouths of kids as squeaky fresh cheese curds, she found out what she could do to make it happen.

The result is expansion of the “Curds for Kids” program from Trempealeau County to Clark County in recent weeks. With the curds coming from Lynn Dairy and the money to make them coming from local donations, the program is enhancing the free meal programs being run by local school districts and simultaneously making use of some of that excess milk that could be unceremoniously dumped on area fields if no other market could be found.

Artac, who farms with her husband, Wayne, near Greenwood, is well aware of how the dairy industry has suffered in recent times. Last year brought poor weather and field conditions, but at least milk prices were beginning to rebound. Then came COVID-19.

The various stay-at-home orders implemented across the United States to slow the pandemic’s march greatly impacted many traditional dairy product sales, as restaurants closed and school cafeterias stopped burning through millions of pints of white and chocolate milk. At Lynn Dairy, cheese curd orders fell off the figurative table. A Trempealeau County farmer, in conjunction with a church in the Pigeon Falls area, first came up with the idea for Curds for Kids, and partnered with Lynn Dairy to make them. Artac saw that story on Facebook, and made some calls to see if it could be expanded to the county with the highest number of dairy farms in the state.

“It was like, what would it take?” Artac said.

After she and Eliza Ruzic made some contacts and got things organized under the auspices of the Clark County Food Pantry and Feed My People food bank, Clark County joined the Curds for Kids website. Monetary donations can be made there, and that cash is used to pay Lynn Dairy to make curds. The curds are then delivered to any school food service in the county that’s providing free meals for families while schools are closed for COVID-19.

“All the donations given in Clark County stay in Clark County,” Artac said. “The money never leaves Clark County and that was an easy way to help our neighbors here.”

As of late last week, the Curds for Kids Website had brought in more than $1,000 in local donations. That was to help buy the first school deliveries of 130 pounds for Granton on April 24 and 150 pounds for Greenwood early this week.

At Lynn Dairy, milk procurement manager Gary Bartz said the coronavirus has changed routines. The plant was continuing its daily cheese curd production runs, but on a limited basis. Prior to COVID-19, it was shipping from 2,500-3,000 pounds of curds per week to restaurants in western states like Colorado and New Mexico, but when restaurants closed, that market vanished.

“The business just fell right off because there is no demand for fried cheese curds anymore,” Bartz said.

Bartz said Lynn Dairy was willing to work with the Curds for Kids program, and sells them at a lower rate than usual. When possible, Lynn Dairy is delivering the curds to schools in Trempealeau County with its regular routes, but others are picking them up at the factory in Lynn. Some of the schools involved are Arcadia, Whitehall, Independence, and Alma Center, and now several in Clark County.

While Lynn Dairy makes the milled curds that are sold for retail consumption every day and continues to do so for its own retail store, that market is not a major revenue source for the company. Lynn Dairy makes 11 types of cheese, and ships from 40-50 semi-loads out every day. Having the extra sales through the Curds for Kids program helps the business keep running.

“It’s a small part of our business, but it all helps,” Bartz said.

Any help for farmers during this time is needed, Bartz said. Lynn Dairy buys milk from about 450 patrons — anywhere from 1.6 million to 1.8 million pounds per day — but the price has plunged again after the COVID-19 pandemic wrecked markets. After a brutal 2019, low demand and lower prices are the worst possible news for producers.

“It couldn’t be a worse time for farmers,” he said.

Artac said part of the original idea for Curds for Kids was to give dairy plants more ways to use the raw milk from farmers. Reports of farmers being forced to dump milk on fields or in their manure pits because factories couldn’t use all of it were scary, she said.

“The small farmers in Clark County, if we had to dump milk, that would be devastating,” Artac said.

Bartz said Lynn Dairy has been able to accept all milk from its patrons yet, but uncertainty over future markets has everyone worried.

“So far we have not had to ask any of the farmers to dump their milk,” Bartz said. “So far sales has been able to move cheese. We’re taking whatever we can get for it. “We’re just fortunate enough we have a large enough customer base that we can move it.”

Bartz has concerns going forward, especially the longer the community shut-downs last. With milk prices down, farmers may add cows to their herds to boost their individual milk checks, but that will be bad for the industry as a whole.

“That’s my biggest concern right now,” Bartz said. “We can’t take any more milk than we’re taking in right now. We’re at max volume. More milk — what am I gonna do with it? That’s gonna be a big problem.”

Curds for Kids will eat up some milk supply, with the dual benefit of having kids eat up nutritious, squeaky curds. Bartz said one hand helps the other.

“We’re more than happy to help,” he said. “It keeps us busy, too. We haven’t had to lay anybody off.”

For others to help, Artac said, the best way is to visit the Curds for Kids website and give money to buy more curds for more schools.

“We definitely need more donations,” she said. “We will be giving away cheese curds as long as we keep getting donations.”