This post is part of the COVID-19 Stories: Agriculture, Food, and Rural Stories project. This submission is from Jordan Hansen of Hansen’s Dairy.
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My name is Jordan Hansen, and I’m telling the story of how Hansen’s Dairy, a small dairy farm in Hudson, Iowa, adapted to business changes during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.
My family’s farm is designated a Heritage Farm, and the land has been in our family since 1864. Dairy cows have been milked here since the 1950s. In the early 2000s, Jay and Jeanne Hansen and their four sons decided to add value to the operation by beginning their own on-farm creamery. The first gallon of milk was produced and sold to the public in 2004. Our product line now includes milk, butter, heavy cream, cheese curds, ice cream, egg nog, and beef. We opened two retail stores, Hansen’s Dairy Waterloo (2006) and Hansen’s Dairy Cedar Falls (2007), where we sell our own products plus a variety of food and goods from other local farmers and entrepreneurs. We also offer farm tours, where we teach visitors how milk gets from the cow to their table. In 2019, we welcomed 9,100 visitors, a record high.
In 2020, that will look very different.
Mid-March was very unsettling as COVID-19 became the main news story. The World Health Organization declared the virus a pandemic on Wednesday, March 11; I knew things were serious when the NBA and NCAA suspended their basketball seasons on March 12. States began to lock down and shelter in place. That weekend, people all over the country began hoarding groceries.
While Hansen’s Dairy milk is available at Fareway and Hy-Vee grocery stores in the Cedar Valley, people were quickly finding that panic buying left dairy shelves empty in those stores. That led to customers either rediscovering or visiting our stores for the first time, looking for milk. We enjoyed a surge in demand for our milk as people stocked up on essentials. Being that our business is vertically integrated — and the cows don’t stop producing — we were able to keep processing milk and distributing it without issue. Things were chugging along.
A week later, things had ground to a halt. By March 17, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds had ordered bars and restaurants to close. Being that we supply dairy products to restaurants and coffee shops, that part of our business began to see reduced demand. Eateries had to decide if they would continue to stay open with carry-out and delivery only, or temporarily shut down. Schools in Iowa also closed.
As unemployment soared, so did the need for food assistance. Unfortunately, this was also about the time that word spread across the country that some dairy farmers had to dump their milk and fruit/vegetable growers had to plow under perfectly good produce because there was no way to get it to consumers. There were two primary reasons for this break in the distribution chain:
- Production employees couldn’t — or wouldn’t — work due to a virus outbreak or fear of outbreak.
- Processing plants who typically supply restaurants and schools suddenly had no buyers for their end product and couldn’t easily change their production capabilities to retail sales.
Most of the time people don’t think about the path food travels to get to their table. The ability to get food from the farmer to the American consumer has become so consolidated, streamlined and efficient that it’s usually taken for granted. But when there’s a crack in that process, things also go downhill quickly. Suddenly, Americans were seeing how interconnected the food system is, and how a broken link in the chain has a rippling effect. Plants that typically supply schools or the food service industry package foods differently than they would for retail sale. These specialized production lines are tweaked and calibrated for maximum efficiency. They can’t just flip a switch and change their packaging and distribution to go to retail buyers instead of commercial buyers. Who wants 5 pound bags of mozzarella cheese, 8 oz cardboard cartons of milk, or individual pats of butter in their homes?
Here at Hansen’s Dairy, we feel fortunate that we process our own dairy products and have an established history and loyalty with our customers. Our plant is diversified enough that while our restaurant demand diminished a bit, we were able to put more products on the retail shelves and accommodate a different demand. Sometimes a small producer has an advantage over large-scale facilities — the ability to adapt quickly.
Another way we quickly improved our services was to offer online purchasing through our stores. Since we sell groceries, we were able to stay open as essential businesses. But as people became hesitant to venture out of their homes, we wanted to provide online grocery delivery and curbside pickup options. We were able to get our 200-plus items online and offer these services at both stores by March 30.
Meanwhile, our tour season would have opened April 1, but people were not permitted to gather in groups, so we delayed the opening until June 1.
As quarantine measures ramped up and people were being told to “just stay home,” we had another idea. Instead of customers coming to us, why not go to them? We decided to take our delivery truck to small towns in the area and sell groceries off the truck. We sold all of our dairy products and beef, plus eggs, ground chicken, potatoes, onions and yogurt from other local producers. We parked in a large parking lot in each town and used a drive-through format, allowing customers to stay in their cars and pay via credit card for a contactless experience. We wore masks and gloves, as did many of the customers who pulled up. The benefits of these events went both ways: The sales would provide additional income to make up for the tours we weren’t allowed to host, and customers would have a convenient, safe way to get some of those perishable essentials between larger grocery trips. The small towns and neighborhoods we visited — Grundy Center, New Hartford, Wellsburg, Jesup, Dike, Buckingham and Sunnyside Country Club in Waterloo — were very appreciative, and the community exposure rejuvenated interest in our brand.
I believe this pandemic was an eye opener to consumers, and hopefully people are now better able to connect the dots between the farmer and their table. When COVID-19 becomes a distant memory, I hope people will remember how we small producers rose to the occasion. When the large meatpacking plants shut down and meat became more scarce, people went to small hog and cattle farmers to inquire about buying directly from them. The pandemic illustrated that while the U.S. has one of the most efficient food systems in the world, problems can arise faster and hit harder when large, consolidated plants fail. They certainly have their place in feeding the world, but I hope people remember that during the pandemic, we small producers were out there feeding our neighbors.