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North Okanagan-Shuswap dairies, farmers grapple shortages, impact of highway closures

Sicamous’ D Dutchmen Dairy increases production in response to demand
Farmers in B.C. worked together to help save livestock as parts of the Fraser Valley are under water due to devastating flooding says an association that represents the province’s dairy farmers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

It was a “hair straight back” kind of day at Sicamous’ D Dutchmen Dairy.

That is how owner Jake Dewitt described Thursday, Nov. 18, at the dairy, when it produced as much milk in one day as it normally does in one week.

“We tripled our volume yesterday…,” Dewitt said Friday, Nov. 19, while getting a bit of needed rest. “It was pretty much all we could actually do – in fact, I used up all the milk I had. I got an emergency shipment from the milk marketing board from some other farms and just used it all up trying to keep everybody here supplied.”

With the flooding and debris slides of Nov. 14 and 15 having shut down all major transportation routes in and out of the Lower Mainland, North Okanagan-Shuswap grocers have had a difficult time keeping their dairy sections stocked with milk, butter and other dairy items, which had shipped out of the Fraser Valley.

Dewitt said he hasn’t picked up any new customers – the increased demand is from current customers like Save-On-Foods and Askew’s Foods, which are unable to carry the volume of dairy products they normally have access to.

“We’re doing our best to supply all of our customers,” said Dewitt, noting that stores which normally just carry D Dutchmen’s product in its one-litre glass bottles are now ordering skids of four-litre jugs.

“I only supply them with milk in glass bottles usually because they have exclusive agreements with Saputo to supply them with their bulk milk, their four-litre jugs and stuff,” said Dewitt. “But of course, when they don’t have any milk on the shelf, their agreement with Saputo goes out the window.”

Askew’s Foods Dave Wallace is grateful for the support of D Dutchmen and Grass Roots Dairy in Salmon Arm, but said they’ve still had to put limits on what customers can buy as the local producers can’t provide the same volume Saputo does.

Read more: B.C. sending helicopters to deliver water to flooded farms: agriculture minister

Read more: Fraser Valley dairy farmers dumping 1000s of litres of milk every day

“(Jake) is trying to supply us with whatever he can and we’re very appreciative of that…,” said Wallace, adding he’d received word trucks might be able to get through early next week.

The highway closures have also had an impact on dairy cattle farms in the North Okanagan-Shuswap cut off from processing in the Lower Mainland. As a result, Jack McLeod, who operates an organic dairy farm in Salmon Arm, said he wound up having to dump milk for a couple of days.

“We got an email last night saying that the pick ups will resume as of this morning…,” said McLeod in an interview on Thursday, Nov. 18. “I suspect that milk is going to Alberta.”

The situation was the same for Henry Bremer, who operates a dairy farm with his sons in Enderby.

“Two days ago we did have to dump, we only had to dump once, but yesterday we did get picked up,” said Bremer, who is also the chair of the Kamloops Okanagan Dairy Association.

Bremer said there used to be processing facilities in the North Okanagan – at one time one in Vernon and another in Armstrong. However, they were closed and processing was centralized in the Lower Mainland. Bremer suggested a medium-sized milk plant would be suitable for the North Okanagan-Shuswap.

“Like a lot of industries around Canada, they’ve gotten big or they’ve gotten small, and the middle ground has been hollowed out and that’s sort of the size of milk plant that would be appropriate for here,” said Bremer. “It’s been tough to get people interested.”

Despite the financial loss involved in having to dump their product, Bremer and McLeod weren’t complaining given what their friends and fellow farmers in the Fraser Valley impacted by flooding are going through.

“None of us are really sure how it’s all going to shake out in the end,” said McLeod. “For the most part, like I say, we just can’t feel too sorry for ourselves when the guys in the Fraser Valley have just been ravaged. I just feel so badly for those guys.”

To customers waiting for a return to normal in their local grocer’s dairy section, Bremer asked for patience.

“I’m very thankful for the dedication of our consumers and we’re trying to work with everyone, which is a huge, complex system to get milk to your stores…,” said Bremer.

Dewitt is hoping a solution is found to the current shipping/processing challenges sooner than later.

“I appreciate a jump in business but I’m not set up for it and it’s not sustainable,” said Dewitt.
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