INTERLAKEN — It pained Pete Messmer, head cheesemaker and owner at Lively Run Dairy, to learn that area farmers were dumping their cows’ milk because of a dried-up market due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
He also knew that area food pantries were encountering shortages because more and more families are out of work.
An apparent problem-solver at heart, Messmer asked himself, “How can we fix this?” His answer: Start a fundraising campaign to pay farmers for their milk, produce cheese at his dairy and donate the finished product to area food banks and beyond.
Messer started sharing a GoFundMe campaign Friday to raise money for his idea, which has been enthusiastically received. The $20,000 goal was reached by Sunday and Messmer then doubled it to $40,000. As of Monday afternoon, the campaign had raised about $31,000 from more than 480 donors.
Messmer said the donations will be used to pay area dairy farmers a fair rate for their milk and to cover cheese production costs at Lively Run.
Messmer noted Lively Run, which produces goat and cow cheese, already donates to local food banks in Interlaken, Ovid and King Ferry as part of its mission to help all people get access to good food.
“We’re going to start as local as possible and go outward as we go,” he said of the donations.
As Messmer understands it, the loss of school, college and other institutional markets has hit the dairy industry hard — and it’s mostly a packaging and production issue. At first glance it may not make sense that farmers have the milk but retail consumers in some places are being told to limit their milk purchases.
Messmer said he has read that some large plants that use milk for shredded cheese, for example, can only produce and package it in large-scale quantities for large customers — such as colleges, school districts or restaurant chains that are now shuttered — and can’t easily or quickly scale down.
“They are only geared for that kind of packaging,” he said.
But Lively Run, a small dairy, can produce smaller quantities.
“We can’t handle a gigantic amount but we can do what we can do,” he said, noting he already has a lot of inventory. About 50 percent of Lively Run’s sales are to restaurants, which obviously are not buying right now.
“We have mostly continued to buy the milk from our farmers even though we don’t have anywhere to put it,” he said. “We literally have it and we’d have to dump it.”
(Lively Run is still selling to its retail outlets/groceries and offers online sales at https://livelyrun.com/online-store/, with shipment straight to customers’ doors).
Because of its existing inventory, Messmer said he intends to start making cheese this week for food banks. In an update on the GoFundMe page, he said the cheese would be in local food pantries by the end of the week and partner organizations had been enlisted to make more cheese.
“The more money we get the more cheese we can make,” he said. “We’re really just trying to help.”
Messmer noted this idea has blossomed into action very quickly and things may change as the situation evolves — “but this is our plan so far.”
Among those who had to dump milk were his best friend’s parents who have a farm down the road from Lively Run. Seeing that and hearing about it from other farmers hit Messmer — who hates to see waste — right in the gut.
He’s not alone.
“I know how hard farmers work,” he said. “Seeing [the milk] dumped is gut-wrenching for these people.”