Rae Raffle-Maxson (from l.) of Catholic Charities, dairy farmer Karen Livingston, Tina Douglas, Herkimer County Dairy Promotion, Herkimer County Dairy Ambassador Katie Livingston, Harry Robbins of the Herkimer County Dairy Promotion and Farm Bureau, Florence Polley of Stewart’s Shops, dairy farmer Connie Fraser and Bev Guilfoyle of the Van Hornesville/Jordanville Food Pantry, were all part of a massive milk donation in Herkimer County (Photo provided)
Rae Raffle-Maxson (from l.) of Catholic Charities, dairy farmer Karen Livingston, Tina Douglas, Herkimer County Dairy Promotion, Herkimer County Dairy Ambassador Katie Livingston, Harry Robbins of the Herkimer County Dairy Promotion and Farm Bureau, Florence Polley of Stewart’s Shops, dairy farmer Connie Fraser and Bev Guilfoyle of the Van Hornesville/Jordanville Food Pantry, were all part of a massive milk donation in Herkimer County (Photo provided)

Got milk? The Herkimer County food pantries sure do.

Last month, the food pantries received two-and-a-half tons of milk from the Herkimer County Dairy Promotion program, the Herkimer County Farm Bureau and Stewart’s Shops.

“When you say two-and-a-half tons of milk, people say that’s a lot of milk,” said Harry Robbins, treasurer of the Herkimer County Dairy Promotion and Farm Bureau. “I mean what a milkshake that would make!”

The free-milk donation was distributed to food pantries through Stewart’s gift cards. Each card is good for one free half-gallon of milk, and pantries will be able to distribute the gift cards to clients to use at any time, eliminating the concern for refrigeration storage or spoilage.

“Milk is one staple item that just about every household asks for,” said Debra Dote, director of St. Bartholomew’s food pantry in Herkimer. “We try to supply milk, eggs, bread, so if these clients are able to get something it’s at no cost.”

For every four half-gallon gift cards purchased, Stewart’s Shops donated another half-gallon. Between the three organizations, over 1,281 gift cards were purchased for the food pantries, which is the equivalent of two-and-a-half tons of milk.

Catholic Charities in Ilion has been working on distributing the gift cards to food pantries. Rae Raffle-Maxson, program director for Catholic Charities’ Retired & Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) and chairperson for the Ecumenical Food and Shelter Council, said the food pantries have “been busier and crazier” during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“The dairy farmers came through once again,” Raffle-Maxson said.

The Herkimer Farm Bureau recently received an award from the New York State Farm Bureau for program design, but due to COVID-19 the bureau is unable to participate in public promotion events. Coupled with extra funding set aside for their spring banquet, the bureau started thinking of ways to better use the money.

“We had some extra money deposited in our account from the New York State Farm Bureau, and we couldn’t use it for other purposes,” said Robbins. “But we thought this was an ideal place to use it; to take this money and buy some milk for people.”

Before joining the Farm Bureau, Robbins was a dairy farmer for his family’s farm, Beechwood Farms in Schuylerville. A family farm for generations, his great-great-grandfather started the farm over 160 years ago. “It’s been in the family since then,” he said.

Dairy farmers across the country have been struggling to keep up with the changes in supply and demand from stores during the COVID-19 crisis. Many dairy farmers have been unable to transport their milk — which have led some to dump their milk out — while others are unable to find a buyer as stores are cutting back on milk purchases from lack of demand.

Many farmers have found themselves in financial crisis, an issue preceding COVID-19 as alternative milk sources — such as almond or oat milk — have risen in popularity.

“Herkimer County is a dairy- or milk-production county, our main commodity is milk,” Robbins said. Farmers “are going through some difficult times, but as individual farms go I have to applaud their efforts for doing this and showing their support for people who are facing worse times then they are, and I’m not sure you can say there are worse times to be going through for dairy farmers in Herkimer County, it’s really devastating.”

Robbins said the donation speaks to the community support among farmers: “It is challenging to them, but if they can help they want to help.”