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Brian Fiscalini - Hope and hardship in dairy production

April 28, 2020

Brian Fiscalini is optimistic that the dairy industry can produce healthy food during any time period.

“It's impressive to watch how agriculture is responding and how resilient we are. I don't know of any farmer that has any type of giving-up mentality right now.”

Just as the U.S. dairy industry was beginning to find its stride, COVID-19 presented yet another threat to farmers. Yet, those on the frontlines of agriculture remain dedicated to sustaining the food supply. From his family farm in Modesto, California, fourth-generation dairy farmer Brian Fiscalini shares the realities of farming amid a pandemic and the optimism that drives him forward.

This episode is part of a special AgFuture series on the impact of COVID-19 on the food supply chain. Join us to hear how those on the frontlines of the global pandemic are working to overcome adversity and feed the world.

Hosted by Michelle Michael

As lead video producer at Alltech, Michelle travels the globe for the company’s award-winning Planet of Plenty documentary series. Michelle spent a decade as a video producer/reporter in Germany, reporting from military hotspots at the height of the war on terrorism. The National Press Photographer's Association (NPPA) has twice recognized Michelle as their solo video journalist of the year. 

Co-produced by Brandon Whitworth

As the senior media production specialist at Alltech, Brandon co-produces the company’s award-winning Planet of Plenty documentary series. Brandon is a two-time Emmy Award winning television news photojournalist and three-time nominee. He has received several regional awards from the National Press Photographers Association for excellence in visual storytelling.

The following is an edited transcript of Michelle Michael's interview with Brian Fiscalini. Click below to hear the full audio.

 

Michelle:       Hello! I'm Michelle Michael. In this special series of AgFuture, we're talking with those working along the food supply chain about the impact of COVID-19. My guest today is Brian Fiscalini, a fourth-generation dairy farmer in Modesto, California. Brian, thanks so much for joining us.

 

Brian:             You're welcome. Thanks for inviting me on.

 

Michelle:       Brian, we've met in person, and you have about a 540-acre farm, 2,800 dairy cows, a cheese plant on the farm itself. Give us just a brief description of your operation.

 

Brian:             Yeah, our dairy farm was started in 1914 by my great-grandfather. He started our farm with 12 Holstein cows, and we've continued to grow the operation over the years. We've attempted, with our best efforts, at trying some innovative technologies within the dairy industry. Today, our property spreads over about 540 acres. We milk 1,500 cows three times a day, and then we've got an additional 1,300 replacement heifers. Like you mentioned, we have our own on-site cheese business. It's a small, artisan, Kraft-style cheese company. Then, in the year 2009, we adopted the technology of a methane digester to convert our animal waste into electricity.

 

Michelle:       Now, I've been to your farm, and I know firsthand that you have a strong focus on sustainability, and that's the methane digester you just mentioned — but now we have a new topic to discuss, a not-so-happy topic: COVID-19. In California, Brian, what's happening in dairy and to you specifically?

 

Brian:             Yeah. As many people know, in the food industry, the landscape is comprised of two sectors: the retail business and the food-service business. As many of us know, the food-service (business), meaning the restaurants, catering companies, corporate lunchrooms and all of that — all that business has disappeared. While I think most consumers would be led to believe that we're making up all of that ground on the retail side, we're really not. There is a hole in consumption right now, and that is affecting the markets. The future milk prices are looking pretty poor right now. The beef price — which, when you're a dairy farmer, you're also exposed to the beef price for the animals that you sell or that you take to market — the beef price has also been dramatically reduced in the last two to three weeks, so our revenue stream is definitely going to be affected by this.

 

                        It's very frustrating. I take the pandemic that's going on right now very seriously, but it is frustrating — especially, I think, for dairy farmers, because we were starting to have a pretty good run after having four or five years of not such a great run. No one expected the timing of this. It's not great for a lot of industries.

 

Michelle:       Yeah. Brian, just a couple of months ago, the price of milk was actually heading toward a peak. Now, prices have really plunged. Describe why that's happening.

 

Brian:             I will do my best to describe why that's happening, not being a professional dairy economist. You know what? It's very interesting. I do get a lot of dairy newsletters and I try to stay on top of what's happening in the industry, and we don't have a supply problem. There's plenty of milk out there, so when you go into the grocery stores right now and you see that the shelves are not full of milk, I think that's also troubling. It's troubling to dairy farmers. It's troubling to grocery store owners and workers who want to be able to provide food to people that are trying to get it right now.

 

                        I think the price is fluctuating so much right now, mostly out of speculation. I have heard — and I'm not 100% sure how valid this is — but I have heard that where the supply chain is struggling right now are the other raw ingredients that go into the product: the cardboard boxes, the labels, the plastic bottles, all of those things that the supply chain wasn't ready for an increased demand of, and that appears to be more so why we're not able to keep the grocery store shelves stocked at the moment, versus having the most important raw ingredient, milk. That's not the problem right now. It appears to be all the other things.

 

Michelle:       If the demand isn't there, Brian, as a dairy farmer, you can't just turn off the cows. In short, is the dairy industry built to quickly deal with large changes in supply and demand? Is that what I'm hearing?

 

Brian:             I think that is an area right now where dairy farmers (are) — I don't want to use the word "scared," but concerned. We are concerned that if the supply is so much greater than the demand right now, we are not well-equipped to reduce the supply other than (by taking) extreme measures, meaning sending perfectly good dairy cows into the beef market. That's something that's heartbreaking for most dairy farmers; we've invested time and feed and care into all of these animals for many years, and to think that we may have to send those animals into a different market, that's devastating to our industry. It's something that I really hope and pray does not happen, but aside from that, if you have a really high-producing dairy cow right in the peak of her lactation, there are not a whole lot of ways you can turn that off. You can feed a different diet to slow the production of milk down, but then what I think a lot of farmers are worried about is if this is a 30 or 60-day problem, or a 90-day problem even, and the world does go back to some sort of new normal in 30, 60 or 90 days, that demand will come back, and if we have reduced or, in some cases, eliminated the supply, it's going to be a very interesting way to navigate how we were used to (doing) dairy farming.

 

Michelle:       Certainly, agriculture is trying to understand and react to what's happening in the world. We're seeing images of milk being dumped at farms across the United States. I wonder if you can explain a little bit about why that's happening, how the supply chain actually works, for people who may not fully understand that.

 

Brian:             Yeah. One thing to remember is we're in the middle of spring. There's a term that's been used in the dairy industry from even when my grandfather was dairy farming, and it's called the spring flush. What the spring flush means is that this is generally the time of the year where dairy farms are operating in their most efficient manner. Our milk production is higher at this point in the year than it generally is in any other time of the year. We're used to seeing a minor, maybe, oversupply right now, but with the other side of the economics equation being demand taking a hit, we're not ready for what's happening right now.

 

                        I also have seen images or videos of milk being dumped. I truly believe and I really do hope that this is a short-term problem and that the dairy industry can unite and come together. If we need to divert our product that we put our heart and soul into away from human consumption or into something else, I think that this is a time for dairy farmers to come together and get creative and do something there, because the last thing that we want to see are those images of perfectly good, healthy, nutritious milk going down the drain (so) that nobody can enjoy it.

 

                        We would much rather, as an industry, be able to donate that to people that are in need right now. Export markets are very tight right now, with a lot of borders being overly cautious — and with the right reasons to be cautious — but we don't have a lot of options right now. Normally, we could export products to countries that may have nutritional challenges or issues, and right now, it's very, very tight.

 

Michelle:       Can you explain why maybe it's not as simple as donating that milk to something like a food shelter?

 

Brian:             Yeah. All of these different industries, whether it's a food shelter or a community organization that helps people in need, they all have rules and they all have regulations. We've got our milk plants that make a variety of different products, like butter, yogurt, ice cream, and they're geared toward a specific retail customer — the packaging, the size, the shelf life. All of these things are geared toward those customers. In some cases, food banks aren't able — whether it be their rules, whatever it may be — they're not able to accept that product, and the rules for everything are changing right now. I don't even know if people have access to a food bank right now or if their access is limited because of what's going on right now. It's just a very, very interesting, very unique time that none of us will ever forget.

 

                        My children are out of school right now, and they're young enough that they're not completely understanding what's going on, but when this thing is over and we do go back to the new normal, I think it's going to be really interesting to see how we interact with each other and how we remember, during this time, what things were most important, and hopefully, we don't lose sight of that.

 

Michelle:       Yeah. Certainly, so much is changing right now and everybody's just trying to figure out a new way forward. I'm curious how your day-to-day on the farm has changed. Of course, you've mentioned your children are home. That's something that's probably entirely new. What are you doing differently on your farm?

 

Brian:             From an operational standpoint, not a whole lot has changed. We spoke a bit earlier about the need to milk our cows every day and feed them every day and care for them and do the normal care that we have to do for our cows. I think the thing that's changed the most in my day is — the word that I just used is "care". I like to believe that we've always cared really deeply about our people and our cows, but the face-to-face interactions with our employees right now, it feels really, really special. When I look into our employees' eyes right now, you can tell that there's a little bit of uncertainty there. I think that we're having conversations that you normally wouldn't have with your employees every single day.

 

                        I'm asking them how their family members are doing, which we do in passing maybe once a week or so, but now it's almost a daily routine, and I think that's really, really important because I'm connecting with my employees in a different way than I have in the past, and I think that that's a two-way street. I think they're also feeling that they're connecting with me in a way that maybe we haven't been able to do. We're still doing our jobs. We're still getting up at the same time. Our schedule hasn't changed, but I think that this is uniting the Fiscalini family — and when I say that, that extends to all the people that are responsible for making the products that we make and doing the farming activities that we're doing.

 

                        Yeah, it is a very wild time, and like I said, I really do hope that when we do find some sort of normal, that we don't forget the things that were able to get us through this time and the things that are the most important, like our family and our people.

 

                        In our case, our cows have always been important, but they have no clue what's going on right now. They're doing what they do 365 days a year. It's impressive to watch how agriculture is responding and how resilient we are. I don't know of any farmer that has got any type of giving-up mentality right now. If anything, it's, "Hey, we've got a job to do." I think people realize right now (that) the job that we are doing is one of the most important ones. Doctors and nurses are doing everything they can. Farmers are doing everything they can. I just think, while it is a wild time, I think it is somewhat sobering to see how people are coming together.

 

Michelle:       It's really interesting to think about social distancing bringing us closer together, but I think you're absolutely right. Being a dairyman, it's not easy. It seems the challenges of COVID-19, in some ways, farmers are prepared to deal with it. We're responding, but without the experience to do so. This is unprecedented. Is this what you would consider a crisis mode, or are we not there yet?

 

Brian:             I'm probably not the right person to speak to that. I don't like using the word "crisis". I think the dairy industry is very challenged, at a point. I think we're also optimistic that we know we can produce healthy food during any time period. I'd say we're definitely challenged, but I don't think we're alone. Many, many industries are challenged, and some are being affected even worse than we are, so I think what my hope and my true belief is that we are near the peak of this and that once it begins to level off and become a little bit more controllable, that I think people will get their confidence back into doing some of their regular activities. I don't think anyone's going to go back to "normal," but I think that if we can at least get people back to their regular work and healthy lifestyle and day-to-day routine, that we'll all be better off.

 

Michelle:       We can call it a new normal, I guess. Brian, you've mentioned that you have milk, you make milk, and you also use some of that milk for cheese. Does that put you in a different position, a better position, when you compare yourself to other dairies at this time?

 

Brian:             It potentially could. The demand for our cheese has also taken a pretty big hit because about half of our business, typically, is food service. We've seen our food service customers, and they haven't placed orders in a few weeks. Normally, we'd have 10 to 15 orders a week from our food service customers, so we've definitely seen the hit. The interesting part about our cheese business is that we do make aged cheeses, so if we did have to reduce the supply of milk that we send outside of our farm, not to our cheese company, we would be able to divert some of that back to our cheese business and maybe make some aged cheeses, let them sit there, and then put ourselves in a position to where, once those cheeses have been aged for a year or so, we have an opportunity to sell more product than we normally have.

 

                        I don't know. We're in a more flexible position. There's risk in that decision as well because the cheeses that I'm making today, it's kind of hard to find a customer that will commit to it a year from now right now, so we have to go out and we have to get those sales. I think we can do it. We're definitely ready for the challenge, if that's what we need to do, but I don't know too many dairy farmers that would say, "I feel like I'm in a really good position right now" — even ourselves, seeing that we do have a little bit more flexibility than the average dairy farmer.

 

Michelle:       We've talked a little bit about some of the short-term problems that could come from this pandemic in the industry. What do you see as potential long-term problems in the dairy industry because of this pandemic?

 

Brian:             I think that there will be long-term consequences or things that come of this. I think, in the dairy industry, we really need to work on our supply-and-demand management. I think that's something that the industry has needed to work on for a long time. Once milk prices get to a profitable place for most dairy farmers, it's inevitable. We oversupply the market, and if the demand isn't there, then we inevitably drop our prices. I think what will come of this is more product innovation and, hopefully, creating products that are more available during something like this. I don't know what those are. I can't really speak to what those products would be, but we've put ourselves in a position where we make four or five commodity products really, really well and very, very efficiently. However, there's a lot more market out there that we're not trying to tap into right now, so I do believe that innovation will come out of this.

 

                        I think the dairy industry will have challenges in the long-term if we decide that we're going to keep making 40-pound commodity blocks of cheese and the same old fluid milk in a plastic jug and unsalted butter. I think there are so many more opportunities, so many more products that we can make, even if it's an ingredient in another product. There are so many meals that you see where there are probably three or four dairy products that are ingredients in that. I think we need to continue to do that type of work so that we can protect our farms, our future and our overall sustainability. When I say sustainability, I don't just mean environmental; I mean just the ability to stay in business.

 

Michelle:       It's interesting to hear from you that you're looking at opportunity in this time. When you talk about innovation, I certainly see that as opportunity. From a consumer perspective, is there anything that we can do to support (the industry) at this time — drink milk, buy cheese, or is the solution that easy?

 

Brian:             I think that consumers can always help. I don't think that the solution is necessarily an easy one. I think we're already seeing — and we should be very grateful and thankful for what consumers are doing right now. By purchasing local dairy products, supporting your local farmers — if you've got a farmer in your neighborhood that bottles milk or that makes cheese on their farm, or ice cream or butter or yogurt, I think they would be very appreciative of your support, and there are so many options out there. I know I can speak for our company. I don't expect that people are only going to buy Fiscalini cheese for the rest of their life. There are so many great products that are made in this country.

 

                        I think people should open up their horizon a little bit, maybe try something that you haven't tried before, realize that there are some very nutritionally dense products that the dairy industry creates — and right now, that appears to be something that people are very focused on, is, "I may be laid off of work right now" or "I may not be able to go into my office, so I need to stretch my dollar a little more. I need to get as much nutritional value as I can," so instead of having a Gatorade, try a glass of milk. My family, we go through milk pretty quickly, but there are a lot of options out there. There's lactose-free. The dairy industry has products out there that I think can fit in every diet, but what I would say is definitely don't give up on your local farmers right now, who employ people in your community. Chances are, your kids go to school with the kids of somebody that is directly related to the dairy industry, whether they're a truck driver or a grocery store clerk. The dairy industry covers so many different areas of the economy. I think it's important to support farmers right now.

 

Michelle:       Absolutely. We appreciate what you do, Brian. Farmers in general really take a hit, and they're blamed a lot for pollution, et cetera. Do you think this pandemic will change the way consumers perceive the world of agriculture?

 

Brian:             Yeah. I think pollution is one of the things that is being talked about a lot right now, with so many cars not on the road and delivery trucks to restaurants not on the road. Maybe they're just going to grocery stores right now, but you're seeing a lot less traffic. You're seeing a lot less air pollution. I see, every now and then, people saying, "Oh, I haven't been able to see the mountains this clear in however long" or "I'm able to breathe a little more clearly now." I think what people should remember is that farming hasn't stopped, so all of the activities that we're doing that may have been incorrectly blamed for a large portion of air pollution or something like that, I think it's time for people maybe to look in the mirror a little bit and realize that farming is extremely important and vital to our existence, and maybe I can drive my car two or three times less in a week, because people are doing whatever they need to do right now in order to make ends meet.

 

Michelle:       Do you personally feel more appreciated now as a farmer than you did before all of this began?

 

Brian:             Yeah. We've gotten a lot of support, whether it be on our cheese company Instagram or Facebook page, whether it just be friends that I went to college with or people that I've crossed paths with who send you a text, and you haven't gotten a text from them in two or three years, and (they) just say, "Keep your head up. We appreciate what you're doing." It is nice to know that people do care, and I think we're learning that. (In) our lives previously, we were really, really good at filling up our schedules. We could fill up our schedules with all kinds of activities. We could have meetings, we could have food shows, we could have trade shows, all these different things. I think what we're coming to realize is that while those things are important, they're not as important as maybe we once believed that they were, so we're finding that we're receiving more comfort just from our friends, our friends and our family, than we thought we needed to do with all those other activities that we were doing.

 

Michelle:       Speaking of importance, you've mentioned your children. I know, in past conversations, you've expressed that you eventually want to pass the farm down to them one day. Will this pandemic change that, or do you still want them to be in the dairy business and take over the family farm? Is that still extremely important to you?

 

Brian:             Yes, that has not changed. It is extremely important to my wife and I that we create an opportunity for our children to be in the dairy business or in the agricultural business someday. The upbringing that I had, you can't replicate it. I think I got to work at a fairly young age. I was able to operate pretty large equipment at a young age. I was able to care for calves and cows at a younger age than most people are able to. While it instills a good work ethic, it also keeps you close to agriculture. I don't ever want to be so far removed, or for my children or their children to be so far removed, that we forget the importance of growing crops in the ground, converting those crops into really high-quality feed for our cows to eat, and then making excellent dairy products out of that milk. That goal and dream has not changed. I'm committed to dairy farming. I think, while there are challenges, I'm still optimistic that this is a long-term — this business has been in my family for over 105 years, so not only can we not turn the cows off, but it's near impossible to turn the passion off and the legacy for what we've been able to do.

 

Michelle:       We so appreciate your love for agriculture and what you do, and also, for the hard work that you put in every single day. Brian Fiscalini from Fiscalini Dairy, take care of yourself. Thank you so much for joining us today.

 

Brian:             Thanks, Michelle. Take care of you and your family as well.

 

Michelle:       For additional resources on COVID-19, visit alltech.com.

 

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