JUNCTION CITY — If there’s a pandemic going outside Hildebrand Farms Dairy, the carefree cows don’t know it.
How could they? They’re cows.
Life at the dairy, just west of Junction City, has continued as normal amid the pandemic, said plant manager Melissa Reed.
“When it comes to us farming, we’ve been socially distancing for decades,” she joked. “I mean, that’s what we do with our animals. You tell us to stay 6 feet from people, we say, ‘Why would you ever be closer?’”
At the small, 20-person, 130-dairy cow operation, workers shift as needed, and on Friday morning, Reed answered questions while bottlefeeding a days-old calf. One of the dairy’s truck drivers was taking a week off to help with the harvest, and the regular milker was covering for him, so that left Reed to help the baby calf suckle on a Gatorade-like mix to help it get over a bout of diarrhea.
“I always call it a jigsaw puzzle of employment as we try to figure out who’s doing what jobs, because we run a pretty small ship,” she said. “We have about 20 employees, but each one is critical to the operation, and we couldn’t do it without them.”
So, life as normal at the four-generation, family-owned dairy.
But the farm has seen a surge in sales, a welcome development for the 90-year-old Hildebrand farm and other dairies like it as they continue to fight against low dairy prices.
That increase in sales wasn’t always the case, though, at least in the early stages of the pandemic. Hildebrand saw a huge blow at the beginning of the pandemic, as coffee shops and restaurants — some of the dairy’s biggest customers — shut down and drove a 30-40% decrease in production, Reed said.
“The milk faucet shut off that quick,” she said.
After that initial slowdown, though, Reed said a curious thing happened — sales at grocery stores and at the dairy’s onsite store started grow, and those sales started to replace the ones Hildebrand was losing to shutdown venues.
Additionally, consumers started began to show interest in and demand for local farm products, which has been huge Hildebrand and other dairies with farm products. A statewide Facebook group called Shop Kansas Farms also exploded with popularity, giving local farms another opportunity to get their names out there, Reed said.
Reed reasons that with more limited opportunities to enjoy dinner or a night out on the town, families are turning to home cooking with quality ingredients, like the dairy’s milk, as a replacement for those activities.
“I think that for the first time, people are getting back into the kitchen and sharpening their cooking skills,” she said. “I think that the pandemic has put us in a situation of being home, and now that we’re looking into our homes for enjoyment, we find it in the kitchen.”
The dairy sends its milk to every corner of the state, with the exception of southeast Kansas, and as a result of increased demand during the pandemic, Reed said the dairy has sent dairy trucks to a Lawrence farmer’s market twice, with definite plans to return.
Despite a higher price, Reed said Hildebrand has sought to make a name for itself on its quality and simplicity. A lifesaver for the dairy was when Reed’s father and uncle took a leap of faith and invested in building a processing plant onsite, which is something to pass on to the next generation of dairy farmers.
The dairy doesn’t add any extra ingredients to its regular milk, and workers keep the cows happy, Reed said, which results in better quality milk.
“When we take care of them, they give us really good milk,” she said. “By doing those things, I think that’s what keeps us the customers we have and keeps us the great brand we have.”