Museum of America in the Pandemic Year, 2020

Pick a SPECIFIC date to explore

-Unemployment climbs to 14.7 percent. The Office of Special Counsel, an independent and prosecutorial agency within the government, recommends reinstating Dr. Rick Bright as Director of BARDA. Protestors across the country demand further action in the case of Ahmaud Arbery.
Venezuela charges captured former U.S. soldiers with terrorism.*

From the cutting room floor...

Dairy farmers in Wisconsin are dumping milk. No one knows how much, exactly, but you can see the mound of empty containers piled up next to the railroad tracks. Farmers had pulled the milk right off a freight car and poured out into the dirt. It looks like a creamier Boston Tea Party. They are desperate because the price of milk has plummeted, and they are losing money with each shipment. The threat of real violence hangs in the air if local government officials don’t figure out a way to help the farmers who are throwing out their worthless milk. Vandals have already taken to local dairy processing plants and cheese factories. They doused hundreds of pounds of cheese in kerosene and lit a bonfire. Others barricaded roads with logs, farming equipment, even their own bodies, to stop milk deliveries. The governor considered calling up the Wisconsin National Guard to keep roads open and too much milk from being wasted. Near Manitowoc, some right-winged hooligans came in the night and burned a cross at a farm because the owner continued to supply milk. Another farmer, H.M. Clark, had his eye knocked out in a tear gas attack.

That was 1933.[1]

This year, 87 years later, farmers are dumping milk again. Millions of gallons, according to some reports.[2] Unlike in 1933, the problem isn’t a drop in demand, per se; now it is the breakdown of the complicated supply chain that is unable to get the milk to changing market. With schools and the restaurants closed, dairy processors cannot deliver milk wholesale like they used to. Instead, the demand for milk and cheese has shifted to the grocery stores. Unfortunately, it is difficult and costly for suppliers to switch to this new market. Dairy products have to be packaged differently for grocery retail sales and they have to be transported by truck drivers—who are quitting in droves. Further up the chain, dairy farmers all over America are sitting on milk that the dairy producers won’t buy because they can’t get it to grocery stores. As a macroeconomic consequence, Class III milk futures fell in April to their lowest levels in a decade.[3]

While it seems like a once-every-depression activity, milk dumping is not that rare. According to futures contracts, the dairy business lost its George W. Bush-era buzz alongside the ’08–’09 financial collapse, came roaring back to new highs in 2014, then slipped into multi-year doldrums. It reached a new peak just this past winter.  In between those two high points, dairy farmers dumped milk repeatedly in order to keep supplies down and prices up. In the fall of 2016, overproduction again caused a drop in prices. Angry farmers in agricultural states that used to be solidly Democratic, like Wisconsin, dumped 43 million gallons of milk—right before heading to the polls.[4] Much of the time between 2014 and 2020, in fact, has been hard on smaller midwestern dairy farmers, while larger agribusinesses take advantage of persistently low prices and lobbying operations in state capitals to gobble up the leftovers.[5]

The sad part is that, despite farmer’s woes on the fields, prices for milk in my grocery store have shot up 50%.[6] That’s true of eggs and ground beef, too. From what I hear, some of that is actual price gouging during a panic.[7] I can see that the posh Publix grocery in town has raised its prices noticeably more than the  Piggly Wiggly on the west side of town.

The meat shortage is so widespread that even Wendy’s is feeling the pinch. This week, their burgers sold out for the first time in their history.[8] Everyone I talked to on Zoom today repeated the “Where’s the Beef?!” line from the 1980s commercial. I swear all of them thought of that line in the shower and were waiting until the Zoom call that I happened to be on to say it (assuming they took showers, which, on further consideration, they probably didn’t because: coronavirus). One guy who said it and got no response from everyone during the noisy opening moments of the call waited until a quieter moment to roll it out a second time.

Perhaps most disturbing is the way that the meat processing companies like Tyson are using the shortage to justify the unsafe conditions of their workers. On April 26, John Tyson, billionaire grandson of the founder, published full-page ads in The New York Times and The Washington Post stressing that the meat chain was breaking. The “responsibility” to get meat into American’s mouths is “as essential as healthcare,” says this man who will make millions more from having Americans Hamsterkauf their meat.[9] He claims management is working as hard as they can to make things safe, but they will not hit the pause button to properly set up their line workers’ stations or give them anything extra when they come down with COVID.[10] And when a billionaire wells up with … we’ll insert “patriotic tears” here … it seems as though this president can’t move fast enough to oblige him. The White House issued an Executive Order within hours stipulating that, “complete closure of some large processing facilities… may differ from or be inconsistent with… providing for the safe operation of such facilities.”[11] Effectively, it made agricultural production a national defense issue. Like good soldiers, meat factory line workers must be prepared to do whatever it takes to defend the country’s meat eating habits. In some cases, this means working on the job without adequate protection while actually sick with COVID.[12] Data shows hundreds of workers at thirty-one major meatpacking plants owned by Smithfield, JBS, and Tyson spread across the middle of the country have come down with COVID. This might explain why John Tyson had to rebrand his business as “The Protein Company” and his workers as necessary casualties. It is a testament to the Washington Post (the print version, anyway) that they sandwiched the Tyson ad between a story with the headline, “Workers say meat plants pushed them to show up ill,” with a photo of people carrying the casket of an employee.[13] Ω

When Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, his famous expose of the turn-of-the-century Chicago meatpacking industry, he certainly disturbed the average hot dog eating American. But it led to Teddy Roosevelt-era regulations in food cleanliness, not better working conditions. All of that had to wait for milk dumping, cheese burning Wisconsin farmers and a different Roosevelt as president. Sinclair hoped The Jungle would help tear down “the incarnation of blind and insensate greed … the Great Butcher … the spirit of capitalism made flesh.”[14] To his chagrin, he found that mnay middle-class Americans were really interested in learning “Where’s the Beef?!”



[1] Rick Barrett, “The Milk Strikes of 1933 Were the Worst Year for Wisconsin Dairy Farms, and Culminated in a Farmer’s Death,” Pulitzer Center, May 17, 2019,

[2] P.J. Huffstutter, “U.S. Dairy Farmers Dump Milk as Pandemic Upends Food Markets,” Reuters, April 4, 2020,; Aarian Marshall, “Farmers Are Dumping Milk, Even as People Go Hungry. Here’s Why,” Wired, April 23, 2020,; Leighton Schneider, “Dairy Farmers Dumping Milk amid COVID-19: Pandemic’s Impact on the Dairy Industry,” ABC News, April 21, 2020,

[3] barchart, “Class III Milk Historical Prices,”, daily,

[4] Kelsey Gee, “America’s Dairy Farmers Dump 43 Million Gallons of Excess Milk,” Wall Street Journal, October 12, 2016,

[5] Rick Barrett, Chris Mueller, and Keith Uhlig, “Wisconsin Dairy Crisis: How Four Farms Reflect the Depth of Industry’s Struggles with Low Milk Prices,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, December 20, 2019,

[6] John Matarese, “Milk Prices Soar, While Farmers Are Dumping It,” WCPO ABC 9, April 13, 2020,

[7] Jake Bittle, “Beef Producers Are Grinding up Their Nicest Steaks, While Retailers Can’t Meet Demand for Cheaper Cuts,” The Counter, May 6, 2020,; Neil MacFarquhar, “Are You Paying Extra for Eggs? Lawsuits Accuse Producers of Price Gouging,” The New York Times, May 7, 2020, sec. U.S.,

[8] David Yaffe-Bellany and Michael Corkery, “A Wendy’s With No Burgers as Meat Production Is Hit,” The New York Times, May 5, 2020, sec. Business,

[9] Gregory Meyer, “John Tyson Laments Breakdown of Meat System His Family Pioneered,” May 1, 2020,

[10] The Economist, “In America, the Virus Threatens a Meat Industry That Is Too Concentrated,” The Economist, April 30, 2020,

[11] The White House, “Executive Order on Delegating Authority Under the DPA with Respect to Food Supply Chain Resources During the National Emergency Caused by the Outbreak of COVID-19,” The White House, April 28, 2020,

[12] Taylor Telford and Kimberly Kindy, “As They Rushed to Maintain U.S. Meat Supply, Big Processors Saw Plants Become Covid-19 Hot Spots, Worker Illnesses Spike,” The Washington Post, April 25, 2020,

[13] “Workers say meat plants pushed them to show up while ill,” Washington Post, April 26, 2020, p. A12.

[14] Chicago Tribune, “‘I AIMED FOR THE PUBLIC’S HEART, AND…HIT IT IN THE STOMACH,’” The Chicago Tribune, May 21, 2006,

Read more


“Sen. Ted Cruz refuses Dallas News Questions, about punishment for Shelley Luther,” Dallas Morning News (May 8, 2020),

“Farm News Five: Farmers begin dumping milk, while greenhouses remain closed,” Michigan Farm Bureau (Apr. 10, 2020),

NPR, “What Workers Are Saying At A Meatpacking Plant Closed Due To Coronavirus Outbreak,” All Things Considered, 4/17/20
National Public Radio. What Workers Are Saying At A Meatpacking Plant Closed Due To Coronavirus Outbreak : NPR, 2020.

*If the pdf thumbnails are not appearing, please reload the page.

Beers, Thomas. “Lessons of the 1918 Flu Pandemic and Today’s Homeland Security.” JEMS, March 15, 2020.
Department of Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs. “Temporary Guidance–Road Closures or Restrictions on Tribal Lands,” April 8, 2020.
Frazier, Harold. “Letter from Harold Frazier, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, to Kristi Noem,” May 8, 2020.
Ryser, Rudolph C., Leslie E. Korn, Leonard Mukosi, and Maria Bone. “COVID-19 Indian Country Pandemic Risk Assessment Update, 7 May 2020.” Center for World Indigenous Studies, May 8, 2020.
Noem, Kristi. “Letter from Kristi Noem to Harold Frazier, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe,” May 8, 2020.
AP Staff (Associated Press). “CDC Business Plans,” May 8, 2020.
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Additional Links
  • Adakai, Monique, Michelle Sandoval-Rosario, Fang Xu, Teresa Aseret-Manygoats, Michael Allison, Kurt J. Greenlund, and Kamil E. Barbour. “Health Disparities Among American Indians/Alaska Natives — Arizona, 2017.” MMWR. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 67, no. 47 (2018): 1314–18.

* Timeline summaries at the top of the page come from a variety of sources:, including The American Journal of Managed Care COVID-19 Timeline (, the Just Security Group at the NYU School of Law (, the “10 Things,” daily entries from The Week (, as well as a variety of newspapers and television programs.