RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Pouring Out the Dairies

I just drove by my county’s last remaining dairy farm, once the pride of my neighborhood, and found it dark. The lights are out. Last week, the cattle were hauled away. No signs of human habitation except some tattered campaign posters from the mid-term elections. The work and prosperity of four generations, lost.

Between 1997 and 2007, according to the USDA, an estimated 52,000 dairies went out of business. A thousand for each state. For rural America, that’s a recession. When an independent farm goes out of business, it takes a bunch of jobs and businesses with it — grain dealers, implement dealers, gas stations, video stores, groceries, banks, car dealers, dry cleaners, all the places Americans need to keep alive and happy. And for folks left in the neighborhood, the tax base is reduced, so schools and services suffer.

But, for consumers, the loss is even worse — it’s the loss of choice of where our food comes from. Active competition between dairies means that consumers can choose. Want BGH? Buy from Dairy X. Want BGH-free? Buy from Dairy Y. Want local? Buy from the closest one. Don’t care? Buy the cheapest.

There are a lot of reasons for the dairy crisis. When schools started allowing soft drinks on campus — a concession to the industry that paid returns back to the schools — kids bought them. Obesity has gone up, trips to dentists have increased, but milk sales have fallen.

Now, industry has learned it’s cheaper to create milkish products from imported powder, known as Milk Protein Concentrates, or MPCs, milk sales fell further. The value of the imports was $800 million in 1998. Now check it out — over $3 billion a year.

Wanting to learn more, I called on Google, commanding information on “dairy farms broke 2010.”

I expected hits from Wisconsin, America’s Dairyland. Not so. The list started with news articles, blogs, TV clips from London, England. Environmentalists, animal rights people and consumers have temporarily turned back an 8,000-cow dairy in Lincolnshire. It would have been the biggest dairy in western Europe.

“At the moment most dairy farms in Britain have no more than 150 cows, making it difficult to compete against milk produced in the US on ‘mega dairy farms’” Said the London Times, “The UK imports more milk than ever before and two dairy farmers go out of business every day.”

Here in the US, same story. The end of competition is the second worst threat to US food security today, and it’s entirely preventable. The end of small- and medium-sized farms, caused by consolidation in the food industry, could be reversed. Reversed, that is, if consumers take action.

A decade ago, industry figured out how to herd Holsteins into giant concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, where they are fed and milked by robots. Back in 1997, each dairy had fewer than 200 cows. Today, it’s easy to find dairies of 2,000 cows. Even organic dairies are behemoths.

Instead of cows spread out across the farmland, CAFOs have thousands crammed together. With each cow drinking 24 gallons of water a day, that’s a sizable impact on anybody’s aquifer and a lot of waste going into lagoons and stinking up the air; they call it “nutrient” but we know what it is.

I said that the end of competition is the second-worst threat to America’s food security. The first-worst threat is part of the same picture. That’s the overuse of antibiotics in the CAFOs. When animals are crammed together, diseases spread like wildfire. A bovine sniffle becomes pneumonia, pneumonia becomes tuberculosis, which can spread to humans.

To prevent disease, antibiotics are given to confined animals every single day as part of the feed, water, or routine injections. No veterinarians need to prescribe this treatment; it’s just part of the feed that arrives at the CAFO on industry’s trucks. More antibiotics are added to livestock feed than administered to sick humans.

Some bacteria survive the antibiotics. They escape into the water and travel among us. Today, MRSA (methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is a bacteria with almost no antibiotic enemies. Doctors have become accustomed to receiving new lists of antibiotics that don’t work any more. The miracle that defined health from penicillin onward — quick cures for infections — is over.

Dairy farmers are giving up. They have lived on credit cards for two years now, and milk prices are falling again. Not for consumers, of course, because earnings for industries are going up. In 2009, Kraft’s earnings increased 29% and Dean Foods went up 39%. These two have absorbed many brands — including Borden, Land O’ Lakes, Horizon and Silk milks.

As consumers, we can support local dairies. These brave folks milk fewer cows, usually 20 to 60, giving them plenty of fresh air and pasture. They bottle their own milk. There are two of these small dairies a couple of counties from me and I love them both. Are they more expensive? Yes, but it’s been easy to work the cost into my budget by making our yogurt and cheese. I know this sounds like trouble, but, surprisingly, it’s more about determination than skill or time.

When you consider the alternatives — economic ruin for a family farm, the end of antibiotics — finding and buying local milk is a small price to pay.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2010

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