RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Support Your Local Dairy

For the last couple of years, we’ve worried about the dairy sector. Low prices for milk and high costs for cattle feed have squeezed those guys until they were living on credit cards and losing their leverage at the bank. Joel Greeno, a spokesman for Family Farm Defenders in Wisconsin, says there’s not a scrap of junk metal in his neighborhood — it’s all been sold to support the farms.

In Madison last March, dairy and grain farmers brought their tractors to the protests by public sector workers — teachers, firemen, social workers, police — as Governor Walker chopped benefits and disemboweled the unions. This was partly a show of solidarity and partly a plea for benefits in the farmers’ second jobs; dairy farmers are accustomed to milking and caring for cows two or three hours before going to work, then working all day, then back to the cows when they come home. Sleep? Family life? You can hardly fit them in. Now there’s a milk shortage—for organic milk at least—and the big media is finally getting a clue.

In a Dec. 30 article, the New York Times declared, “Rising Costs for Grain Drive Some Farmers To Drop the Product” and gave three reasons for the shortage: Organic feed and hay are too high-priced while the price farmers get is too low; feeding cows less results in less production; fewer farmers have been converting from conventional to organic dairying.

In some cases, organic farmers have dropped their certification because they think they can make as much money in the conventional market.

“Through it all, the demand for organic milk has been growing,” says William Neuman, reporter. The supply has been dwindling to the point that Publix Stores post signs explaining why they’re out. One company, A&D Yogurt in Long Island, plans to ship organic milk from the Midwest to ensure a steady supply for their store. “It’s a lot of miles,” says the CEO. And there’s no advantage for the local consumer at a time when buying local has become trendy. Now, let’s go back to Economics 101, when the professor told us that if demand goes up and supplies fall, the price should rise. In order to keep farms profitable, estimates Tony Azevedo, organic farmer for Organic Valley, he needs a 20% increase. Without it, a dairy farmer has no incentive to grow or even to stay in business. That would mean 22 cents a half gallon more for organic milk consumers. Why, in a “free-trade” economy, when cups of coffee go for $1 at the diner and $3 at Starbuck’s, is this such a problem?

The answer is that corporate concentration has made price fixing easy. For farmers faced with one market, and that market controlled by a behemoth corporation, finding alternative places to sell is nearly impossible.

Some creative dairy families have bought bottling equipment and started pasteurizing, processing and selling their own small brands to small, local stores. That’s a hard way to go, requiring a herd of cows, ample land to raise feed, specialized buildings and an infrastructure of trucks, labor, and, yes, independent stores willing to take the product.

Other families are selling raw milk directly to eager consumers. Raw milk has not been processed or pasteurized. The farmer simply cools it, puts it in a big jar, and passes it on. Many people prefer raw milk because it still contains helpful bacteria and enzymes that pasteurization takes out. Pasteurization uses heat to kill bacteria.

In some states, selling raw milk is illegal. In others, there are a bunch of laws to negotiate before the sale. In Missouri, for example, the consumer orders in advance. Rather than taking raw milk to a farmers’ market, the consumer and farmer must meet at the farm for the transaction to take place or the farmer must deliver directly. Again, the farmer is at risk if the consumer cancels; milk cows get sick if they’re not milked regularly.

While it appears that farmers are the main losers in this story, consumers lose also. Those that prefer organic are the first to lose when the sign goes on the dairy case. Forget that it would only cost 22 cents more to keep farmers in business; when the stores are out, they’re out. Then, consumers have to turn to conventional.

Enter the behemoth corporations like Dean, Kraft and Prairie Farms. While they may sell organic under one label, they also make products from powdered concentrates—untraceable and shipped from other lands. In fact, the grocer’s cases are jammed with “cheese foods” like Kraft Singles, made with MPC’s, or Milk Protein Concentrates. And check out the milk-like drinks, sometimes masquerading as yogurt drinks. Since 1998, MPC imports have gone from $800 million to nearly $4 billion.

How can you help? Until the dairy farmers become well-paid, we’ll continue to lose them. If they are well-paid, we’ll have more of them. Seek out an independent in your area and, with your milk money, help guarantee their future.

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

From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2012

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