Milk is the staple food that every American is most familiar with. It’s as American as mothers and apple pie. As babies, it was our first food.
Growing up, most of us that are of a certain age remember being told, “finish your milk,” and that “milk grows strong bones.” That advice most likely came courtesy of milk’s lobbying group, the American Dairy Association, but it was also echoed by parents, doctors, and even our teachers.
The standard for drinking milk used to be four 8-ounce glasses of milk per day. We no longer drink that amount of milk, and it’s no longer as highly touted by medical professionals. Still, milk and dairy products occupy a hallowed place on the American food pyramid. Given all of this, you might assume (if you weren’t paying attention) that all is right with milk and dairy farmers in America. It isn’t. Milk and in particular, the industrialization of dairy farming has become increasingly problematic, like so much of our food industrial complex.
It is our industrial food model in America that will surely be our undoing, or one of several issues that will ultimately usher in the demise of life as we know it. Food is our lifeblood, or at least it used to be. Now, food seems to be contributing to a variety of physical ailments, from obesity and a spike in type 2 diabetes, to a host of other food-related maladies.
Iconic as milk might be, there are as many as 50 million people in the U.S. who are lactose intolerant, including 90 percent of all Asian-Americans and 75 percent of all African-Americans. Something clearly seems to have gone wrong with our milk.
I touched briefly on the woes affecting dairy farming in Maine after I went to a screening of the documentary, “Betting the Farm,” back in October. I’m glad I saw that documentary because it put milk on my issues radar, although I’ve been concerned about local food and food security for awhile now.
Farming in the U.S., especially dairy farming, has been declining. Between 1970 and 2006, the number of dairy farms in the U.S. fell by 88 percent, from 648,000 farms, to just 75,000. The loss of these farms has had a devastating effect on rural parts of the U.S., including states in New England. The overwhelming majority of these losses have been among farms with herds numbering 30 to 200 cows. At the same time, from 2000 to 2006, the number of farms with more than 2,000 cows has doubled.
Last week, during one of my weekly library drive-bys to load up on reading material from the Maine State Library, I came across Kirk Kardashian’s Milk Money: Cash, Cows, And The Death Of The American Dairy Farm. If I hadn’t seen “Betting the Farm,” I might have thought the title of Kardashian’s first book hyperbolic. I now know it isn’t and after reading the book, I have an even more realistic sense of local dairy’s tenuous struggle and the possibility that being able to buy my milk from a local farm, or at least one in my own state, might become a thing of the past in my lifetime.
With all our talk about the market and the need to have our economy driven by what the market will bear, it seems un-American that something as central to the American diet as milk has for decades been priced with no market relationship whatsoever. By this, I mean that the price of milk has little or no bearing to the cost of its inputs.
Given that milk prices have fluctuated dramatically over the course of the last 100 years for milk, the government, dating back to 1937, has been trying to provide supports for milk and dairy farmers, to ensure an adequate supply and a fair price to farmers. The results haven’t always been as intended. It’s particularly problematic in the Northeast, where Kardashian resides. Recognizing the challenges faced by farmers in his home state of Vermont is what prompted him to set out to write this book.
From there, however, Kardashian takes the reader on a journey, leaving his home state of Vermont and heading out to Wisconsin, then California, across to the southwestern border, over to Florida, and back up to the Northeast and back home again. Like all good writers concerned with honest investigation, Kardashian recognizes that issues affecting the dairy industry brush up against other areas; immigration, market capitalism, economic justice, food security, even the environmental impact of milk production; to his credit, he doesn’t lose sight of his initial topic, nor the central issues affecting his home state of Vermont, all the while, maintaining America’s dairy industry as his overall framework.
Often, it’s a local issue that makes us aware of something much larger. Setting out to understand the plight of local dairy farmers in Vermont, from there, Kardashian’s interest in causes led him to the heart of America’s industrial food model.
I believe that when most of us pick up a jug of milk in the supermarket, there’s something inside us that wants to believe that the milk we’re holding comes from a farm where the farmer knows his cows, and cares for them like we would a family pet; in reality, more and more of our milk comes from huge farms that resemble factories more than idyllic local farms common to states like Vermont (and Maine). Not only does this poke holes in our myth about milk, it also opens up an entire can of worms concerning taste, quality, and even safety. Regarding the latter, safety is ensured by heating all the crap out of our milk via ultra high temperature (UHT) pasteurization, which renders what could be a great-tasting and nutritious product, the equivalent of “white water.”
Of course, the American consumer has also been sold another myth; that all farmers are heroic Americans and that all milk is the same. That myth comes to us courtesy of the Dairy Farmers of America (DFA), the giant dairy cooperative that is behind the push to industrialize every aspect of milk production and drive small, local dairy farmers out of the market.
Here’s what you need to know about DFA, milk pricing, small farmers, and dairy conglomerates like Dean Foods (more about them later); if you take just one thing away from my review of Kirk Kardashian’s excellent book about milk, I hope this gets seared into your memory. I also hope you read his book.
In today’s dairy industry, almost all farmers sell their raw, liquid milk to one or more cooperatives or companies that haul, process, market, and distribute the milk, cheese, butter, and other milk-based products. The price farmers receive is determined by the Federal Milk Marketing Order which sets a minimum price.
Over the past few years, prices paid to farms have plummeted by 41 percent, pushing family dairy farms out of business at a dramatic rate. Meanwhile, the price on the grocery store shelf remains high, and conglomerates like Dean Foods, not farmers, have been reaping the profits.
Dean Foods is the largest dairy processor in the country. Dean, along with its marketing partner, DFA, have repeatedly violated anti-trust laws.
By engaging in collusion, they bar independent farmers and small cooperatives access to bottling plants unless they market their products through DFA or its affiliates. Dean Foods also acquires smaller farms to eliminate regional competition.
These actions are violations of anti-trust law, which exists to guarantee market competition and fair market practices for the benefit of producers and consumers. Numerous class action lawsuits have been filed against Dean Foods.
I want to thank the intriguing website, Milk Not Jails, for this excellent summary on DFA/Dean Foods. Please check out their website for more information about their efforts to revive agriculture in rural New York State, while addressing another serious issue; the prison industrial complex.
The DFA/Dean connection was the most troubling element for me in reading Kardashian’s book. It’s this model of “bigger is better” that is driving most of our economic malaise, in my opinion. It’s why middle-class incomes have been plummeting for 30 years, and it’s why rural regions of the country that have traditionally relied upon agriculture for their economic livelihood, have been losing ground for decades.
In his chapter titled “Monopoly Money,” Kardashian takes Dean Foods to task. Dean controls 70 percent of the milk market in a triangle that extends from the Northeast, out to Michigan, down to Florida, and back up again.
When the bottom fell out and milk prices plummeted from $19 to $11 per hundredweight, Dean Foods profits soared 147 percent in the first quarter of 2009, from the previous first quarter in 2008. Their profits totaled $76 million. At the same time, while farmers were losing their farms, Dean Foods CEO, Gregg Engles gained $116 million in compensation from 2006 to 2011.
If Dean Foods and DFA are the bad guys, Kardashian provides a good guy counterweight to greed and corporate consolidation in the form of Hudson Valley Fresh and Dr. Sam Simon.
Simon, a former orthopedic surgeon, who grew up on a family-owned dairy farm in Middletown, New York, might be the one guy who single-handedly provides a way forward for small, family-run farms and cooperatives, especially in the Northeast that are concerned about quality dairy products and producing great-tasting milk.
When Dr. Simon turned 50, even though he had a highly successful orthopedic practice in Poughkeepsie, he decided to trade his career in orthopedic medicine and begin farming again, proving that once farming’s in your blood, it’s hard to get it out. After selling his orthopedic practice in 1996, he bought a 150-acre farm in Pleasant Valley, seven miles outside of Poughkeepsie, where his successful practice had been located.
He was committed to the belief that by treating his small herd of Holsteins humanely, with care, being careful to provide the right mix of locally-grown nutrients (alfalfa, corn, hay, and oats) that his cows would produce great milk.
The problem for Simon wasn’t production, however, it was trying to compete against huge factory farms out West with thousands of cows.
In 1999, he launched Hudson Valley Fresh (HVF), a nonprofit co-op intent on selling premium-quality milk, without artificial hormones. HVF guarantees its milk isn’t co-mingled with other milk.
Simon signed up eight family farms in Dutchess and Columbia Counties and focused on the dairy market in New York City. Then he secured a processor, Boice Brothers, the oldest independent processor in New York (founded in 1914) and still family-owned. So far it’s working.
The farmers get paid a guaranteed price, based on their cost of production, not on the fixed commodity price.. For many small farms, this can be the difference between breaking even and not. Hudson Valley Fresh sells a third of their products in New York City, in places like Whole Foods, and the rest in the Hudson Valley and Connecticut and on Long Island.
Dr. Simon is hoping that HVF plays into the vogue for locally produced food that has a smaller carbon footprint and verifiably higher standards, as measured by somatic cell counts and other indices.
Kardashian’s book is worth reading to learn about milk, as well as gaining a better sense about another aspect of where our food comes from. If information is power, and food is our lifeblood, this kind of information is essential for health and even our survival.
I know for me this is just the beginning of learning more about my options concerning milk and dairy products, and finding local suppliers outside of the standard supermarket options.