Running dry: Time to save our nation’s dairy farmers

Did you see that movie “Flash of Genius”? It follows the unlucky Robert Kearns, played by Greg Kinnear, as he spends his life (and his savings) perfecting the intermittent windshield wiper, only to have his idea snared and used without credit by the Ford Motor Company. He pursues lawsuits against Ford and other car companies out of principle, he says: It is simply not fair that all of his hard work enriches Detroit’s Big Three while leaving him and his family virtually penniless.

istock_dairycowmilkFor some reason, I’ve been thinking about that movie a lot lately as I’ve pondered what dairy farmers across the country are going through in this period of tragically low prices. Years of investment in land, equipment, and animals; years of hard labor; and what do you get for it? Nuthin’. Or, more precisely, you get about half of what you put into producing the milk you sell to dairy processors. The prices farmers receive right now are so low that they are rapidly exiting the market — or exiting life altogether (farmer-suicides are up this year, reports the LA Times). And just like in the movies, companies are profiting off their misery. Dean Foods, the nation’s largest fluid milk processor, reported record earnings in the first quarter of 2009; profits for Kraft’s cheese division rose 59% in the same period.

The movie ends with Kearns winning court battles against Ford and Chrysler, pocketing nearly $30 million for his hard work (most of which comes right back out again to cover attorneys’ fees for the other 26 lawsuits he pursued). Our nation’s dairy farmers have nothing so vindicating to look forward to. If things continue the way they’re going, reports Farm Aid’s Hilde Steffey, the U.S. risks losing upwards of 80% of its dairy farmers by year’s end, leaving us with just 12,000 dairy farms total. That’s 1 dairy for every 25,000 Americans.

The dairy crisis, and its solution, comes down to a question of fairness. Is it fair that large dairy companies are undercutting U.S. producers by importing cheap milk protein concentrates from other countries and using them instead of U.S.-produced milk? (And is it fair that the FDA does nothing to stop the practice, even though MPCs aren’t approved as a food ingredient?) Is it fair that the dairy industry is so consolidated that a few large companies can manipulate the price of milk to their own benefit, pocketing profits while dairy farmers are left holding the bag? Is it fair that farmers have shelled out more and more for feed and hay in the last few years, but the prices they receive for milk have fallen? Is it fair that consumers are still paying for milk what they were earlier this year, while farmers’ prices dropped 30% in January alone?

Hell no!

There are a lot of things that need to be fixed here, but the most urgent task is to keep dairy farmers on the land while we figure out what to do about the rest. That’s where the government comes in. In 1937, when farmers were pouring milk out on the side of the road because of Depression-induced low prices, Congress passed a law that allows the Secretary of Agriculture to adjust the price of milk to reflect the price of feed and other economic conditions that impact their production costs. Well, if there ever was a time for the Secretary to roll out that authority, it’s now. We can help by signing a petition to Secretary Vilsack before the end of the day on Monday, June 15. It’s being circulated by Farm Aid, a nonprofit that works to keep family farmers on the land, and it asks Vilsack to use his authority to adjust the farm price of milk as a stop-gap measure.

If Vilsack doesn’t do something, fast, Farm Aid predicts we could immediately lose up to 20,000 dairy farmers. Where does that leave us? With imported milk, empty farms, out-of-work farmers, and a whole lot of dairy cows with a future in fast-food hamburger. And that kind of milk does nobody good.

8 Responsesto “Running dry: Time to save our nation’s dairy farmers”

  1. Clare D says:

    (oops, I forgot half a sentence. Please excuse me while I correct it! Please delete the first one.)

    I agree with the petition Farm Aid is advocating  except for one thing…if a floor price is applied to any milk producer regardless of how much they produce, it will help the big mega-dairies more than family farmers.   Having a limit on how much milk one producer can sell at the floor price is one of the only ways I can think of to easily make sure that the small and mid-sized family farmers will be the ones benefiting most from a floor price.
    If you write to Vilsack, you should advocate for a maximum 3 million pound annual limit per dairy farmer on receiving the floor price. That is about how much a 150 cow dairy produces. If mega-dairies produce more than that, they should not be subsidized further by the government.

  2. Milk is a weird product. The government sets the price you can sell your milk for but no limits on what you pay for diesel, electric, gas, taxes, grain and other costs. What we need is to eliminate the price fixing. Unfortunately, the cost of a gallon of milk to the consumer (me) is not high enough to support higher prices for the farmer. The high costs of processing, trucking and retail sales (refrigeration, employees, taxes, etc) all work against everybody in the milk industry. But, if the price of milk increases, consumers start screaming bloody murder. This is why I chose not to be a dairy farmer. I didn’t want the government setting my prices. The economics just don’t work.

  3. Earl Grey says:

    I think an “ethicurean” would most likely see that our dependence on milk and other animal products is at detriment to the animals we are relying on. Milk is not a necessary ingredient in our diets, and the less we depend on any industry, the better. If you want milk, get a cow. Otherwise, stop perpetuating cruelty to animals. And if you don’t think it’s cruel, you try it. (assuming you have mammaries)

  4. jane G. says:

    Actually earl, and I assume your a guy from the name so you wouldnt know, but getting milked is rather nice. Its very relaxing. And while you might not like milk it has been a part of our diet for abut 65 million years. At least those of us who are mammals.

  5. Cat Robson says:

    Jane, your pocketbook is what’s being milked by all the ‘Happy California Cow” commercials. If you want to know what life is like for a dairy cow, do some actual research. These sensitive and complex creatures suffer tremendously, are forced to produce 10 times as much milk as they would normally produce, endure painful mastitis, lameness and are slaughtered after a short life of about 1/5 their normal life span. Their is nothing remotely calming about their life. If you do not have any compassion for animals, perhaps you have compassion for humans who are bearing the burden of countless medical problems now clearly linked to the ingestion of dairy and animal products. Someday, ending this cruelty will seem like a no brainer. Will you be lagging behind?  CR

  6. While veganism is laudable, I think it’s a dead end to preach it as the only ethical solution for eaters, and it tends to shut down all discussion. It’s like saying we’ve got problems with free-market capitalism, so everybody must immediately stop buying goods made with sweat-shop labor. (Why should Cambodian kids be less deserving of our values-driven purchasing options than US cows?) Great long-term goal, but short-sighted immediate strategizing. When it comes to agriculture, my priorities are: help US farmers survive, period. Then help them implement more humane, sustainable practices, for human workers as well as animals, whether driven by consumers or spported by policy.

    There are 9 million dairy cows in this country. They are not going anywhere. So while my gut tells me you are probably right — “someday,” ending our exploitation of farm animals may seem like a no-brainer — I think we have to start today by concentrating on the human parts of the food chain.

  7. Nath Emerson says:

    It is sad that people become so isolated from nature that they become distracted by false religeons like veganism. Animals are a natural part of our diet. Would that you have the bear or the lion eat grass? How bizzare. Veganism is just a fad. An unhealthy one at that. The people promoting it are fanatics and evangilists of the worst sort.

  8. Charles N. Rutledge says: