Though I’ve never been a big fan of milk, I felt a twinge of guilt after reading an article titled “The Future of Milk” in the August 2010 issue of Eating Well magazine. In small part because of my (nearly) anti-milk stance but largely because of generational shifts and other economic factors, the local dairy is becoming subtracted from the national nutritional equation.
One major factor, according to the article, is the decline of milk consumption, which has been replaced by the intake of sugary culprits like energy drinks and sodas. Those have also been blamed for obesity epidemics in children and adults, as well. So it’s no wonder that with fewer consumers the small dairy farmer is in a David-vs.-Goliath-like battle against corporate mega-farms, fighting to get his fair price or in some cases to survive–literally.
In just a mere 40 years, more than 400,000 dairy farms in the United States have dried up. What’s left in today’s aftermath seems almost insurmountable, but fortunately for the local farmer and the conscientious consumer, the can-do spirit is still alive.
How did it get this way? The Eating Well article provides amazing insight into what’s behind what goes into that gallon jug we so casually pluck from the dairy case at the grocery store. Here are some of the highlights:
- The economy has been good–and bad–for the dairy farmer. Since 2009, the recession has significantly slashed processor fees for small dairy farmers, leaving some so overwhelmed that they killed their cows, then themselves. Prior to the economic downturn, a growing milk demand had encouraged dairy farmers to increase production, but that prosperity turned sour when tighter finances forced many families to cut back on milk consumption.
- The rise of the industrial farm has displaced the local ones. The dairy that once supplied your milk at the supermarket isn’t always a labor of love passed from generation to generation. Just 12 years ago, smaller dairies with fewer than a couple hundred cows provided the majority of the nation’s milk supply. Today, most comes from farms with more than 500 cows and one-fourth from mega-farms with more than 2,000, which has prompted antitrust lawsuits and other measures aimed at protecting a rural way of life.
- The little guys are finding new ways to survive and thrive. All is not lost for the small dairy farmer, but he has been challenged to get creative to make it. State co-ops and regional initiatives like Rhody Fresh and Keep Local Farms have helped champion the little guys, helping to ensure farmers are paid a fair price while allowing consumers to buy local. As a result, participating dairies are thriving and buyers are willing to pay as much as a dollar more for local brands.