By Michael Mackey, National Farmers Dairy Field Operations Director
My day-to-day work with family dairy farmers keeps me in touch with some of the finest people you can imagine. They produce wholesome food and provide social benefits that we all enjoy. Family dairy farms are good for rural economies, good for food security, and good for the environment.
But, all of this is in danger of being lost forever. Family farmers have been enduring an economic pandemic for decades. Poor prices and lack of markets have had us measuring dairy losses in farms per day long before COVID-19 was in the news. “Get big or get out” is ushering in a system in which remaining farmers are losing their independence in ways that are encouraged by agribusiness, ignored by our political system, and lost to the American public. Already, pork and poultry farmers raise animals they do not own in ways determined by multinational corporations. I worry that the dairy stage is being set for business models in which we have plenty of milk but no independent family farmers.
Each of the farm families that, through no fault of their own, is pushed aside by the corporate bulldozer has a tragic story to tell. I remember one, in particular, that finally gave up long after the economy left them with no other choice. I wasn’t able to be on the farm when the truck came to take the cows, but my wife, who is good friends with the farm family, told me what happened. The family was heartbroken by the way the frightened and confused cows, those beautiful animals that had provided the family with an honest living, were being prodded and forced onto the truck.
Finally, the farmer couldn’t take it anymore and insisted that he be allowed to load the cows in a gentler and more respectful way. As he led them up onto the truck, he wept. How many more times must this story be repeated before we come to our senses?
Unlike giant, investor-owned operations that buy direct from remote Big Ag sources, each family farm supports local implement dealers, animal sales, truckers, veterinarians, seed sales, grain elevators, fuel and oil dealers, insurance companies, equipment repair shops, building maintenance operations, and farm suppliers of all types.
I recently did a rough spending survey of four friends of mine who are family dairy farmers. Together, they invested over $2 million into our local economy. One of them has already gone out of business. That alone meant our local economy was reduced by the roughly $265,000 the family invested annually. Multiply this loss by the several thousand dairies we lose every year, and the scope of the economic hit to rural America starts to sink in.
We also compromise our food security as Big Ag pushes a business model best described as “let’s put all our eggs in one basket.” The family farms I work with are scattered across the countryside. Each herd and each family work at what we now call “social distancing” from each other. Compare this to some of the largest farms I have seen. More cows are on one site than I see on dozens of family dairies combined. More animals and more workers confined in such cramped quarters multiply our chances of diseases spreading unchecked among both cows and those who care for them. We are seeing the awful consequences of this as livestock processors are shut down by COVID-19 infecting workers. Will we learn anything from this before it is too late?
More animals on fewer farms means more manure in one place. When spills and other accidents happen on very large farms, the environmental consequences are so widespread and severe that they often make the news. Admittedly, smaller farms can also have manure spills. I have seen a few myself. But I have also seen that the scale of the spills is such that damage is confined to individual farms, not broad watersheds.
What can we do?
We must begin by recognizing that past policies have not been up to the job of saving the family dairy farm. Family farmers need a level playing field in the market and a government that does more than give them lip service while promoting larger and larger farms.
Bottom-line is this: if the giant corporate/investor owned factory farms continue to go unchecked, then both rural and urban Americans will lose a unique and vitally important human and natural resource.
Our leaders can no longer afford to ignore the family farm. They must act before it’s too late!
By Brad Rach, Dairy Division Director, National Farmers
When I go from my home in Minnesota to Ames, Iowa, for business meetings, I-35 is a good road to take. When I go to the Black Hills of South Dakota for vacation, however, taking I-35 would be a terrible choice. Driving all day on I-35 would leave me farther away from the Black Hills than when I started.
Whether a road is a good one to take depends on where you want to go. The same goes for dairy farm policy. Before we start talking about which policy road we want to travel, we need to first ask, “Where do we want to go?” In other words, “What kind of future do we want for dairy farming?”
Here’s my answer to that question: I want to see a dairy economy in which more of the milk produced in the United States comes from smaller farms. Smaller dairy farms have special advantages for rural economies, the environment, and our food security.
Not all policy roads get us closer to the future I would like to see. Take, for example, herd buyout programs. The ones I have seen resulted in smaller dairy farms selling out so the milk supply would go down. Before long, much larger farms took their places and quickly brought the milk supply back to excessive levels.
Why did this happen? Supply management programs of all types usually take a “rising tide floats all boats” approach, that is, a higher price benefits all farmers equally. Trouble is, not all farms are the same. Smaller dairies usually have higher costs for both production and trucking. The same price boost that barely gets these farms back to breakeven gives very large farms excessive profits. Those profits can attract more investment and/or be used to low-bid smaller farms for critical markets.
This explains why we have to be careful when we talk about “too much production.” All farms don’t contribute equally to over production. More likely, we see that only the largest farms are responsible for the lion’s share of growth in production. Production from smaller farms may decline even in times of overall production increases.
Because of this, I would like to stop talking about supply management in general and start talking about managing the supply of milk from larger farms. Why? Simple arithmetic. There is only so much milk that can be sold into any market. The more of that market controlled by very large farms, the less that can be sold by smaller farms.
I’ve heard agricultural economists and policy experts refer to the “structure” of dairy farming in the United States. Being a former farmer myself, it took me a while to understand that they are not using the word “structure” in the way farmers do, that is, barns and equipment sheds. Instead, they mean how many farms produce our milk and how many cows each of those farms has.
What we have, and what I would like to see addressed, is a structure problem. We have too much of our milk coming from very large farms and not enough coming from smaller farms. That’s why we at National Farmers call our policy program a structure management program instead of a supply management program.
Our structure management plan is unique in that it specifically addresses our central policy goal: More of the milk produced in the United States will come from smaller dairy farms. When our policy is in place, smaller farms will get a higher price than that received by very large farms. At last, the playing field for farms of all size will be level.
We are pursuing enactment of our Dairy Farm Structure Management Program in two steps. First, we want to establish a National Federal Milk Marketing Order that covers all milk produced in the lower 48 states. Second, we want to use the Order to pay premiums on the first million pounds per month produced by each farm in the United States.
I invite you to do two things. First, think about your dream for the future of dairy farming. Is it a structure filled with smaller farms, or one even more dominated by a relative handful of enormous investor-owned operations? Second, take a look at our Dairy Farm Structure Management Plan. If you like what you see, help us get it in place while there are still smaller dairies left to save.
So what’s wrong with the co-op representing all its members on any type of change vote? First and foremost is that the best interest of an individual farmer and the opinion of the co-op management may not be the same.Read About the Community Advantages of Family-Sized Dairies
Our Dairy Farm Structure Management Plan is focused on preserving opportunities for smaller dairy farms.
Studies show that smaller dairy farms have special advantages for rural economies, for the environment, and for food security. Read a survey of those studies here.
National Farmers supports a National Federal Milk Marketing Order with mandatory participation by all dairy farmers.
Ever since the 1930’s, Federal Milk Marketing Orders (FMMOs) have set the stage for the fair and orderly marketing of milk throughout the United States. We, the dairy farmers and staff of National Farmers, support the FMMO system. We also advocate for changes that will assure that the system can meet today's challenges.
USDA data show that production costs are higher for family-sized farms than for very large dairies. Because of this production cost difference, a price high enough to make family farms profitable can induce a flood of milk from very large farms.