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 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. The get-big-or-get-out perspective 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 family, told me what happened.
The family was heartbroken by the way the frightened and confused cows – 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 more than $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 putting all our eggs in one basket. The family farms I work with are scattered across the countryside. Each herd and each family works at what we now call a (generous) social distance 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 more confined and not to 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!
Michael Mackey is the National Farmers dairy field operations director.