Spilled Milk: The Trouble With U.S. Dairies

Gastronomica

"A Tale of Two Dairies," Barry Estabrook's heartbreaking article about the U.S. dairy system, begins with the suicide of a small dairy farmer. With milk selling for almost half of what it costs to produce and a handful of large farms dominating the market, it's no wonder the small dairy is in trouble.

But it doesn't have to be that way.

Dairy farmers have begun working together, forming a coalition they hope will change the way milk is produced and sold in the United States. The dairy market typically endures fluctuations in price, though the cost of producing milk does not change. It's a continuous cycle: debt-strapped farmers produce more milk when prices are good, which leads to an oversaturated market, depressed prices and more debt for the farmers.

Under the proposed system, farmers would be assigned production limits and a national overseeing board would manage these limits, with the goal of providing an adequate milk supply while avoiding an unnecessary surplus. Corporate milk processors call it socialism. But could it work?

Estabrook took a trip to a dairy farm in Canada, where a similar production-limiting system has been in place since the 1970s. There, farmers sell milk for more than twice what U.S. farmers currently get, yet consumer prices are virtually the same. The contrast of the idyllic Canadian farm, with its freshly-painted barn and happy dog, and the crumbling barns and abandoned farmhouses just across border might say it all.

I never thought I would be riveted by an article about the details of the dairy industry, but Barry Estabrook — who penned that equally eye-opening article about migrant farm workers and winter tomatoes in 2009 — paints a stark picture that left me moved, angry and wondering what's next for the U.S. dairy farmer.

Read the article: A Tale of Two Dairies (PDF file)

Related: Where Is My Milk From?: Tracing the Dairy In Your Fridge

(Image: Flickr member www.bluewaikiki.com licensed under Creative Commons)

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