Dairy Needs to Develop Wisdom – 1 gallon at a time!

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Go Time: National Milk Day 2018 – Change can begin: 1 gallon at a time.

On this National Milk Day 2018, the dairy industry needs wisdom more than it ever has, at any given time in history.
(Note – this is revised from an original posting late night on National Milk Day 2018.]

There’s one official #NationalMilkDay, but for many of us at the grassroots level of dairy, everyday is #MilkDay!  Some of us operate dairy farms, some are nutritionists for dairy farms, some service equipment and provide other supplies for dairy farms, some of us communicate about and with dairy farms. We Live Dairy, #WeLiveMilk, and we work long hours, because a cow’s clock never shuts off, and first and foremost, we take care of those cows, because they take care of us!

But right now, this dairy industry – beloved by many,  revered by some, and often illustrated with warm and fuzzy memes and pictures on social media –  is hurting badly.  With the warm and fuzzy memes, perhaps farmers ourselves are trying to convince each other it’s ‘not that bad.’
But it is.  It is really ‘that bad.’ The dairy industry – that ‘family farm’ dairy industry that sustains a lot of rural economies from the east to the west coast  – is threatened like never before.   Calm, sane, salt-of-the earth, they-would-do-anything-for-you folks are indicating an undercurrent of despair and concern  at a level greater than the 2008-2009 price crisis.  And if those farms are threatened – the industries that serve them in local ag economies – are threatened as well.
To get to a solution, the collective industry, along with consumers, is going to have to do two basic things:
a.)  First – admit that “IT REALLY IS THAT BAD,” and then
b.)  Each layer of this industry –  from farmers, to service personnel (nutritionists, agribusiness, etc),  to milk buyers (including co-ops), to processors (some independents, some owned by co-ops), to distributors, to retailers – is going to have to set aside the ‘me’ factor.  And when the ‘me factor’ is set aside, then each individual person in each layer is going to have to begin to ask itself – ‘what can I do to stop the bleeding, and then right the ship?’
And then the big thing – each individual is going to have to take action. A lot of action. Likely with some sacrifice. We’ll get to that, although it may take a few blog posts to get there. (Patience, please!)
Many farms are operating at unsustainable financial levels, and it’s only a matter of time before the equity runs out, the loans quit coming, the market improves, or they are forced to go out of business.  It is, very unfortunately, a race to the empty barns. Many local and regional industry participants are predicting there’s going to be a massive exit of ‘family’ farms (for the purposes of this post,  I’m speaking of of 200 cows or less, and I will even include 500-700 cow herds in that mix) in the next 6-8 months.
Pride prevents many farmers from talking about how bad it really is at the farm level, but make no mistake – there are more hurting than are doing well at the moment. And most are too busy taking care of cows to do anything about the huge problem.
For every type of occupation or career with ‘dairy,’  jobs or farm businesses and ways of life are threatened by a myriad of factors right now, with these two factors the main ones
(in a very simplified description):

1.) There’s a world-wide glut of inventories of milk powder and cheese, compounded by overproduction as each individual farm around the world tries to generate enough milk to help pay bills in any given week.  Dairy is a supply-and-demand business first and foremost, and there’s a world oversupply, which reduces prices received by farmers around the world.

While we often are seen as ‘feeding the world,’ the ‘world’ is eating a lot of local farm finances, and farm futures, more than at any other time in history. 
To get rid of inventories, sellers on the big world markets are undercutting each other every day, frequently with prices at unsustainable levels as they make their way back to the farmer. Again, it’s a global marketplace – a very competitive, very cutthroat marketplace.
The general thought in this big-picture world of supply and demand is that ‘making no money’ would encourage folks to sell out, get milk and cows off the market, and exit the dairy business.  But again, dairy farmers historically have an infamous internal grittiness that allows them to withstand situations, sometime to the point of financial extremes.  I’m not saying that’s smart, I’m saying that’s the grittiness of a dairy farmer.
b.) Costs such as equipment and labor are continually going up, and farms are difficult, if not impossible, to operate without either.   Even ‘family’ labor needs to pay itself. Thus, the squeeze – the squeeze that’s sucking the life out of local farms, and the local, rural communities in which they are located.
Each of these two factors are complicated with a number of other intertwined layers, but those are the highpoints right now. I’ll stop there, because otherwise, a book as long as War and Peace could be written.
The problem of ‘hurt’ is compounded by plant-beverage marketers belittling real milk and presenting false info to an urban social media audience who seemingly would rather drink in the questionable misinfo and half-truths presented by 99% of ‘faux milk’ companies. Gullible consumers have sucked up that fearmongering and misinfo.  I have no answer for that at the moment.
However, that plant-based market is said to be worth over $16 Billion in the coming year. If 75% of that used to be dollars received by dairy farmers, then that’s $12 Billion (a guesstimate) that has been pulled from dairy farmer pockets. Along with that, think about the miles of retail shelf space  that used to be occupied by Real Milk, and which consumers would pull that milk because it was there.
A solution starts with a very simple action: 
Buy fluid milk.
Real Milk, from Real Cows.
NOT faux milk.
NOT nut beverages.
NOT plant extract milk.
But REAL MILK, from REAL COWS.
WHOLE MILK is BETTER.
You can drink it yourself, you can donate it to a food pantry, you can feed it to your cats, or take a milk bath. (10 gallons of milk for silky skin – now there’s a thought!)
Those of you who follow me on Twitter (@foodsheds) and Facebook know that I often post about drinking real milk, and a lot of times from local farms that I know. After all, they’re the ones in my local agri-economy, and just as much I want my own family’s farm to survive, it is critical for others in my local agri-economy to survive, too.
Why, you may ask? I would really like for consumers to learn about milk brands and dairy products that support farmers in each’s own ‘local’ area, and then help neighbors in each local area, first. Getting local milk off of local shelves can be a demand-increaser and supply-mover in your area.
That’s a market signal, and that drives milk sales. If you support your local farming communities, you help support your own local ag economies, and help protect the means for food security, close to you.  A sea-change of items will have to occur, but legislation and innovative new markets each take a lot of time, and we are running out of time.  A market signal such as milk flying off shelves is the quickest way to begin sending money back into farmer’s products.
Most farmers worth their salt don’t want something handed to them, but rather, they want to earn it – EF Hutton style. Each succeeding farm generation should feel this way, too.
Farmers in general kind of like the risk and the challenge, (or else they wouldn’t be farming at all), but they prefer risk that’s on a bit more of a manageable level than the farm economy is at the moment. Rather than comfort, they would like comfortable risk. (granted, a bit of an oxymoron)
Why should a consumer care about dairy farmers – or farms at all – on National Milk Day, and on any of the other 364 days in a year?
I’ll tackle that on a deeper level in the future (another War and Peace length piece), but for right now, here’s the short version: those nearby local farms are your children’s and grandchildren’s best bet for food security 50 and 75 years from now. That food security will serve society best when it’s in the hands of a a multitude of local farms, instead of huge Amazon-style corporate farms far, far away.
And if something doesn’t change, your ‘local’ farms will be a thing of the past, in the not-too-distant future, and those Amazon-size and Amazon-style farms will prevail.  A lot of flavor we treasure in local cultures will dry up.  Milk (or any other foodstuff), may or may not be ‘cheaper,’ but at what cost to society as we lose local rural communities?
Make no mistake – that’s the path we’re on. And a war to save local family farms has got to start. Now.  Absorb that for a bit (or a few days).
That said, I’m going to have myself a glass of local milk for a nightcap. Mayfield, Weigel’s, and Laura Lynn (bottled by Ingle’s)  are all in my fridge at the moment – it will be one of those! Borden and Sealtest (also bottled by Ingle’s)  could also be considered local for me (farms in a 150-175 mile range of my East TN location.)
In the upper southeast – Prairie Farms counts for local, but it’s very local in the upper midwest (Indiana to Iowa, up into WI).  As you approach the Gulf, look for Publix, and some Kroger milk in Georgia area Kroger stores. Through the Carolinas up into Maryland,  Maola and Pet are good bets. As you head up the East Coast and into NY and Pennsylvania, the brands will differ – we’ll try to work with some other dairy folks, find those brands,  and list them in the future.
The brands of ‘local’ will again be different where you live in the midwest or west coast or  make a point to ask ‘where the farms are?” that are found in a carton or wrapper of any dairy product.  And be warned – many national retail chains use the word ‘local’ in a very loosey-goosey fashion.  “Local”  to where, and “Local”  ‘how?’ is never defined, and is meaningless, particularly when it comes to dairy. Don’t take their word for it.
Please join me in prayers for Providential Wisdom for the Dairy Industry.  This is originally posted as National Milk Day approaches midnight,and the verse Matthew 25:40 keeps repeating itself:  “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”   If we as a society are judged by how we treat the smaller and mid-size farms, how will we measure up?
I have no answers for the long term, and indeed there are many answers, but we can start with ‘one’ – one neighbor in a city to one neighbor on a local farm, and a purchase of one (or two!) gallons of milk. Pray with me. Drink Milk with me. Develop in Milk Wisdom with me!
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