Let’s talk milk. Before we pull up our milking stools and get down to business, I need to admit some biases.
First, I like milk. I like the taste of it and I like to cook with it. There are some recipes that allow for substitutes, but my default position is, use the real thing.
Next, though I’m not a chemist or nutritionist, I have a belief, based on a lifetime of experience and probably some out-of-date science news, that milk is good for us. It builds strong bones and a glass of cold milk at bedtime will help you sleep.
Finally, milk played an important role in my personal history. When I was a boy, my father supported our family by delivering milk for a couple of local, family-owned dairies — neither of which survived the growth of large corporate dairy operations.
One of my first paid jobs was as an assistant on a home milk delivery route. My grandfather, who scratched a precarious living out of a dusty, western Oklahoma cotton farm, taught me to milk a cow when I was 5 years old.
I was (and still am) amazed that we could pull such a rich delicious food product from such a large animal that seemed so patient and willing to share with us.
So, I admit whenever milk appears in the news, my eye automatically drifts that way and I always attach more importance to the story than it may warrant.
Milk is in the news recently because family dairy farms in New England (and probably around the country) are on the verge of extinction. Their survival will depend on the willingness of consumers to pay more for dairy products in order to preserve these family farms. If consumers won’t (or can’t) come to the rescue, these family businesses will go the way of the blacksmiths.
The importance of milk in the global food story can’t be overestimated. Mankind first learned the value of keeping animals alive for dairy production as early as 9,000 to 7,000 B.C.
This freedom from reliance on the uncertainties of game animals was a monumental step on the road to food security.
Today, there are 6 billion consumers of milk products worldwide. As many as 750 million people live in homes which rely, in whole or in part, on dairy production for their livelihood.
Early in this country’s history, practically every family had at least one milk cow that could provide some or all of the home’s dairy needs.
With advances in agricultural methods and technologies, individual dairy production gave way to local family operations. Throughout the best and worst times in America’s history, the family farm has been the back-bone of American food production as well as an important contributor to food security across the world.
But a July 5 story in the Boston Globe suggests two-thirds of the family dairy farms in New England have disappeared in the past 30 years. They simply can’t keep up with escalating feed, fuel and labor costs and, at the same time, make enough to keep the farms afloat.
These family operations are giving way to large international farming corporations that rely on high volume purchasing power to reduce costs while exploiting high volume sales to make thinner margins add up to larger across-the-board profits.
A New England nonprofit called “Keep Local Farms” is mobilizing efforts to persuade merchants to help promote local produce and persuade consumers to pay a little more in order to preserve the family operated farm.
We Americans are, more and more, being brought face-to-face with the practical difference between cost and value. Obviously, they’re not the same.
If you buy a low-cost product that doesn’t work, it’s of no value to you. If you pay a premium for a low quality product simply because it has a pop-star’s name attached to it, you may not be getting much real value for your money.
So here’s the question: If you have a choice, would you buy a quality product — even if it costs more — if the cost difference goes to preserve something important to “the American way of life?”
Every American community is facing the same challenge as the one facing the dairy farmers in New England. We can spend a little more of our time and our money seeking out and supporting our local farmers, tradesmen and artisans, or surrender the commercial world to the international corporate giants.
Just remember, the less local control we have over our lives, the more likely it is that we’ll be the ones to be milked.
Mike Hinkle is a columnist for The Edmond (Okla.) Sun.