Milk is a Battlefield
Not all battles are fought on a battlefield. In fact, in our line of work, we often have to attend workshops and hearings, which comes across as much less glamorous for some reason. This time we head to the halls of the University of Wisconsin – Madison on June 25 to take a stand against factory farms and corporate consolidation in the dairy industry.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (DOA) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) are hosting Agriculture and Antitrust Enforcement Issues in Our 21st Century Economy, an epic event that will pit food company executives and factory farm owners against real family farmers, and it might actually draw close to one thousand people. In case you’re wondering, yes – that’s a lot for an Ag hearing. Interest is high because the hearing will address anti-trust issues, which have plagued the dairy industry for many years.
The topic has attracted representatives from some major players in the food industry, agricultural academia, independent family farms, and a few government big guns to serve as moderators for various panels: Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, and Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Christine Varney. The hearing will provide an opportunity for farmers like Jim Goodman (Wonewoc, WI) and Joel Greeno (Kendall, WI) to give testimony about the challenges independent farmers face when trying to sell their goods in a consolidated marketplace.
Dairy industry consolidation has increased the size and power of industrial food entities best described using words like, “fluid milk processors,” and “dairy product manufacturers,” but it’s left real dairy farmers in dire straits. As we have often seen in other sectors of our food system, a small group of companies control the industry while farmers get less money for their milk and consumers pay more at the grocery store.
Despite whatever pretty picture is on the label, most of the dairy products you buy probably don’t come from a local dairy – they most likely come from mega-dairies, corporate milk “cooperatives” and processing companies. These factory farms process over ten thousand cows on high-density feedlots, without regular access to graze on pasture. These big scale operations cause air and groundwater pollution, and they often inject cattle with hormones. These are the “farms” whose products most likely dominate the landscape in your local dairy aisle.
There are now fewer companies at each step of the dairy supply chain and they are coordinated into powerful corporate alliances, squeezing the farmer and the consumer out of fair milk prices. These larger market players increasingly source their milk from industrial mega-dairies, and it’s not always easy for consumers to tell the difference between these factory farms and family farms. If you’re curious about how confusing it can be, Alicia Harvie from Farm Aid offers a wonderful explanation of how to determine the difference between a family farm and a factory farm. If you’re still not sure, look for farms you can visit. Katie Jett Walls of Oneperweek describes how she decided to meet the cows that provide her family with milk.
USDA, DOJ and Congress have allowed concentrated agribusiness to go unchecked. Hopefully, this hearing will give legitimate farmers a real chance to discuss some of the major problems in the industry. They need help now to restore fair milk prices and ensure that real farmers get a fair deal. Write to DOJ at [email protected] and tell them to break up the concentration of power in the dairy industry. Help our farmers get back in the milk business.