The Future of Milk
As small dairy farms are vanishing, what is happening to our milk?
A few miles from my home, a tough old white farmhouse and a weather-beaten barn sit hard against the foot of Vermont's rugged Green Mountains. It is here that I find third-generation dairy farmer George Woodard, muck boots pulled high, working among the cows he milks. The Woodard family is part of a long line of farmers who have toiled here since the American Revolution, scratching a living from the stubborn, stony hillsides as they tend their herds. These dairy men and women have endured two centuries of Nor'easters, drought, sun, rain and wind to bring milk-the first food-to their neighbors.
Storms and disease have failed to vanquish the farmers, but a new predator is having more success. It costs conventional dairy farmers about $18 to produce 100 pounds of milk ("hundredweight," in dairy parlance, equals about 12 gallons). When the price that farmers are paid by processors for their milk fell by half last year-from a high of nearly $22 per hundredweight in 2007 to $11 per hundredweight in 2009-many of America's small dairy farms went into a financial freefall that continues today. The crisis became a tragedy in January, when Dean Pierson, a third-generation dairy farmer in upstate New York, shot all 51 of his cows before turning the gun on himself. He wrote in his suicide note that he was "overwhelmed."
Around the country, there are similar stories: "We are hearing reports of farmer suicides from California to out East. It's devastating," says Wisconsin dairy farmer Joel Greeno, vice president of Family Farm Defenders, an advocacy group.
The reasons for the crisis are many. Bob Yonkers, chief economist at the International Dairy Foods Association, explains it this way: "We had record-high milk prices between 2004 and 2008. Farmers here responded by increasing milk production, which fed an increasing global demand for milk products. Then the recession hit." Exports dropped. Americans continued to cut back on milk. And milk prices crashed in 2009.
But as small farms fail or are displaced by massive factory farms, there have also been allegations of price fixing by major dairy processors and suppliers, which the U.S. Justice Department is now investigating. As Paul Rozwadowski, of the National Family Farm Coalition puts it, "Oversupply is a myth. The reason farmers receive so little for their milk is that a few big corporate interests set the price."
At stake is not just a way of life. It's the open space that farmland preserves. It's the variety of local cheeses, each with a unique taste. It's knowing where your food comes from.
Losing the Family Farm
I don't have to travel far to see the struggling world of milk. The "dairy industry" is my neighbors. In the early 1960s, Waterbury, Vermont (current population: 5,000), was home to about 40 dairy farms; today, only three remain. Statewide, the number of dairy farms has fallen from 11,000 to 1,100-a 90 percent drop-in the last 60 years. Nationally, more than 400,000 farms have been lost since the 1970s. As small farmers are going under, industrial farms have taken over: in 1998, the majority of milk came from farms with fewer than 200 cows. Today, most milk is produced on farms of over 500 cows, and one-fourth of our milk supply comes from industrial farms of over 2,000 cows.
George Woodard, 57, runs one of Waterbury's three surviving dairy farms. In 1912, his grandfather Walter bought a 200-acre farm on the shoulder of Hunger Mountain. His father continued a small milking operation until 1961, when he sold his dairy herd. When George graduated from high school in the 1970s, he had no idea what to do besides acting, which he had always enjoyed. "My mom said, ‘You ever think of farming?' I hadn't. The idea of getting up at 5 a.m. didn't appeal to me much," he recalls.
Woodard went to California to launch an acting career, but the pull of the family farm remained strong. After three years, he returned, bought 10 heifer calves and began building his own dairy herd. By 1975, Woodard was shipping milk to Cabot Creamery, a Vermont dairy cooperative famous for Cabot Cheese.
Woodard, a tall, affable man in grimy jeans and a flannel shirt, motions me to walk with him to his farmhouse so he can cook himself his daily breakfast of fried eggs, toast and coffee. Old wooden floors creak underfoot as we step through the kitchen clutter. He reaches into his refrigerator and suddenly switches from dairy farmer to milk evangelist, his classic Vermont accent thickening as he proselytizes.
"Milk is not just a drink," he holds forth in the middle of his kitchen. "It's food!" Woodard suddenly pauses his sermon, leans toward me furtively and probes in a low voice, as if letting me in on a vaguely illicit secret, "Have ya ever had fresh, whole milk right from the cow?" I had not, I confess. What little milk I drink comes out of a plastic jug. Woodard grabs a Mason jar, pours me a glass of milk and thrusts it toward me with great fanfare. "This milk is an hour old," he declares proudly.
The rich, white, unpasteurized milk swirls in the glass container, clinging to the sides. I lift the jar, and my mouth is suddenly flooded with incredibly creamy, buttery milk. It is unlike anything I have ever tasted-a full-course meal in a glass.*
I confess: I'm not a big milk drinker. A half-gallon lasts my family of four a week. We use it in cereal and coffee. And I'm not unusual. In the age of energy drinks, bottled water and diet shakes, milk has taken a beating. Since 1980, milk consumption per capita has dropped by more than 22 percent in the U.S., while consumption of "liquid refreshment beverages" (including energy drinks, bottled teas, bottled water and "value-added water" as well as soda) has doubled.
The dramatic shift to sugary drinks among young people has not gone unnoticed. Back in 2004, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement on soft drinks in schools that included "displacement of milk consumption" as one of the potential health risks associated with high intake of sweetened drinks. Soda taxes and bans on school vending machines have popped up across the country, and in March, PepsiCo agreed to stop global sales of sugary soft drinks in schools.
Getting sodas out of schools makes good health sense, but why the fuss over milk? I called Professor Connie Weaver, head of the department of food and nutrition at Purdue University. She runs Camp Calcium, a summer camp for adolescents that studies their calcium requirements. "Calcium is the largest constituent of bone. You can't make calcium in your body; you have to get it from your diet," she explains. Milk is one of the most concentrated and easily absorbed sources of calcium. The federal government recommends that everyone over the age of 9 consume the equivalent of 3 cups per day of low-fat milk, low-fat yogurt or low-fat cheese. "It's very difficult to get enough calcium if you exclude milk from your diet." Weaver notes that "by the end of adolescence, you are primarily done building bone. You can't build any more bone, you can only maintain." As you age, the cells that rebuild bone mass become less active while those that dismantle bone keep working, making it even more important for adults to also get bone-strengthening calcium in their diet.
Shortly after my conversation with Weaver, I pick up my 18-year-old daughter from school. On the way, I stop to grab a gallon of milk. When my daughter opens the car door, she looks quizzically at the jug on the front seat. "What's that doing here?" she queries.
"It's your new best friend," I say. "We've got some catching up to do, and we don't have much time."
An Organic Solution
Local. Pure. Fresh. Healthy. Flavorful.
This is the past-and future-of milk. For George Woodard, the quest for the basic goodness of milk led him to become an early convert to organic farming.
Interest in organic milk was growing slowly in the 1990s, and then spiked. In 1993, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the use of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), also called recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST), an artificial hormone Monsanto developed and then sold to a division of Eli Lilly & Co. in 2008. An analysis undertaken and published by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association concluded that while the hormone can increase milk production by up to 16 percent, it also increased the risk of lameness in cows by 55 percent, among other negative effects. rBGH, which is injected into cows, remains banned from use in Canada, New Zealand, Australia and most of Europe. However, the FDA maintains that milk from cows treated with rBGH is safe for human consumption and that there is no significant difference between the milk from cows treated with rBGH and milk from untreated cows.
Other health experts disagree: in November, the American Public Health Association called for a ban on the use of rBGH because of the "possibility of human health risks," including increased resistance to antibiotics since cows given rBGH often develop mastitis (an udder infection) and need to be treated with antibiotics.
While about 40 percent of the nation's large dairy operations inject their cows with rBGH, more and more conventional milk today is labeled rBST- or rBGH-free. To date, more than 291 hospitals have signed the "Healthy Food in Health Care" pledge, which advocates, among other things, to serve rBGH-free milk. In addition, large companies, such as Walmart, Kroger and Safeway, have switched their private-label milks to be rBGH-free.
For Woodard, the artificial hormone treatment symbolized what was wrong in dairy farming. "I went organic because of the BGH issue. It bothers me when a cow is made to work so hard that they're fried after two to three years." Switching to organic in 1995 wasn't that difficult. "We were practically organic anyway," he says, since he didn't use antibiotics or chemicals in his fields-and it came with a bonus: he was guaranteed a fixed price for his milk. So when the price that conventional dairy farmers received for milk dropped to $11 per hundredweight last year, Woodard was still paid about $28 per hundredweight.
Local and Vocal
When Woodard went organic he joined a small, local dairy co-op called The Organic Cow that was helping Vermont farmers make the switch. But in 1999, The Organic Cow was purchased by Horizon Organic, which in turn was acquired in 2004 by food giant Dean Foods. It was no longer so clear where his milk was being sold.
While The Organic Cow continues to market itself as "Goodness from just up the road" and "simple, pure organic milk from cows right here in New England," Horizon officials declined to say whether The Organic Cow's milk is any different from the rest of Horizon milk, some of which comes from company-owned dairy farms in Idaho and New Mexico with more than 2,000 cows.
Other large organic co-ops are championing the local dairy farmer; Organic Valley, a 1,600-member cooperative that sells about one-third of the organic milk in the country, features the regions where milk is from (New England Pastures, Rocky Mountain Pastures, for example) on its labels and its farmers on its website. "Our goal is to create sustainable farming practices and pay premium prices to our farmers," says Tripp Hughes, marketing director for Organic Valley. Even as the pay price for conventional milk fluctuated wildly (from below $12 per hundredweight in 2006 to $18 in 2007 and then back below $12 in 2009), Organic Valley farmers earned a steadily climbing rate and an average of $28.27 per hundredweight in November 2009.
Elsewhere, farmers are starting to take the pricing of their product into their own hands. In Rhode Island, a group of dairy farmers faced a familiar dilemma as the price of milk seesawed over the last decade: "Go outta business or do something different," one of the farmers recounted. Five of the state's 17 dairy farms hammered out a survival strategy and in 2004 joined together under the Rhody Fresh label (rhodyfresh.com). Rhody Fresh, which has grown to include nine farms, is processed nearby, and sells at a premium in the region: as much as $1 more per gallon than its competitors'.
"When the price of milk plummeted last year we put a floor on our price, crossed our fingers and prayed," said Jim Hines, executive director of Rhody Fresh. Retailers agreed to cut their margins on Rhody Fresh milk to lower the price to consumers. The result: sales of Rhody Fresh increased every month last year. "We sent the message to our customers that we would like you to support us, and we will give you a quality product," said Hines.
Rhody Fresh is now a household name in southeastern New England. Several of its farmers have said flatly that they would not have survived were it not for Rhody Fresh. Their success has also inspired local sheep farmers to market a Rhody Warm blanket and local cattle farmers to sell Rhody Raised meats.
Keep Local Farms (keeplocalfarms.org) is another new initiative for New England dairy farmers that follows a Fair Trade model, using an icon to indicate that the farmer who produced it was paid a fair price that helps cover his production costs. Keep Local Farms educates the public about dairy farming and solicits contributions to support the farms on its website and in Hannaford supermarkets around the Northeast. Finally, Keep Local Farms has signed up universities, such as Harvard and the University of Vermont, each of which charges 10 cents extra for single-serve milk sold in its student stores and contributes the proceeds to Keep Local Farms, which in turn distributes the money to participating farms.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a longtime defender of family farms, told me, "We can't have concentration of ownership in an industry that results in farmers getting unfair prices. As consumers, we have to support local farmers and dairy by purchasing high-quality fresh products rather than supporting huge factory conglomerates."
Milk Goes Gourmet
The struggle to save small dairy farms may also save milk itself. "I believe milk is the most gloriously nutritious food that we have ruined," declares Warren Taylor, who, with his wife, Victoria, owns Snowville Creamery in Ohio, a small dairy that focuses on selling minimally processed milk from grass-fed cows.
Taylor, a self-described "dairy nerd" who worked as a dairy engineer for Safeway supermarkets before launching Snowville Creamery in 2007, argues, "We have had a 30-year continuous decline in children's consumption of milk. It's incredible. Any industry would admit it's failing, but the dairy industry says, ‘It's not our fault-it's Coke and Pepsi's fault! It couldn't possibly relate to the quality of our milk.'" Taylor charges that "95 percent of milk in this country is made on big confinement dairy farms… These people are making ‘commodity milk,' as dairy farmers call it."
Snowville Creamery is trying something different: producing milk that tastes great. Snowville milk comes from grass-fed cows, is unhomogenized and is pasteurized for just 17 seconds at 165°F, four degrees higher than the legal minimum. Most milk is heated to 175°F for up to a minute, and ultra-pasteurized milk, which has a shelf life of two months, is heated to 280°F for 2 seconds. It costs the same as most organic milks-between $3 and $3.50 per half gallon, about the price of a gallon of conventional milk.
"How do you compete with people who sell milk for half what you sell? By making something that is fundamentally different," says Taylor. "Our whipping cream is pumpkin-orange. Our whole milk has a yellow hue. Our skim milk isn't watery and blue-looking-it actually looks white and it has a rich taste. The vast majority of people can taste the difference."
For Snowville Creamery, proof has come at the checkout counter. Snowville Creamery is the best-selling milk at Whole Foods stores in Ohio, is now being sold in Washington, D.C., and can be found in some Kroger supermarkets. Snowville quadrupled sales in 2009, and is now growing at 10 percent per month. Taylor says his creamery had $1.2 million in sales in 2009, and he expects to be doing $3 million by the end of this year. Getting here wasn't easy-Taylor nearly went bankrupt in 2008, and he insists that federal agricultural policies are squeezing out small producers-but he has survived. He says he wants to serve as a model and hopes another 100 small dairies like Snowville open up around the country.
"I think we represent real potential to change consumers' expectations of the quality of the milk they drink," he declares.
I return to George Woodard's farm early one morning, just after he has finished milking. I am forced to a halt in front of his house by the magnificent views of the Green Mountains that are visible from his pasture. Is there room in the modern, high-tech, discount-crazed world for a small farmer like him and the product that he lovingly produces?
"I'm not on the top of the list of milk producers. And I say, ‘So what?' On big farms, where you are doing eight-hour milking shifts and other people are doing the haying and feeding-I wouldn't wanna do that. It's agriculture, but it's not farming. To me, farming is when you get to do everything. You go milk the cows, come in for a break, put the cows out, go put out hay, go fix the fences, come back, have something to eat, come back, have coffee and enjoy the beautiful mountains and scenery. Then you have supper, and go milk the cows at night. Then you come back, you look at the darkness, the lights below and the beauty of the night. That's farming.
"It's very satisfying to realize you've been doing this for 35 years, you gotta good place here, and you're making a good product," Woodard says softly, sweeping his hands slowly from his cow barn to his green pastures, up to the rocky summits.
Woodard disappears for a moment, then returns with a Mason jar of milk, fresh from his morning milking. Sitting on his porch, I drink in all that this farmer has given me, from the creamy elixir to the grand views of the surrounding land.
A good glass of milk, I see from here, is richer than I ever imagined.
Best-selling author David Goodman's last feature, "Foodtopia" (July/August 2009), covered Hardwick, Vermont's sustainable food system.