Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Struggling dairy farms should form a cooperative like tobacco growers did decades ago, Wendell Berry writes

Berry (Photo by Guy Mendes)
To save their farms, struggling small dairies should consider banding together in a cooperative as tobacco farmers did decades ago, author and farmer Wendell Berry writes for the Henry County Local in Kentucky. In March, the Sentinel-News in nearby Shelbyville reported that Dean Foods ended its milk-procurement contracts with dozens of small dairy farmers in Kentucky, and others nationwide, as of May 31. Walmart, Dean's largest regional buyer, plans to start processing its own milk.

"The story of Dean Foods’ cancelled contracts is a representative piece of the story of rural America since the 1950s, when [President] Eisenhower’s secretary of agriculture told farmers to 'get big or get out,'" Berry writes. "And so the story of rural America has been the story of the dispossession of millions of farm families, the disintegration of rural communities, and the destruction of small businesses and small towns."

Berry writes that, from what he's read, Kentucky's agricultural offices and organizations don't seem to have a solution to the problem of overproduction or much help for farmers affected by it. They also don't blame Walmart for it. Shelby County Extension Agent Corrine Belton told the Sentinel-News, "It's not Walmart's fault; they just made the best business decision for them."

Berry also notes that, according to Reace Smith of Dean Foods, American dairy farms are producing about 350 million more gallons of milk each year than the year before. That benefits huge agribusinesses because it's less efficient and profitable for large corporate customers to buy from many small dairies.

The best solution, he writes, is the one proposed by dairy farmer Gary Rock in the News-Sentinel article: a nationwide cooperative that sets production quotas in line with market demands. The Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association, which Berry's father helped create, is a good model, he believes. "That organization effectively controlled production, maintained fair prices, and gave the same protections to small producers as to large ones," Berry writes. "The history of the Burley Association disproves, as its membership conscientiously rejected, the 'inevitability' of the destruction of family farms by agribusiness corporations."

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