By now you’ve probably heard of or seen “The Meatrix II: Revolting.”

In the Internet film—a spoof on the popular Matrix movies—the character “Leo” views a pasture full of cows with a woman happily milking a cow by hand. But when he looks through the Meatrix, Leo sees a “modern-day dairy factory.” Needless to say, the antics played out in the animated film are enough to raise the ire of any dairy producer.

At the end of the film, Leo says, “There are still small family farms where you can get your dairy. By supporting them, you help end the Meatrix.”

That statement denigrates large farms and further fuels the misconceptions that consumers may have about modern dairy farming and what is a family farm.

Use the following responses to dispel some of these misunderstandings.

Aren’t all large dairy farms corporate-owned?

Actually, most dairy farms are family-owned. That’s true for both small and large farms. (For more information, see “Family farms by the numbers” below)

Personalize your response with an example, such as: “Our dairy farm has been in my family for four generations. I manage the cows, and my spouse maintains the dairy’s financial records. Two of our children are actively involved in the day-to-day operations. My daughter is responsible for the calves, and my son is in charge of the cropping enterprise. We also employ eight full-time employees, which helps support those families, too.”

Remember to stress that a corporation isn’t bad, says Aaron Putze, executive director of the Coalition to Support Iowa’s Farmers.

Point out that many family dairies incorporate or form a limited liability company for tax purposes or to help them transfer the family business to the next generation. Sometimes, dairies are owned by more than one family. That’s another reason why they may use an “incorporated” or “LLC” business structure.

Just because a dairy farm is incorporated doesn’t mean it has  “faceless ownership,” adds Brad Scott, a fourth-generation dairy producer. “These farms are still very actively run and managed by a family,” he says. Scott operates a 980-cow dairy farm with his father and brother in San Jacinto, Calif.

If you have incorporated or formed an LLC, explain why you did so. Use an example, such as: “We incorporated with the Smith family to achieve greater economies of scale. It helps us purchase feed, supplies and farm equipment at lower cost.”

Don’t large dairy farms run the small, family farm out of business?

The dairy industry is made up of family farms of all sizes. This co-existence can actually benefit small farms, making it possible for them to stay in business.

Industry experts say a good case-in-point is milk-processing plants. These plants prefer to buy milk from local dairy producers. It’s cheaper for them to do this than pay the extra hauling cost to bring in milk from further away. Large dairy farms help ensure a steady supply of milk for the processing plant. This helps keep the local market alive for small farms, too. It’s really a win-win for farms of all sizes.

Large dairy farms also support the local infrastructure. Farms of all sizes need the services provided by veterinarians, nutrition consultants, feed suppliers, equipment dealers and agricultural lenders. Large farms help maintain demand for these services, which keeps them accessible to small dairy farms, too.

Why are dairy farms getting bigger?

Dairy farms grow in size by adding cows to their herds. This expansion helps them stay in business.

If your farm has expanded, personalize your response by offering one or more of these reasons:

  • We expanded so that we could support a second generation. My son or daughter came back to work on the farm. We want to be able to provide a decent living for his/her family.
  • Our farm grew so that we could spread our operating cost over a larger base of milk production. By doing so, we are able to become more efficient and produce high-quality milk at less cost.
  • The price that we receive for our milk has not kept up with the cost of doing business. We expanded so that we could produce more milk to cover our operating cost, which includes expenses such as feed, animal care, electricity, fuel, equipment and labor.

You also can bring your message home with an analogy, such as:

“Like most people, I like to get a raise. Growing the size of my dairy farm is how I get a raise to maintain an acceptable standard of living. It’s also a good feeling to know that my dairy provides nearly 5,000 gallons of milk per day. That’s enough for 310 children to have three glasses of milk per day.”

Note: Consumer-tested messages developed by Dairy Management Inc.™, which manages the national dairy-checkoff program, contributed to this article.


Family farms by the numbers

most dairy farms in the u.s. are family-owned. as this table shows, non-family corporations make up less than 1 percent of U.S. dairy farms.

Organization of U.S. dairy farms

Year

Individual/
family

Partnership1

Corporation

Other2

Family

Non-family

1997

79.4 %

15.4 %

4.5 %

0.2 %

0.5 %

2002

81.1 %

13.9 %

4.5 %

0.2 %

0.3 %

1 The Census of Agriculture does not specify if partnerships are family- or non-family owned. However, the Economic Research Service indicates that many partnerships
probably involve family members.

2 “Other” = Cooperative, estate or trust, institutional, etc.

 

Source: 1997 Census of Agriculture data summarized in Table 7 of “The Changing Landscape of U.S. Milk Production,” USDA Economic Research Service Statistical Bulletin Number 978, June 2002. 2002 data updated by Don Blayney, ERS, May 2006.

 


What is a “factory farm?”

“the term ‘factory farm’ is an extremely toxic term,” says aaron Putze, executive director of the Coalition to Support Iowa’s Farmers. “It can’t be defined.”

So, how do you respond to people who accuse you of owning a factory farm?

“We immediately demand a definition from them,” Putze says. “The variety of responses is stunning.” Here are some of them:

  • “A factory farm is anyone who needs a permit to operate.”
  • “A factory farm is anyone who produces anything in volume.”
  • “A factory farm is anyone who stores manure in a pit.”
  • “We can’t define it, but you’d know it if you saw it.”

“By asking for a definition, you create an educational opportunity,” Putze says. “It gives you an opportunity to discuss the issues and to let them know that the agricultural community is paying attention. Words mean something. If a word can’t be defined, then it shouldn’t be used to characterize an occupation and way of life.”

The Coalition to Support Iowa’s Farmers was founded by six Iowa farm organizations. One of its primary functions is to help farmers educate consumers about the importance of food production. Visit the Web site at: www.supportiowasfarmers.org