John Phipps: Does Government Aid Get in the Way of Saving Small Dairies?

Farmers are frequently torn between being perceived as remarkable professionals using cutting edge technology to produce prodigious output and being independent live connectors to romanticized agrarian past. No segment grapples with these conflicting roles more than dairies. The act of milking a cow is epitome of animal husbandry, and the ceaseless workload of a dairy was an enduring marvel to non-farmers.

While the relentless decline in dairy farms is similar to other ag segments, there is something about the ongoing disappearance of small dairy farms that seems more poignant to many inside and outside the industry. For my entire media career, there have been virtually identical stories frankly exploiting the heartache of selling off the cows and closing the barn doors. Coupled with the fundamental attraction humans seem to have for cows – c’mon, it’s hard to dislike this completely domesticated daily provider with the sad eyes and relatively gentle behavior – dairies fill our minds with enduring sympathetic images. This emotional linkage has been one key to the unending efforts to use public dollars to make dairies, especially small dairies, swim upstream against the flood of technological, biological and economic advancements that make that lifestyle a difficult fit in today’s agriculture.

The loss of dairy operations while the number of cows rises are trends that have defied politicians, economists, and farmers themselves. Dozens of expensive, complicated, and well-meaning dairy programs have been tried all along this curve with little effect.

Despite these obvious facts, we can’t stop trying to prevent or shape change in the dairy industry with intervention by the government. The idea those sincere efforts may be the problem never crosses our minds. The suggestion that milk could be supplied by a free market borders on heresy.

And yet there is an example of a thriving dairy industry with stable farm numbers, world-class productivity, and formidable export strength we could at least consider. Next week I’ll make the case for going Kiwi – finally admitting dairy programs aren’t the answer – they are a big part of the problem.

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