Milk

     The Wall Street Journal says that being a dairy farmer is one of the worst jobs in the nation.
     I’m sure that by The Wall Street Journal’s values – money divided by hours – The Wall Street Journal is correct.
     But you couldn’t prove it by the organic farmer down the road from me in Vermont. He’s about the happiest guy I’ve ever known.
     His wife looks even happier than he is.
     They don’t make any money and they work their butts off. But that doesn’t mean they have a terrible job. They like their jobs.
     I suppose the farmers could be wrong, and The Wall Street Journal could be right, but I doubt it.
     But my neighbors’ lives as dairy farmers are so precarious – and made possible only by people’s liking for organic milk – that I thought I should tell the story – about how milk gets to our tables, and how dairy farmers survive.
     I’ll call the farmer Bill. He told me his story last week after he got down from his tractor to meet my dog.
     Bill’s family has had a farm in Vermont not quite forever, but his family cemetery has gravestones dating back to the 1690s. Bill wants to pass the farm on to his kids, and he may be able to do that – thanks to organic foods.
     Milk pricing in the United States is a nightmare, riddled with corruption since at least the Nixon administration. It’s because milk is an essential food for children, and congressmen always want to help … their rich friends.
     So the federal government sets minimum milk prices, by the hundredweight (cwt) of milk. But as Bill told me, “If the price is $17 per hundredweight, and it costs you $20 to produce it, you’ve got problems.”
     Bill’s little farm churned out organic milk even before he got certified as an organic dairy, years ago.
     That certification saved his family farm.
     Bill gets twice as much per gallon for his milk because it’s organic. Plus, he doesn’t have to pay for transportation: for the big reefers that pick up and transport his milk, though regular farmers have to pay the milk co-ops for that.
     He’s getting about $32 per cwt now – enough to stay alive. Not enough to make any money, with three kids in college, but enough to wave at his money as it goes by.
     I asked how much it cost him to produce milk.
     He said about $34 per cwt.
     Wait a minute, I said. If it costs you $34 per cwt, and you get $32, how do you make a profit?
     Bill said the calculations leave out what he makes from his farm store – where you leave money in a basket for eggs and the maple syrup he boils up himself – and the money he makes from selling old cows for beef.
     Bill’s farm store is a rickety old shack you could knock over with a feather. I used to buy fresh milk there, but Bill had to stop selling it. One case of listeria poisoning could cost him his farm. The legal bills would wipe him out, even if he didn’t do it.
     It’s a damn shame. That milk was ambrosia. I’ve never had milk like that.
     Bill cuts grass in hundreds of acres of fields around here, to feed his cows. I figured that hay was just about free for him, but Bill said it costs him $30 per half-ton bale, just to cut and wrap and store it. The plastic wrap alone for a single bale costs him $5.
     Bill just cut the grass in the 25-acre field behind my house. It cost him $7,500 to do that, counting fuel, labor and equipment, just to cut the grass from one field one time. He’ll cut it twice more this summer.
     Vermont is still beautiful thanks to dairy farmers like Bill. We have open fields, and cows, and wild animals.
     Bill and his wife work their butts off every day of the year, milking their cows twice a day, and doing everything else it take to run a dairy farm.
     They make about $1.25 per cow per day.
     And they don’t have that many cows.
     So buy organic milk. It keeps farmers alive. Tastes good, too.

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