Given the dairy industry’s long history in this part of Mississippi, it’s difficult to acknowledge that there is some truth in a Washington Post column that says the best thing the federal government could do for dairy farmers is help them get out of the business.
The writer, Gene Baur, is a public health professor at Johns Hopkins University and the president of Farm Sanctuary, an organization that supports animal welfare and veganism. He may be a bit biased against, as he put it, “exploiting animals for food,” but he has some facts on his side that make his argument worth considering.
The main fact is beyond dispute: The U.S. dairy industry is vastly overproducing at a time when demand is declining.
Per-capita consumption of milk is down by at least 25 percent since the 1980s, and population growth apparently is not making up the difference. If it were, the country would not have 1.4 billion pounds of cheese in storage.
Though the milk supply is exceeding demand and keeping prices too low — actually, precisely because that is happening — the dairy industry gets a lot of assistance from the federal government. This helps the larger “industrial dairies,” Baur wrote, while the smaller individual farms cannot manage and are forced to close. That has been the exact experience of Southwest Mississippi, which had plenty of family-owned dairies until a few years ago.
Baur called the dairy industry “among the most entrenched lobbies in Washington,” and a textbook example of the benefits that can accrue “from the revolving door between government and big business.” Which does sound like that “Drain the Swamp” idea a lot of people have been talking about lately.
Baur cited one 2018 study that said 73 percent of U.S. dairy producers’ revenue came from various government payments. If that is anywhere close to accurate, it’s practically welfare, and it’s certainly appropriate to ask why so much taxpayer money is being spent this way.
Baur does not want dairy farmers to leave their land, but he does believe they can use it in different, more profitable ways.
“These farms could transition to producing fruits, vegetables, legumes, mushrooms, nuts, hemp and myriad other crops that are increasingly in demand,” he wrote. He noted that the demand for organic food and plant-based food is growing, to the point that supermarkets now offer milk made from several non-dairy ingredients. There are even plant-based meat products.
It’s hard to know how many dairymen would be willing to make the change from cows to fruits or nuts. But it’s easy to see that the economics of the current situation aren’t working, and that U.S. dairy production needs to be reduced significantly.
Government protection has helped American agriculture weather many storms. But its dairy efforts do appear misguided. This money would be far better spent in helping dairy farmers make the transition to producing things that are in greater demand.