by Meg Turville-Heitz
Editor’s note: Even for abolitionist vegans, who believe the only “good” dairy industry involving real animals is a dead one, there is value in understanding that the dairy industry as it now exists is not a monolith, and that modes of activism that tend to strengthen the grip on the industry of the now dominant concentrated animal feeding operations can be counterproductive in reducing net harm to animals and the environment. Here, veteran Wisconsin environmental journalist, water quality planner, and teacher Meg Turville-Heitz offers a brief tour of the multi-tiered dairy industry as it exists in her corner of the “Dairyland” state.
The “dairy industry” isn’t a monolithic beast
Every so often I hear “the dairy industry” thrown up as a target of activists in a multitude of causes, environmental, humane, economic, and involving social justice.
The grievances include manure polluting streams and concern about the location of giant concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that house more than 1,000 cows; objections to the removal of calves from their lactating mothers; and annoyance at subsidies.
But the “dairy industry” isn’t a monolithic beast made up of bad actors of evil intent. Grassroots boycotts and protests are unlikely to phase the big players, serving markets including millions of end customers, but there is an impact.
Three dairy industries
There are actually three dairy industries here in Wisconsin.
There are the organic folks who worry about the water they give their cows and what’s on the grass they feed the cows, who are willing to do the paperwork and deal with the certification lag to be able to sell their milk at three times the going price.
There are also the old-time small-holders who are just struggling to hang on until they can collect Social Security. Their kids have no interest in working so hard or living so poor, and eventually convince them to sell their farms to developers. These may be people who pasture their cows in streams because they think they can’t afford not to, and work off the farm to make ends meet. To be honest, many organic farmers do as well. These are the folks who can’t afford to fix their barns because they spent their surplus on hay during the drought, and the next drop in milk prices will put them in debt even further.
Then there are the mega-dairies. Concentrated animal feeding operations, called CAFOs for short, house thousands of cows, and are often owned by absentee operators who pollute their neighbors’ wells with E. coli and the air with aerosolized liquid waste, but complain that they have to get permits for processing more sh*t than a city of 5,000 people.
The mega-dairy CAFO folks are not pasturing their cattle. Their cows are not out in the field exposed to pollutants or sunshine, or crapping in streams, though their giant manure digesters and holding ponds might be leaking, or maybe the mess they spread on frozen fields right before a rain is running off. The CAFO operators, like other major agribusinesses, are the ones setting the tone through the ag lobby and that lobby doesn’t like regulation. They’re the ones in Wisconsin who fight the hardest against water quality monitoring and restrictions on manure handling.
Yes, I’m generalizing, and yes there is overlap. The idyllic red-barn, Holstein-dappled pasture, the home of fresh-faced 4-H kids pampering their calves that most think of when they think of Wisconsin dairies (and that the entire dairy industry would like them to think of) is struggling.
My neighbors have a help wanted sign out in front of their 300-cow dairy because they “lost” all their milking help and are getting too old to keep up, especially when one of them keeps fighting off rapid-growing brain tumors. They probably make as much money on agri-tourism as they do on their milk itself, with haunted barns and dairy tours. One of their neighbors basically “wastes” a corn field because the corn maze makes more money.
Another neighbor has only been able to afford to re-side and insulate one side of his 100-plus-year-old house. The rest of the house is stacked with hay bales against Wisconsin winters because he can’t work off the farm anymore due to a back injury and his wife is a low-paid clerical worker. Her job provides the health insurance. He briefly benefited from an uptick in dairy prices and managed to fix his collapsing barn, but he also lost the help when his son graduated from high school and he’s back to square one, which seems to happen with regularity whenever the shift in dairy pricing comes to rest on the people producing milk. He still owes me land rent from a decade ago, but I “forgave” it.
Another local farmer can’t do anything after noon, when she takes all the painkillers she needs to manage her dairy ewes through lambing and move 120-pound-plus sheep from pasture to pasture. She can’t drive or be counted on to remember anything after she’s taken the drugs.
River of cats
Yet another neighbor has had heart attacks and is moving slower every day, followed by a river of cats in search of the milk slurry he gives them to keep them around. He pitches hay and feeds the calves still, but his grandsons come over every day to help handle the steers who are frisky and rude and push the old man around.
Then there’s the grain farmer who rents a lot of acreage in the area after he gave up raising hogs because he kept getting asthma attacks from the aerosolized pig crap. He wants to use more conservation practices, and has managed to add conservation tillage, but his dad, who can’t do much but drive the sprayer any more, refuses and Dad still owns the land.
Feeling their pain
The “dairy industry” and larger “agriculture” isn’t what it used to be. It can’t be generalized. They’re my neighbors and I’m feeling their pain. They are all struggling as the industry becomes more and more competitive, and the only people who can do it are doing it at an industrial scale: chickens, cows, goats, turkeys and square miles of mono-cropped fields; or are scaling back to small direct market farms, like the one I operated until I couldn’t any more, or organic, where they are more and more at the mercy of industrial scale organics. I couldn’t sell my vegetables at a Dole Organic price point. No one can
Driving through the central part of the state the other day I saw signs draped on semis in many vegetable fields begging for seasonal help as the Del Monte cannery gears up for the harvest, tipping semi loads of green stuff into processors faster than the diminished number of field hands can pick.
My neighbors know their dirt
With all the “dust over the road” signs warning of top soil that often turns the snowdrifts brownish red in the winter, it’s a sign of a different kind of farming. My neighbors know their dirt too well and would never let it blow away like that. These are the people who are pumping water out of the ground faster than it is replenished, sucking up lakes, and in a rain storm as I passed, all the irrigation was still running at full bore, one sending a huge stream out toward the highway.
As in any other business, there are the operators doing their best and trying to apply a land ethic and humane treatment, and there are those who are looking to make the fastest buck, sometimes at the expense of the environment and the animals. These latter, unfortunately, are usually the ones most effectively insulated from market turns and boycotts.
Meg Turville-Heitz earned a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s joint program in Life Sciences Communication and Journalism & Mass Communication in 2015, with minors in folklore and anthropology, with an emphasis on environment, Native American issues, social movements, social media m and political communications. “My non-academic professional experience ranges from water quality planning to reporting and editing,” she writes, with “extensive volunteer work in 4-H and other community and professional service.”