Milking a myth as farmers suffer

Pandering and resentment won’t save Wisconsin’s dairy industry.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.

Pandering and resentment won’t save Wisconsin’s dairy industry.

Each week in Wisconsin politics brings an abundance of bad policies, bad takes, and bad actors. In our new recurring feature, Capitol Punishments, we bring you the week’s highlights (or low-lights) from the state Legislature and beyond.

In 2017, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, an affiliate of the industry group the National Dairy Council, released survey results that showed 7% of American adults thought chocolate milk comes from brown cows. Cue hundreds, maybe even thousands of breathless articles on Americans’ astounding ignorance of food production.

Problem is, it’s probably not true. No one has done a full debunking of the survey, because the Innovation Center never publicly shared the wording of the survey or its data. But during an interview on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, National Dairy Council President Jean Ragalie-Carr said respondents could answer that chocolate milk came from “brown cows, or black-and-white cows, or they didn’t know.” Since the milk that is used to make chocolate milk comes from black-and-white cows and brown cows (and we don’t even know if there were other options), 48% of respondents said they didn’t know. That result wasn’t widely reported, even though it was a huge red flag there was something wrong with the survey itself.

Ten days later, NPR’s public editor published an analysis stating that the network should have been more openly skeptical of the survey in its reporting. 

It wasn’t the first time, nor will it probably be the last time, that an agricultural marketing agency pokes fun at city-folks for not understanding how our food system works. Because it’s much easier to blame ignorant consumers for the industry’s problems than to dig into the real, structural problems that are shutting down family farms and strangling small-town economies.

That is why the dairy industry has devoted years to asking the U.S. government to bar alternative milks—almond, coconut, oat, etc.—from being labeled “milk,” a solution that is at best, a band-aid, and at worst, a distraction and delay from enacting real changes that could save dairy farms. 

Maybe dairy producers are hoping the alternative milks will be moved away from the dairy milk in stores, or that the alternative milk industry will have to waste money redesigning its packaging. But I bet there’s a segment that honest-to-God believe that the reason milk sales are dropping is because us city slickers think almond milk and oat milks come from cows. 

Like many Americans, before I drank alternative milks I drank no milk because I’m lactose intolerant*. There are countless other reasons why people choose not to drink cow milk, but the bigger point is that it’s a choice. You could ban all the alternative milks in the world, but those people are not going to switch to cow milk.

You know what did bring me back to cow milk? Lactose-free milk becoming widely available. Turns out if you treat customers with respect and learn the real reasons why they buy what they buy (instead of the reasons that make you feel smug and misunderstood), you can find a middle ground that works for maybe not everyone, but quite a few. 

So while I get that Sen. Tammy Baldwin is tweeting about alternative milks to appeal to the dairy base, it won’t actually help. Baldwin needs to engage in real conversations about what needs to happen to support small farmers. The biggest one is to address the crushing rate of farm consolidation, which has made it almost impossible for small farmers to compete. 

If the closest dairy processing plant is three hours away, farmers don’t have any room to bargain on price. Plus, they need to produce enough milk and buy a big enough truck to make the trip worthwhile. Economies of scale are no longer about increasing profit; it’s become a matter of survival. These and other underlying material conditions, not inane branding battles, are where to start fighting the scourge of farm bankruptcies and farmer suicides

Real change would mean taking on big ag and truly shifting our system to support smaller, more sustainable farms, which would also result in more sustainable small towns. It would be tough and it would probably get ugly. But if someone were brave enough to do it, we could transform and strengthen agriculture and rural communities for the next generation of farmers. 

*(Side note: There’s a special place in hell for baristas who put cow milk in alternative milk orders. I don’t know if you can’t be bothered to clean the cow milk off the frother or you just roll your eyes at alternative milk, but I hope you at least get to spend some time in purgatory feeling cute, going out on the town, treating yourself to a coffee, and then breaking into a sweat, having stabbing pains in your gut, and realizing you need to find a bathroom two minutes ago. Also, if you’re charging $1 for oak milk without another alternative, especially when lactose-free milk is in every grocery store and barely costs more than regular milk, I am giving you the side-eye.)

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