Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Happy Cows

Katherine sent me an article on the Happy Cow Creamery in Pelzer, South Carolina. I'll bet you had no idea that happier cows produce healthier milk & cheese! "Wait," you're probably saying -- "You mean that if we treat people, creatures, even things well, they'll treat us well in return?"

When I read about the success of small farms like Tom Trantham's, I wonder whether the use of "modern farming methods" like confined feeding, chemical pesticides & fertilizers, growth hormones, etc., isn't just a means for driving small farmers out of business and replacing them with consolidated, "corporate" farms. In other words, it gets my conspiracy wheels a-churnin'. I imagine some fat-cat Boss Tweed type sucking on a cigar in a boardroom smack in the middle of some urban area, far from the filth and chaos of nature, hatching some plan that will consolidate the power & profit of the farm in the hands of his be-monocled and top-hatted friends (and Wall Street, of course). If you can control the means, you can control the profit -- and the only way to control the means is to wrest it from the hands that supply the means by changing the means, removing the hands, following the assembly-line model.

Here's an excerpt from the article that Katherine sent:
The confined feeding arrangement worked until the glut of milk, fueled by the move to large-scale production, suppressed the price farmers were being paid. The generally accepted remedy was to buy more cows in order to have more milk to sell. "Get big or get out" was the warning throughout the industry, and farmers heeded it by selling out to consolidating dairies. All over the country small dairy farms closed their barn doors for good. In 1940 more than 4.6 million small farms had dairy cows; the average herd size was five milkers. By 1987 only 202,068 dairy farms remained, and the herd size averaged 54. Trantham's was one of those.

"Get big or get out." Obviously, it's possible to make the cost of operating a farm too expensive for the small farmer by re-imagining the means of farm production and re-defining the way in which farming is practiced. Changing the practice eventually changes the attitude toward the land and toward the farm, resulting in a complete reconception of the practice of farming itself. Expensive methods & equipment, themselves the result of corporate production practices, are now "necessities" for farmers, both large and small. Is this the Wal-Martizing of the family farm-- or is this just the model from which Sam Walton learned so well?

Trantham on farming: "'That was traditional farming,' he says. 'I was one of the top users of chemicals. I thought that's what farm­ing was, using chemicals.'"

Is this how most "modern" farmers conceive of the practice of farming? Are agricultural scientists merely trained in the use and application of chemicals (hence the "scientist")? What happened to the old agrarians like my grandparents and their parents before them, who worked with the land without the mediation of chemical sprays and hormones? (Wendell Berry knows)

Now we're living with the powerful myth of the family farm -- something for "fiscal conservatives" to trot out whenever they need to drum up middle-American support for repealing an estate or capital gains tax. "We must repeal the death tax! Ah! The Family Farm! The Family Farm! What will become of the Family Farm?!?" In 1934, there were 6.8 million family farms in America. By 1975, there were 2.5 million. In 2003, 1.9 million. (sources here and here) The practices of "fiscal conservatives" and the tendency toward consolidation, centralization, and corporatization (in the name of profit) have done more than any "death tax" to kill the family farm. When fiscal conservatives speak of the "family farm," they are really referring to the agricultural industry, the chemical industry, massive corporations, and powerful lobbies. The family farm is a front, a beard, a linguistic shortcut to votes. Why are these poseurs allowed to continue to pretend to be its champions?

Fortunately, there's been a recent revival of interest in locally-grown, organic produce that comes from real family farms. And the Happy Cow Creamery generates so much buzz in SC and surrounding areas that, according to Tom Trantham, "You can't even get into the store on Saturday. You have to wait on people to come out."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Tocqueville II.II.19 shows that American farms were always commercial and industrial, contradicting the feudal casuitry about the inherited family farm