Last year, I wrote in favor of establishing a Midwestern dairy cartel (“One Man’s Idea is Another’s . . . ,” Vital Signs, August 2001). As a call for controlling one’s regional, economic, and cultural destiny, it was well received. As a matter of economics, however, it was not a very practical idea. A man can dream of establishing an OPEC in the heartland, but there are certain dreams that are better left unfulfilled.
In reality, bigness and corporatization—if not downright Stalinist collectivism—are already happening in the Midwest farm culture, particularly in dairying. Everything that is anti-free market takes place when a small farm goes under or gets swallowed up by a giant agribusiness, cartels notwithstanding. At least my OPEC was made up of hard-working small businessmen and their families—hardly lazy sheiks or corrupt generals and politicians living off their oil wealth.
If the answer is not a cartel or some regional price compact, however, then what can turn the tide in favor of family farms and the structures they support, economically and culturally? And not just for dairy but for all of agriculture and agrarian life as well?
Larry Swain doesn’t seem like a rebel. There’s no James Dean cool or Marlon Brando sneer in him, just the look of a rumpled, portly college professor. But in the ag world, Swain is definitely a rebel—and, potentially, one who represents a danger to the pervading “Get big, or get out” mindset. This agriculture professor at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls is thinking big by thinking small.
“To many Americans, cheap food has become our birthright as much as cheap oil is,” Swain said as I interviewed him while we traveled in his van on I-94 through the Twin Cities. “That’s the way American agriculture is geared and that’s where world agriculture is headed—towards big farms, mass production and mass marketing, to which the products are sold to big grocery store and restaurant chains. It’s like a shark that has to keep swimming in order to stay alive. Well, agriculture and food production on this scale have to keep getting bigger in order to survive.”
Swain, who grew up on a South Dakota farm, believes the whole rotten structure is not only killing itself by getting too big, it’s killing real people in the process.
“There was a farmer near Wausau who recently died of a heart attack. He owned a large dairy farm, and he won awards, too, for being a model farmer. Now, he drops dead just like that, only in his mid-50’s. How does that happen? Lots of farmers have been sold on the idea that, if they just expand their operations, they can put their worries on the shelf. They can just hire out for labor, have everything run by computer, be more efficient, cost effective, no sweat at all. Instead of being stuck on their farms all the time, they can take vacations once in a while. Then they find out, [with] a farm that size, you have to worry [about] zoning ordinances from the county and the townships, manure storage and all the environmental regulations that come from it, supply issues, equipment maintenance, animal health, some of the same problems smaller units deal with, only on an even larger scale. The stress doesn’t go away; it just gets worse.”
From this anecdote, Swain launches an attack on those he thinks responsible for corrupting, if not killing, what he once held sacred: the federal government, for policies that encourage expansion; the banks, which provide the money for it; the land-grant universities and their extension agents, which provide the rationale; and chain stores and fast-food joints, which provide the skewed market. He saves his heaviest artillery for the farmers’ cooperatives that, instead of protecting their clients, join in on the fun. His screed against the co-ops comes as we pass the headquarters of Land O’ Lakes, a big Upper Midwestern co-op located in one of the glass towers that makes up St. Paul’s skyline.
“We’ve got to get the big cooperatives back in the hands of ordinary farmers,” Swain muses as we turn south, away from the urban core. “The suits have taken over in the boardroom. They only know one business model: Get big, or get out.”
Whether it’s “Get big, or get out” or “Fence row to fence row,” as former agriculture secretary Earl Butz used to say while he and Richard Nixon gave away our grain to the communists, such phrases have all too often summarized how American agriculture (and, really, the whole economy) has operated in the last 30 years. Swain wants to fight back, and he has a plan to do it—a free-market plan that, unlike my own fantasy, has a shot at succeeding.
We are back in the countryside west of I-35, near the town of New Prague, in Scott County, Minnesota. Here, on the small farm owned by the Minar family, is Swain’s counterattack: a farm, dairy, and processing plant all in one. The Minars are marketing, selling, and distributing all by themselves. No middlemen allowed. Over a bountiful farmers’ supper, Dave and Florence Minar, with children Mike, Dan, and Laura, plus spouses and neighbors and friends, brainstormed this idea of producing and selling their own dairy products in order to keep their 150-cow operation from becoming just another failed farm. They are now Cedar Summit Farms, Inc.
The Minars turned to Swain, who is retiring from teaching to work full-time at his own consulting company, which draws up business plans for small farms. He helped the family get loans to invest in state-of-the-art processing and packaging equipment built by Israeli companies for kibbutzes, plus computers and software that will help Cedar Summit directly market its soft dairy products of milk, ice cream, and yogurt.
“Right now, conditions are ripe for these kinds of operations to succeed and establish a market share,” Swain said. “The technology is now available for small farms to be able to process and package and distribute products directly from the farm. There is a growing consumer demand for food that is seen as both safe and familiar, particularly after the anthrax scare last fall and all the disease scares in Europe. The cost is less, and the profits, greater in these kinds of operations. Big farms, by contrast, have to keep expanding their operations just to keep up with the costs. It’s a vicious cycle.”
Cedar Summit and other such farms are not utopias. Local banks, owned by faraway chains, are reluctant to give loans to small producers. The Minars needed plenty of equity in their farm to get the start-up money, and they are mortgaged heavily in equipment. Plus, they have had to deal with the local county and township boards, which are having a hard time trying to figure out how to classify such a business: It is commercial, agricultural, or retail? Because Scott County is considered part of the Twin Cities metropolitan area even though it still mostly countryside, they have more bureaucratic headaches in dealing with the metropolitan council.
In a way, this is a blessing in disguise. Scott County and New Prague are considered exurban territory, somewhere between country and suburb. You can find clusters of subdivisions outside New Prague and near I-35 and other four-lane highways that take commuters to their jobs in the Twin Cities. The presence of commuters means that the Minars have another local market besides the grocery stores and regular farmers’ markets for direct sale of their products.
What the Minars like most about their farm is what it means to and for their family. There are plenty of “chores” to be done. Besides working in the barn, Minar family members act as accountants, salesmen, marketers, computer programmers, technicians, and chefs. These jobs lured Mike and Dan home from the Twin Cities. The operation also involves the spouses of both Laura and Mike, along with extended family and neighbors.
“We have top-notch milk here, and we knew we could make good dairy products,” Laura said. “But it’s our family that’s the middleman now. It’s the perfect opportunity for all of us to work together again. It’s so nice to have the family business back.”
The spin-off jobs from the farm are what has Swain most excited about this project and others he hopes to start. “With all these jobs available, people from rural areas don’t have to leave for the big city to find work, to find the kinds of high-paying jobs they want. They can still live right here and not have to commute. I think this is the way we can revive our rural communities as a whole; otherwise, they are going to die out.”
He dreams of putting 40 such operations in the Mann Valley in Pierce County where I live; a buffer, like Cedar Summit Farms, against the urban sprawl of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Saving these farms will preserve much of the scenery of south-central Minnesota.
I wasn’t the only one who was at Cedar Summit Farms to observe this new model for agriculture. Farmers from Wisconsin and Nebraska were taking a look, seeing how the principles of the Minars’ operation could work for them—and not just at dairies, either. Couldn’t an Iowa hog farmer market his own pork products through a micro-slaughterhouse? An Illinois corn farmer, his own corn syrup, cereal, or ethanol through his own microprocessing plant? Or a Kansas wheat farmer, his own bread through a micro-mill? The possibilities are endless.
The day of our visit, radio station KCZH, the “Voice of Czech County,” was broadcasting live from Cedar Summit Farm with the help of the New Prague Chamber of Commerce, which is eager to drum up business for the area. A guest performer squeezed out Czech folk songs on a concertina. The ties that bind the Old World to the New in this area, which was so heavily settled by Czech and Slovak immigrants, run right through this micro-dairy, and not just in the wonderful Bohemian cream (milk mixed with brandy) that Cedar Summit produces. It was in Slovakia itself, several years ago, that Swain got the idea to establish micro-dairies. Touring the countryside, Swain happened upon a small village that took pride in a micro-dairy operation the local farmers had set up. Sadly, that dairy has now closed, but Swain carried the seed across the ocean in the hope that the cousins of these Slovaks in New Prague—and their neighbors across the Upper Midwest—could plant it themselves.
The day at Cedar Summit was a festive one; happiness beamed from the faces of the Minar family, Swain, and the other farmers in attendance. For the first time in a long time, they were excited about farming again, proud to be who they are. If farmers can be accused of feeling that the world is against them, often that’s because it really is. The problems this attitude can lead to—anger, depression, resentment, suicide, and despair—are well documented in the Upper Midwest and in rural communities across America. Yet micro-dairies and micro-farms in general are fighting back. They offer a solution that’s found in the farmers’ own hands, rather than those of people far away in Washington, the state capital, some bureaucrat’s office, or a corporate boardroom. You don’t need government socialism in order to fight corporate socialism; you just need a plan and the will to declare independence.