Let’s say you have an idea. Any old idea. No matter how big or small, grandiose or simple.
You naturally want to share that idea with someone, anyone, maybe no one. Maybe you want to keep it to yourself, fearing negative reaction. Or maybe you think your idea is so good, so great, so broad and encompassing that you have to share it, have to enlighten the rest of us with it, have to open the windows to your home and scream out “Hey, world, listen to me for a minute!”
An idea like that popped into my mind during a halftime conversation at a highschool girls basketball game between the Wisconsin hamlets Prescott and Spring Valley back in January 2000, as I fulfilled my duties as jack-of-all-trades reporter for the local weekly newspaper. Two dairy farmers were discussing the debate in Congress over the New England Dairy Compact, essentially an OPEC for Northeastern dairy farmers.
“How about forming a Midwestern dairy cartel?” I innocently asked.
They had a wondering kind of look on their faces, as if they had unearthed an archeological find and had no clue what it was—only they knew it was something.
“I don’t know,” said one. “It’s something to think about doing. I wonder if it would work.”
I did, too. In fact, the idea had been incubating for some time, and since the farmers didn’t offhandedly reject it, I decided to investigate further, to create and engage opinion, to propose and hear others’ reactions. Isn’t that what the world of ideas is ail about? Besides, it would make a good item for our paper in the heart of Wisconsin’s dairy country.
Normally, small-town weeklies do not delve into something so deep, at least not before going through the local sports scores, crime news, school news, senior center news, courthouse happenings, garden club minutes, 4-H notices, and, of course, obituaries. Once the workload for our overextended news staff of two died down, the project could commence.
Dairy has fallen into evil times. Not hard times: Milk, butter, cheese, and ice cream are being produced and sold like never before. The problem is the way it’s being done: Assembly-line farms with over a thousand head of cattle lined up row upon row in milking stalls on concrete slabs in gigantic superstructures. No one milks by hand here, and no one calls a cow “Bessie” or “Bossie”—just No. 192 or No. 1102. It’s all computerized, electrified, and humming along with globalist efficiency.
Such producers are wholly owned subsidiaries of agribusiness companies that have merged and morphed into larger and larger companies over the past decade. That’s the way agriculture works nowadays. You can substitute hogs, corn, wheat, peanuts, soybeans, or sugar for dairy. Substitute grocery stores, hardware stores, office-supply stores, bookstores, record stores, pet stores, cafes, churches, or schools for agriculture, and you get an even clearer picture.
The Upper Midwest has also been hurt by the fact that we chose dairy as a lifestyle. Once upon a time, the business was our exclusive right; the gently rolling farmland and cool climate fit well with the Northern European preference for dairy. Back then, we let the regions of our country produce their own commodities: cotton and tobacco in the South, potatoes and apples in the Northwest, citrus in Florida, vegetables in California. Then a series of sometimes violent milk strikes in the 1930’s almost cut off the milk supply to the rest of the nation. Farmers up here dumped their wares rather than sell at low prices. Finally, Franklin Roosevelt decided to teach us a lesson about the new power of the federal government.
Under the new federal system, the price farmers were paid for their milk increased the farther you moved away from the Upper Midwest; thus, dairy farms began to sprout up in places like Georgia and New Mexico, where they never were before. That, and the creation of refrigerated milk trucks, made dairy a nationwide industry Even if Wisconsin farmers wanted to dump their milk to protest low prices today, they could only create a ripple in a much larger ocean.
Are Old McDonald and American Gothic a dying breed? Is the small farmer (like the small businessman everywhere) an anachronism waiting to be gobbled up by rapacious megas and chains? When they are gone, what will be left of their land and the towns, businesses, and schools they once helped to support in rural America? At least there will be plent)’ of space for new subdivisions and manure pits.
A manager for American Milk Producers Incorporated, a dairy cooperative in New Ulm, Minnesota, argues that the design of the free market “is to find the lowest possible price,” which doesn’t do the producer much good unless he’s an employee of agribusiness, which sells on volume. It seemed to me the very premise of the debate about the New England compact was wrong. We should encourage dairy farmers to save their way of life, not try to stop them. If Congress and the courts upheld the compact, let us have a try. Besides, so much of agriculture is already wrapped in cartels anyway: sugar, oranges, peanuts, almonds. Why not dairy?
Our cartel would bring together 40,000 Upper Midwest farmers in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Northern Illinois to declare independence from federal milk orders, determining their own prices for a consumer market of over 50 million. The cartel could negotiate its own trade deals with the outside world and use the numerous university extension offices and ag schools for research and development to benefit small farmers instead of big corporations. Farmers could once again make money off the sweat of their brows. Young people wouldn’t automatically abandon the land to fill up the suburbs. The cartel could be the basis for a whole new regional economy. Our destiny, ourselves.
Excited by the grandiose, I took my idea to the experts: a dairy economist, two farmers, a co-op manager, a university extension agent, and our own congressman. None thought it was good idea. Some gave logical reasons why: Only the most severe production controls could make the cartel work; farmers and their co-ops, being independent businessmen, would probably not join in; transportation and fuel costs, not federal milk orders, are what make prices outside the Midwest so high; the cartel could create surpluses that would lower prices even further; the plan wouldn’t pass a Congress controlled by interests hostile to the Midwest. The closest anyone came to saying something positive was when the co-op manager argued that a cartel could only work on a national level.
Some of the reasons, however, came right out of the globalist hymnal: The cartel would be bad for free trade; we couldn’t browbeat European farmers for open markets if we have local trade barriers ourselves; we wouldn’t be able to import dairy products from New Zealand; it would not be in the spirit of NAFTA and GATT; other regions would form their own compacts, and—horror of horrors— regionalism might spread over the whole nation. Notably, these arguments came from the congressman and the university extension agent, already indoctrinated.
Still, I was undaunted. I wrote the story anyway—warts and all— and a hard hitting editorial supporting the concept.
Unfortunately, my editor thought my story worthy of page 11 of that week’s edition, after being bumped for a barn fire and a rollover accident involving an underage driver. Then, my publisher was unhappy that I used the words “treacherous globalist” and described the congressmen and agribusiness employees as “slaves.”
I would not give up. My idea needed to reach beyond our 4,700 circulation to other newspapers in the upper Midwest. I e-mailed the story and editorial to hundreds of them. Some asked to use it; some asked me never to e-mail them again. But most of the replies came in the form of returns from addresses that no longer existed. Moreover, there were no telephone calls or letters to the editor from the public—one way or the other—on the issue. Nothing even from the congressman.
What did the silence mean? Was the idea still sinking in, or did nobody care? Was it still being thought out, or laughed off? As a lone reporter at a small newspaper in a town most have never heard of—and not really a recognized expert on the subject—I should have realized that it’s too much to think I had the plan to save civilization as we know it, and that it would work, if only other people took me seriously. I had my idea, and they gave it a hearing. In a world full of ideas, that’s probably the best I could do. The end result can only be judged in the distant future. Will my home and other rural areas of the Upper Midwest still have farms dotting their landscape, or tract housing? That will be the clincher.
There are signs of hope. Wisconsin’s Dairy 2020 board, which provides state grants to struggling dairy operations, gave $800,000 of taxpayer money to five investors from New Mexico to start a 2,000- herd factory farm in Evansville, which is located in Rock County along the Illinois border. But the project was quashed by local residents. Closer to home, residents in nearby Martell Township voted to keep out any large dairy operation. They are now wrestling with the Pierce County board to keep their resolution intact. While neither case may have had anything to do with the proposed cartel, they both have something to do with preserving a way of life, which was my point all along.
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