Letter From thernUpper Midwestrnby Sean ScallonrnOne Man’s Idea Is Another’s . .rnLet’s say you have an idea. Any old idea.rnNo matter how big or small, grandiose orrnsimple.rnYou naturally want to share that idearnwith someone, anyone, maybe no one.rnMaybe you want to keep it to yourself,rnfearing negative reaction. Or maybe yournthink your idea is so good, so great, sornbroad and encompassing that you have tornshare it, have to enlighten the rest of usrnwith it, have to open the windows to yourrnhome and scream out “Hey, world, listenrnto me for a minute!”rnAn idea like that popped into my mindrnduring a halftime conversation at a highschoolrngirls basketball game beKveen thernWisconsin hamlets Prescott and SpringrnValley back in January 2000, as I fulfilledrnmy duties as jack-of-all-trades reporter forrnthe local weekly newspaper. Two dairyrnfarmers were discussing the debate inrnCongress over the New England DairyrnCompact, essentially an OPEC forrnNortheastern dairy farmers.rn”How about forming a Midwesternrndain.’ cartel?” I innocently asked.rnThey had a wondering kind of look onrntheir faces, as if they had unearthed anrnarcheological find and had no clue whatrnit was—only they knew it was something.rn”I don’t know,” said one. “It’s somethingrnto think about doing. I wonder if itrnwould work.”rnI did, too. In fact, the idea had beenrnincubating for some time, and since thernfarmers didn’t ofifliandedly reject it, I decidedrnto investigate further, to create andrnengage opinion, to propose and hear others’rnreactions. Isn’t that what the world ofrnideas is ail about? Besides, it would makerna good item for our paper in the heart ofrnWisconsin’s dairy countr\rnNormally, small-town weeklies do notrndelve into something so deep, at least notrnbefore going through the local sportsrnscores, crime news, school news, seniorcenterrnnews, courthouse happenings,rngarden club minutes, 4-H notices, and, ofrncourse, obituaries. Once the workloadrnfor our overextended news stalf of tworndied down, the project could commence.rnDairy has fallen into evil times. Notrnhard times: Milk, butter, cheese, and icerncream are being produced and sold likernnever before. The problem is the way it’srnbeing done: Assemblv-line farms withrnover a thousand head of cattle lined uprnrow upon row in milking stalls on concreternslabs in gigantic superstructures.rnNo one milks by hand here, and no onerncalls a cow “Bessie” or “Bossie” — just No.rn192 or No. 1102. It’s all computerized,rnelectrified, and humming along withrnglobalist efficiency.rnSuch producers are wholly owned subsidiariesrnof agribusiness companies thatrnhave merged and morphed into largerrnand larger companies over the pastrndecade. That’s the way agriculture worksrnnowadays. You can substitute hogs, corn,rnwheat, peanuts, soybeans, or sugar forrndairy. Substitute grocery stores, hardwarernstores, office-supply stores, bookstores,rnrecord stores, pet stores, cafes, churches,rnor schools for agriculture, and vou get anrneven clearer picture.rnThe Upper Midwest has also beenrnhurt by the fact that we chose dair}’ as arnlifestyle. Once upon a time, the businessrnwas our exclusie right; the gentiy rollingrnfarmland and cool climate fit well withrnthe Northern European preference forrndairy. Back then, we let the regions ofrnour country produce their own commodities:rncotton and tobacco in thernSouth, potatoes and apples in the Northwest,rncitrus in Florida, vegetables in California.rnThen a series of sometimes violentrnmilk strikes in the 1930’s almost cutrnoff the milk supply to the rest of the nation.rnFarmers up here dumped theirrnwares rather than sell at low prices. Finally,rnFranklin Roosevelt decided tornteach us a lesson about the new power ofrnthe federal government.rnUnder the new federal system, thernprice farmers were paid for their milk increasedrnthe farther you moved away fromrnthe Upper Midwest; thus, dairy farms beganrnto sprout up in places like Ceorgiarnand New Mexico, where the’ never werernbefore. That, and the creation of refrigeratedrnmilk trucks, made dairy a nationwidernindustr) Even if Wisconsin farmersrnwanted to dump their milk to protestrnlow prices today, thev could only create arnripple in a much larger ocean.rnAre Old McDonald and AmericanrnGothic a dying breed? Is the small farmerrn(like the small businessman everywhere)rnan anachronism waiting to be gobbledrnup by rapacious megas and chains?rnWhen they are gone, what will be left ofrntheir land and the towns, businesses, andrnschools they once helped to support inrnrural America? At least there will bernplent)’ of space for new subdivisions andrnmanure pits.rnA manager for American Milk ProducersrnIncorporated, a dairy cooperative inrnNew Ulm, Minnesota, argues that the designrnof the free market “is to find the lowestrnpossible price,” which doesn’t do thernproducer much good unless he’s an employeernof agribusiness, which sells on volume.rnIt seemed to me the very premisernof the debate about the New Englandrncompact was wrong. We should encouragerndair’ fiirmers to save their way of life,rnnot try to stop them. If Congress and therncourts upheld the compact, let us have arntry. Besides, so much of agriculture is alreadyrnwrapped in cartels anyway: sugar,rnoranges, peanuts, almonds. Why notrndairy?rnOur cartel would bring together 40,000rnUpper Midwest farmers in Minnesota,rnWisconsin, Michigan, and Northern Illinoisrnto declare independence from federalrnmilk orders, determining their ownrnprices for a consumer market of over 50rnmillion. The cartel could negotiate itsrnown trade deals with the outside worldrnand use the numerous university extensionrnoffices and ag schools for researchrnand development to benefit small farmersrninstead of big corporations. Farmersrncoidd once again make money off thernsweat of their brows. Yoimg peoplernwouldn’t automatieallv abandon the landrnto fill up the suburbs. The cartel couldrnbe the basis for a whole new regionalrneconomv. Our destiny, ourselves.rnExcited by the grandiose, I took myrnidea to the experts: a dairy economist, twornfarmers, a co-op manager, a university extensionrnagent, and our own congressman.rnNone thought it was good idea.rnSome gave logical reasons why: Only thernmost severe production controls couldrnmake the cartel work; farmers and theirrnco-ops, being independent businessmen,rnwould probably not join in; transportationrnand fuel costs, not federal milk orders,rnare what make prices outside thernMidwest so high; the cartel could creaternsurpluses that would lower prices evenrnfurther; the plan wouldn’t pass a Congressrncontrolled by interests hostile to tiiernMidwest. The closest anyone came tornsaying something positive was when thernco-op manager argued that a cartel coiddrnonly work on a national level.rnSome of the reasons, however, camern34/CHRONICLESrnrnrn