When I first began writing about raw milk back in 2006, it was as a business writer. I had written half a dozen books about starting and running a business (several of which are listed here). One of the things I strongly advised prospective business owners in my books was to steer clear of industries that are heavily regulated, because of the uncertain costs associated with complying with frequently changing rules.
What I saw in the nascent raw dairy business wasn’t just heavy regulation, but arbitrary government regulation, much of it being taken against farmers seeking to escape the dying conventional dairy business. I’d never witnessed such arbitrary regulator bullying of law-abiding and entrepreneurial business owners. And so I wrote about any number of cases of crazy raw milk regulation, which led to three books having to do with raw milk and food rights.
I had little interest in reporting on the conventional dairy business, though. Whatever I read and saw told me this was a dying industry, one that stubbornly refused to embrace change, and instead wanted to recreate some romantic vision of the past. Periodically, NPR and other media outlets would report on how dairy farming was in crisis, with all kinds of hand wringing about whether the federal government might help or industry might help. I could never understand what kind of help was being sought. Subsidies? Tax breaks? Price supports? What was the long-term goal?
From all I could tell, the dairy farmers were doing little or nothing for themselves to adjust to slowing demand for their products. Not even anything like what you hear out of France or Quebec about farmers organizing and protesting unfair government treatment, and gaining consumer and government support in the process. Maybe because American dairy farmers think they have nothing to learn from foreigners.
There’s been little in the way of innovativeness. I’ve met a few conventional dairy farmers who have moved to do their own processing, enabling them to bypass the commercial processors and sell directly to retailers, and thereby revitalize their businesses. And, of course, there are farmers like Mark McAfee and Edwin Shank, who have escaped the commodity system by going their own way, to raw milk. But those examples are far and few between.
Almost everything I’ve read, including in the comments from my previous blog post, has been about looking backwards. Holding onto land. Exposing the industry’s corruption. Getting rid of the Fed. The challenge seems to be framed something like this: How do we revert to dairy farming the way it used to be, when grazing cows were everywhere alongside the open road and when the milk man brought your milk to the house twice a week? So, nearly a dozen years after I started writing about this industry, and 60 years after the downward spiral began, it’s the same old same old.
I’m sorry if I sound unfeeling. I’ve been a big supporter of local food initiatives. But the reality remains that farming, no matter how it’s conducted, is a business. There’s no rule or law or regulation that says farmers are entitled to make a living from working the land and raising animals. I have the same reaction to stories that surface periodically about city people who decide to farm, and then are disillusioned when it doesn’t work out.
Unfortunately, it’s very difficult in any area of business, or of life, for that matter, to go back, except maybe at high school or family reunions. If you look at America’s history, this country has prospered by looking forward, not looking backward. You may not like modernization or big corporations, but from textile factories to railroads to cars to telephones to televisions to computers to the Internet, it’s been progress and innovation that have created prosperity and wealth. A big part of that progress has involved the consolidation and automation of agriculture, for better or worse.
What I find disturbing in many of the arguments that have taken hold is the focus on going backwards, unfortunately led from our country’s very top leadership (“Make America Great Again”). Carried to its logical conclusion this seemingly innocuous nostalgia becomes the nectar of fundamentalism, of places in the Middle East and Africa. Here in the U.S., we see the nostalgia parade extending well beyond the dairy industry to the point where we’re rejecting solar for coal and oil, promoting trade wars despite the fact they triggered the Great Depression of the 1930s, and taking it upon ourselves to opt out of international agreements, including being the only country on the planet to forsake the Paris agreement that seeks to slow climate change.
Fundamentalism, whether it is religious or ideological or some combination, is nearly always rigid, and thus resistant to new ideas or new ways of doing things. Many dairy farmers are contemptuous of new/old ideas that have taken hold in recent years, like grass feeding or even organic farming, not to mention raw dairy.
Because fundamentalism is usually described in the context of religion, as in Islamic fundamentalism, we in the U.S. tend to look down our noses at fundamentalists. They are “over there”—religious and political fanatics in the Middle East and Africa who go around beheading their enemies.
But make no mistake, fundamentalism is infecting our society. It may have a secular rather than religious tenor, but it is fundamentalism all the same, in terms of rejecting modernism, expressing disgust with foreigners, and somehow harkening back to a simpler time.
Fundamentalists are characterized by a rigidity of views, an unwillingness to compromise. The rigidity of views may be linked to religion— Muslim fundamentalists want to go back to a 13th century brand of Islam. Jewish fundamentalists base their claims to Palestinian land on passages from the Bible and other religious texts. Christian fundamentalists focus on getting rid of abortion rights and putting religion into schools. Political fundamentalists in North Korea cling to a war-based zealotry.
America’s drift toward fundamentalism appears to be based on the following components:
-Embrace of conspiracy theory. Any event that runs counter to a preferred fixed narrative is a conspiracy, or a false flag event. The big “conspiracy” these days are school and church massacres, which are seen by the fundamentalists as some kind of government rehearsal for a military takeover. Survivors of mass shootings now face vicious psychological assaults by the fundamentalists.
-Denigration of education. I used to assume home schooling was a noble alternative for those who don’t care for the public school system. But increasingly, home schooling is being positioned as a necessary alternative to public schools, which are no longer safe because of all the massacres (which can’t be dealt with by reducing gun violence because of our worship of guns). In the fundamentalist scheme, you blame the victim and argue for your choice in life as superior to all others. So for education you demonize public education, despite its huge positive role over more than a century in preparing millions of young people to be upwardly mobile and adapt to a modernizing workplace. The denigration of education goes deeper, though, to a questioning of all experts who disagree with the fundamentalist views.
-Scapegoating. In our secular fundamentalism, liberals are akin to infidels or nonbelievers in the Middle East, except we don’t call those who resist the fundamentalism “infidels,” but rather “libtards”, for liberal bastards. Immigrants are scapegoated as well, by our Fundamentalist in Chief, as “rapists” and “criminals” who must be kept out with a great wall.
-Xenophobia. Fundamentalists have nothing to learn from foreigners. Indeed, foreigners are seen as scheming and leaches. So we exit international agreements and treaties, as if doing so allows us to more easily move backwards toward that wonderful time of yesteryear. Much to our surprise, the rest of the world is moving on without us. Asians have negotiated a TransPacific agreement without the U.S., and now American farmers are wondering why it’s suddenly much tougher to sell their products in Asia.
The problem with trying to work out compromises in such an atmosphere is that fundamentalism is by its very nature set in stone. So there is no room for rational discussion aimed at exploring alternative options. To the extent that fundamentalism becomes more attractive to more people, we dig ourselves into a hole that is very difficult to escape from. Witness the dairy industry. And I do hope the American dairy farmers who Mark McAfee reports are finally organizing themselves do succeed. Financial prosperity does a lot to counter fundamentalism.