Monday, October 19, 2009

A contagious solution - Like the Flu, except good

I drove by the Cumberland Farms store in Richmond today and saw - advertised in the window - a gallon of milk for $2.49. It was Cumberland Farms brand milk, not local milk which contributes to my ongoing confusion (not really - but kind of) about how it can be, or, more accurately, what does it mean that we can get milk imported to Richmond, Vermont for less money that we can buy it from the farm right down the street.

Of course it's all about supply and demand, this is the non confusing part. It's about retail sales, it's about having thousands of cows or access to thousands of cows, it's about having control of distribution, it's about milk being, perhaps, a loss leader in the store itself. Maybe $2.49 a gallon actually looses money for the store but brings people in to buy lottery tickets, cigarettes and beer. Maybe it's about government subsidies of milk and how those subsidies effect the health of the industry, maybe it's about the real estate boom that led to many farmers realizing they could make a lot more milking developers than they could cows (of course it's most of the farmers that ended up getting milked by the developers - but that's not the point), maybe it's national monopolies, maybe it's RBGH vs "natural" cows...maybe, in the parlance of our time...it simply "is the way it is".

But what I couldn't help but think is...it's not right.

It's simply not right in my view of the world. And by saying "not right" I don't mean it in a self-centered, ego-centric, might is right, I am right, type of way...I mean it in a way that it just doesn't make sense...like Austin Powers when he's getting his ass kicked by Mini-Me..."that's not right" he says, before taking a kick to the head. It doesn't compute. And it's not because of the multitude of possible or probable reasons that milk from outside Vermont is less expensive than milk made in Vermont, in fact I argue that there are too many reasons...to quote another classic "There's too much perspective".

There is too much to argue about. And everyone is right. Everyone is busy arguing their point and the points are all different but - and here's where it gets real confusing - everyone is RIGHT. There are, simply, too many points of contention. Too many surface arguments to be made. When I say "surface" I mean arguments that focus on the effects not the causes of the problems. But, of course, this is nothing new, this is generally how we do things in the world...we look at the effects, we don't like them and we try to solve the effects which usually ends up making things worse...much worse (as you will see at the end of this piece).

So here's the thing, something is wrong. Vermont is (and was) a dairy state; if we can't produce milk most affordably for people who live here something is out of balance. And I think we should pay more attention to it because it's not really about milk it's about how we solve our problems and if we can solve the "milk" issue I am quite certain that other solutions will become clear to us. I call this a contagious solution. That's right - like the flu, except good.

In middle the middle 1800's there were more than 35,000 dairy farms in Vermont. In 1947 there were 11,000. Today there are a few more than 1,000 dairy farms in Vermont. It's time to look at what we've been doing, not the specifics but the process, not the what but the who and evaluate whether or not we have achieved the goals we set out to achieve in the last hundred or so years. I would argue, simply, that if our goal has been to put dairy farmers in Vermont out of business we have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams and we should take the model on the road (ohh wait, maybe that's what has happened). However if our goal has been to help the dairy farmer then how many more kicks in the head to we need before we realize that "that's not right". What else will it take before we begin looking at the true causes or perhaps people have been looking at the true causes but just ignoring them. In either case it's clear, dairy farms are a dying breed in Vermont and their epitaph sits in a the window of Richmond Cumberland Farms.

DISCLAIMER: I mean no harm to Cumberland Farms, in fact CF is an American success story that started with some Greek immigrants buying a one cow dairy for $87. The problem, most certainly is not CF.

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