Milk and butter

In the late 1950’s our father expanded his business. His primary business was aviation. Both of my parents were pilots and our father ran the airport in our small town. He did whatever it took to earn money with airplanes, including selling them, maintaining them, flying charter, flying agricultural applications, running an air ambulance service, flying fire patrol, flight instruction, flying game counts, and providing aviation services to the National Forest Service and the National Parks. The operation was fairly small, but he usually had a couple of other pilots and a mechanic working for him. The expansion took him in a more land-based direction. He bought a local farm supply store that included a John Deere farm implement franchise and the local Purina Chows warehouse/dealership. Among the products handled in the Farm Supply Store were tools and general hardware as well as Delaval Cream Separators.

My first jobs in the Farm Supply store included sweeping the feed warehouse and some elementary assembly of items for display in the shop. The business was based on service and it was common for our father to go to the store after hours or on Sundays to provide necessary parts or service to get a farmer back into the field. One day he took me along on a late afternoon visit to a local dairy where they had a Delaval milking system. There was some problem with the milkers and the farmer was forced to hand milk his cows. For the next couple of days while we waited for the parts to be express shipped, we went to that farm morning and evening and helped with the milking. My uncle had a single dairy cow and milked by hand, but I had never before had the chore of milking. My father was patient as he taught me, but the whole farm was under pressure with the milkers down and everyone had to chip in. I was small and inexperienced with getting the cows moved from place to place, so I was assigned to washing and milking.

A couple of decades later, when I was a young pastor, a young man near my age who married into our church graduated with a BS in agriculture from college and set about getting started in farming and ranching. With limited funds, but strong backing from his farm family, he began a dairy operation. I became friends with him and watched as he worked hard, seven days a week, to launch his business. Times were tough and the farm crisis of the 1980’s left him without the ability to continue his dairy business. He had to seek off-farm income and has ended up with a very successful career in agricultural property management and real estate. His story was part of a bigger national picture that ended up with much of the dairy industry being controlled by very few big corporations. In about 30 years our country had gone from family farms and local small dairies to big corporations and very few locally owned and controlled creameries. These days it is hard to follow the path that milk takes from farm to the grocery store and in most cases it involves a lot of trucking including interstate transportation. Most of the milk we drink comes from large production dairy farms with thousands of head of cattle.

That history is part of what made it possible for our son to become the owner of a small farm. The farm where his family now lives once was the center of a 50-head herd of dairy cattle run by a single family. They put up a huge barn and invested in the equipment to milk their cattle. They put up their own hay and hauled their own manure. And, like other similarly-sized dairy operations, they didn’t survive the agricultural economics of the 1980’s. At first land was sold to keep the operation solvent. They no longer had the acreage to produce all of their own hay and had to purchase hay. Then decades of hard work began to take their toll. The family no longer had a younger generation willing to endure the hardships of raising dairy cattle. The cattle and the home place, along with the dairy barn were sold. For the last three decades the home place and the ten acres that surround it have been basically a hobby farm for families whose primary income comes from off-farm sources.

I was thinking of the changes in the dairy industry in my lifetime as I have been reading online about Canada’s recent butter crisis.The Covid pandemic has produced a large spike in demand for butter in Canada. Sales of butter were up 12% last year and remain strong this year. Along with the increased demand has been an increase in price and, to the horror of Canadian foodies and cooks, a change in the consistency of the butter sold in grocery stores. It no longer softens as much at room temperature. It is harder to spread. Similar reports have been made about butter in the United States.

The main change is that as demand has been increasing, dairy farmers are using more supplemental feeds to boost production. Among the substances fed to dairy cows is feed enriched with palm oil. It is likely that palm oil is a factor in the change in the consistency of production butter. Think about it. Palm oil isn’t exactly a product of Canada. Had it been Canola, I would have understood. Palm oil comes from the tropics.

The world is more complex than it was when a family raised hay on their land, fed the hay to cows, milked the cows, and took the milk to a local creamery for processing. It is far more complex than it was when the cream was separated and the butter churned by hand. The milk and other diary products we consume involve international trade and shipping networks.

I’d encourage my son to get a dairy cow but then I remember how hard it was to milk by hand for just a few days. I’m guessing that we’ll be purchasing our butter from the grocery store for the foreseeable future. Even if the butter is harder to spread, the work load is much more manageable.