Local is global

That’s kind of how I picture my great-grandparents’ farm. I should look it up someday.

It certainly is strange to read an article in the Guardian which mentions all these little towns in my region of Minnesota. Who has ever heard of Greenwald, or Dumont, or Chokio, or Kerkhoven? These are tiny little towns that I know of because they’re within 50 miles of me, but why is an English paper writing about them? Also, the article talks about a lot of things I was thoroughly ignorant of, despite living here.

The issue is the ongoing consolidation of dairy farms in Minnesota. My great-grandparents were dairy farmers in another teeny-tiny town north of here, Fertile, Minnesota, but they gave up on their small farm around about the time of WWII, when one of their sons invited them to live by a real fjord out in Washington state, but that loss was part of an ongoing process. Small dairy farms can’t make it anymore. Now you have to run a mega-factory farm. These are huge operations.

Dairy conglomerate Riverview LLP is​ by far the largest mega-dairy operation in the state. ​​​At the company’s flagship dairy in Morris, Minnesota, ​10​​​​,000 cows wait expectantly for the feed truck. In the “nursery”, a still-wet calf, its umbilical cord dangling, struggles against a worker who tilts back the small head and inserts a tube of colostrum all the way to its stomach.

At one day old, calves are strapped into vests, machine-lifted into a truck and transported 10 miles away to the company’s calf facility. A few days later, they are trucked more than 1,000 miles, ​either to New Mexico (if bound for the beef market) or Arizona (if destined for dairy) – a move that Riverview says is for the warmer weather.

I had no idea. I guess I need to get out more, because as a non-farmer I didn’t have a clue about what’s going on right under my nose.

Despite a ​55% nationwide decrease in dairy farms between​​ 200​2​ and 2019, cow numbers have held steady and fluid milk volume has increased – a fact that illustrates a trend toward fewer farms operating on much ​larger scales.

Between 2012 and 2017, ​Minnesota lost 1,100 dairy farms.​ In contrast, those years marked enormous growth for Riverview as it built ​three​​​ new Minnesota ​mega-​dairies, a feedlot in South Dakota ​and expanded ​its calf and dairy operations ​to New Mexico and Arizona.

Are these mega-farms better for the environment or for the people who work the land than numerous smaller farms distributed over a wider area? Probably not.

One of those potential neighbours, a ​crop farmer in Dumont, Minnesota, says a Riverview official visited him in April 2019 and shared a plan to build a 24,000-cow dairy ​​​a​ mile away. The official offered to buy the farmer’s corn for feed, and to sell manure to him as fertiliser. The offer was declined. “I said, I’m not very interested in that because you’re not paying enough for the product, and you’re charging too much for the manure.”

​​The farmer – who asked to remain anonymous – was also horrified by the idea of so many cows so close to his home. He worried about odour and air quality, wear and tear on the roads, manure leaching into streams and rivers, and the demand on the groundwater supply. “I’m telling you, it’s scary they’re going to come in here and suck that much water from the ground,” he says.​​

The 24,000-cow dairy has not ​​been built but, ​according to state records, the company has applied for a permit to build a 10,500-cow dairy approximately ​130 miles north in Waukon Township.​ Additionally, an application for another 10,500-cow dairy, in Grace Township, is under review.

I’ve been to Grace, but had to look up Waukon — it’s up north, near Fertile. These towns are tiny, between 100 and 200 people, and they’re planning on farms that hold a hundred times that many cows.

But that’s capitalism!


  1. steve1 says

    The manure and fertilizer will get into the river and lakes and than you get toxic green algae. As climate change continues (warmer) this will occur more often.

  2. says

    My brother has for several years been the owner/operator of the dairy farm established by our grandfather nearly a hundred years ago. In my grandfather’s day, two hundred head of milk cattle were sufficient to support three families and employ three or four full-time milkers/ranch hands. Those days are gone. My brother stays in operation as a family business only by virtue of expansion (~800 milk cows) and diversification (e.g., harvesting services, earth moving, and trucking). Otherwise he would have long been put out of business or absorbed by the corporate dairies that have been consolidating family operations in California’s Central Valley. The guys in suits have been taking over from the guys in bib overalls, and it’s hardly likely to be a good thing.

  3. stwriley says

    I did know about this kind of consolidation and the negative effects of it. It’s another extension of the industrial agriculture/monoculture system that, while it can be incredibly productive, is also harmful to both the environment and to actual people. We have no end of problems with that down here in North Carolina (where the big animal raising problem is massive hog farms of 10,000-20,000 animals) but we also have some hints at the solutions. I buy my milk, for instance, from a local dairy that serves this area and does it the old-fashioned way but still profitably. They have about 150 milk cows, do proper animal husbandry (like keeping calves with their mothers for the first couple of days so they can get their colostrum naturally), and even distribute their milk in returnable glass bottles. The have distribution agreements with a couple of the local grocery store chains, which makes sure their milk is available easily, but also gives them a distribution network in their local area. This is the kind of thing that we should really be looking at for parts of our food distribution system, not the incessant push for economies of scale at the expense of all else.
    Oh, by the way, the milk (and ice cream) they produce is some of the best I’ve ever tasted.

  4. anxionnat says

    Some of my happiest childhood memories are of visiting my great-uncle and great-aunt’s dairy farm in California’s Central Valley. My g-uncle, Fred, had grown up on a dairy farm in the German-speaking area of Switzerland. When he came to Calif after the War, he worked as a hand on a big dairy farm, but decided he wanted to buy some land and have a farm like the one he had known and loved as a young man. They had–count ’em–twelve dairy cows, each with her own name, each with her own stall in a barn, Fred had carved the name of each cow over her stall himself. He did the milking on a stool that he’d also carved himself. I will never forget Fred going into the field where the cows were grazing, calling each by her name, and lying down in the field, relaxing as the cows came up and nuzzled him. To Fred, each of the cows were his close friends. He talked to each one in German. The farm also included almond trees, and Fern and Fred grew alfalfa as cow-feed, cotton as a cash crop, and had some fruit trees as well. They belonged to several co-ops, which were common in the Valley at the time. The co-ops marketed the milk, almonds, and fruit. This was in the 50s through the 70s. When Fern, then Fred, died, the farm was sold because they had no children. Last time my brother and I drove by where the farm used to be, the almond and fruit trees, and farmhouse and barn, were gone. The land is now owned by some huge corporate owner, as is true in most of the Valley today. I should add that Fred and Fern refused to use any pesticides or herbicides and controlled insects through methods Fred had learned as a boy in Switzerland–an early form of integrated pest management. The milk, cheese, ice cream, almonds, and fruit and vegetables we ate when we visited were unforgettable, and so different than what we got in the city. Fern, my g-aunt, had two acres of garden, where she basically grew every type of vegetable they ate. There were a couple of things they had to buy, but most of their business was done by trading with their neighbors. They employed one couple full time (Bill to work the farm, Edna to work in the garden–both had grown up on small farms as well.)All four of them worked their asses off–from before sun-up to sun-down. I don’t remember them taking days off. I guess today such a farm would fall into the category of “organic farm”, of which there are none in the Valley. Land there is so expensive that young farmers can no longer make a start like Fred and Fern did in 1951 with those 160 acres..

  5. kestrel says

    To me this seems to be the new norm: put small businesses out of business by changing the laws, then having mega-corporations buy up their (now very much decreased in value) place and put in a gigantic factory farm. I used to run a small dairy and I like having only five animals who I could care for very well and who I considered my friends. But no one is allowed to buy from such a farm due to regulations. Despite the fact that such a farm has way lower amounts of bacteria and so on in their milk. (You can ask a local guy tasked with testing such farms – these people tend to pay way more attention to individual animals and catch issues early on.) Progress, I guess. (The regulations in my state are written in such a way as to eliminate small farms.). I think it’s sad but hey, who am I. No one important, that’s for sure.

  6. dorght says

    Garden City, Kansas – the city you can smell coming from a dozen miles away. The numerous feedlots smell gaggingly horrible. Kansas’ infamous winds merely extend the vile plume in one direction.
    Contrast this with rural SW Missouri were the land isn’t well suited to crops so many farms have cattle. I did a bikepacking trip along the gravel roads that loosely followed the Butterfield Stagecoach route. Never once was I disturbed by the smell of the cattle despite their prevalence. Difference being in MO the cattle were free to roam and graze, versus corralled and force feed in the KS feedlots.

  7. pipefighter says

    This is why Canadian producers have been fighting against the increased importation of American dairy products. We have a supply management system which prevents over production. This prevents large farms from dumping massive amounts of cheap product onto the market to undercut and destroy smaller farms. Maximum production quotas are set based upon projected market needs. Sure, we pay a bit more, but we don’t have the litany of problems that American farmers have. This isn’t unique to dairy by the way. To me it’s no different than paying for something produced by a union or Co Op.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    stwriley @ # 4: … economies of scale at the expense of all else.

    “Economies of scale” apply only up to a certain point. After that, the “economic” factors that make all the difference are financial: better terms from banks, tax regulations tailored for wheeler-dealers, greater leverage with suppliers and distributors, on and on and on.

  9. DanDare says

    The small farms should have protections against the impacts of the mega farms, such as secure ground water and pollution controls. After all the mega farms are otherwise stealing resources, not “competing”.
    That’s a part of the function of government that Republicans and Libertarians want gone.