Looking Back: Micro Dairy History & the Family Farm
Last time we covered an intro to Micro Dairies, and to get a better idea of where this re-burgeoning interest could lead I think it would help to take a look back at small, diversified family farm history.
To begin with, by family farm I mean traditional, small scale farms as opposed to farms that are simply owned by families but which are really “run” by corporate agribusiness. The continued rise of small farms has a lot to do with the growing popularity of the buy local movement. This move (back) towards sustainability in agriculture has a number of motivators — people looking for better, healthier food, a heightened awareness of detrimental corporate farming practices on the environment and an increasing appreciation for farmers and what they offer (how many times have you heard recently that “farmers are the new rock stars”?)
So what family and homestead farms and Micro Dairies are really doing is helping reconnect people with the land in a substantive way. “Back to the land” has outgrown its hippie connotation and attracts all types of people from ex-Wall Streeters to retirees to young people straight out of school. That diversity is incredibly encouraging, and necessary.
But, back to history. How did agriculture and dairying get to where we are today? At the end of the American Revolution, when the agrarian class was no longer needed by the wealthy and largely coastal mercantile class to fight the British, the cash-based mercantile economy came into conflict with the barter based, inland agrarian economy. Mismanagement, post-war debt and an excess of unsellable goods cause a cash shortfall that forced the mercantile class to call in debts from small rural merchants, who in turn demanded cash payments from the yeomen farmers of the era. These post-revolutionary farmers, who rarely dealt with cash, revolted as they began to lose their farms and livelihoods.
This last great stand by the agrarian class to defend their way of life and economic system is now referred to as Shays’ rebellion, a revolt taken up in varying degrees throughout the Colonies, severely disrupting the operation of Debtors Courts and Banks. I have read that John Hancock, the governor of Massachusetts, raised a private army to put down the rebels, which drove farmer Daniel Shays and cohorts to flee into New Hampshire and Sandgate, Vermont where they were sheltered despite calls for their extradition. They were eventually pardoned. (It’s interesting to note that Thomas Jefferson believed yeoman farmers were exemplars of the kinds of values most needed by the fledgling country, while bankers and industrialists were untrustworthy at best. Talk about foresight.)
Since then it’s been the policy of government — and the attitude of many others — that the agrarian life is substandard and that food production, including dairy, can more efficiently be achieved by consolidating it into a smaller number of large industrial farms. Land grant colleges and the extension service have hastened this process by working closely with agribusiness to develop technological advancements that accelerate the loss of small farms and consolidation of production. This is what has traditionally kept milk prices so low.
But many other countries have a greater appreciation for the health and vigor of their rural communities and food security. Their goal is to maintain the health of their traditional agricultural economy and farms, and allow farmers to make a living wage. Those countries understand that small family farms with diversified production are inherently more efficient and stable than the large specialized industrial production units found in the U.S.
The tide may be turning here, though. According to the USDA’s own figures, small farms increased by 8% between 2002 and 2011, while the number of farmers markets grew by 10% between 2011 and 2012. Something is happening and momentum is building. People are beginning to take control of their lives and create positive changes for themselves, their families and their communities. One of the biggest changes is the desire to have the food they eat be produced locally by people they know and trust. The move to liberate food production from factory farms and bring it back to our communities where it belongs is gaining steam.
Hopefully we will come full circle, and that our desire to consume and produce safe and fresh foods — and eat local —will once and for all dispel the notion that the agrarian lifestyle is substandard. Will farming and feeding our communities once again be considered an honorable lifestyle? Bet on it.
This Micro Dairy management blog series is meant to help those who are fledgling farmers, or are thinking about starting a cow, goat, sheep or other dairy, with goal setting and planning, site evaluation, permits and regulations (lots of those!), working with animals, making value-add products and much more. Remember to put your questions in the comments section or email them to me at BobWhiteSystems@gmail.com. If you’re near South Royalton, Vermont, be sure to stop by the Bob-White Systems store or visit us online at BobWhiteSystems.com and ShopBobWhite.com
Thanks very much – I’m looking forward to hearing from you.
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