Our cooperatives are a gift to us—a vehicle we can drive to sustain our farms, our neighbors and our markets.
by: Mariann Holm, MMFC Board Member
In 2018, Wisconsin lost nearly 700 dairy herds. According to a recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article, the numbers of Wisconsin dairy herds dropped from 15,904 in 2004 to 8,046 in 2019. While the numbers of farms have diminished, the numbers of dairy cattle remain steady, concentrated on larger farms. Despite the low prices, the USDA has forecasted an increase of two billion more pounds of milk to be produced this year compared to last. On the conventional milk market, the prices farmers receive are the same as those that were paid in 1989.
Retail, grocery and agriculture, like many other industries, have been touched by consolidation in some tangible way that has become increasingly obvious to the average citizen.
Some analysts report that Amazon lost 2 billion dollars in one quarter in 2018. Amazon is willing to lose the profit battle to win the big prize: marketshare. This is the long term goal of big agribusiness operations; and these organizations have the money to hold out.
Antitrust law: a collection of laws intended to promote fair competition for the benefit of consumers.
With prices on some farm commodities lingering at or below cost of production, “tightening our belts” alone cannot help ensure the future for the family farm. Larger scale does not always equate to better returns. Small farms can be competitive. For example, a grass-based dairy owned by an individual family can have a healthier bottom line due to less dependence on fuel, veterinary services, and inputs associated with annual row crops.
As a high school student, I remember studying political cartoons in history class. Teddy Roosevelt was sketched busting the railroads and taking on J. P. Morgan utilizing the 1890 Sherman Anti -Trust Act. Characters such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller came to life through these drawings.
Lack of antitrust enforcement results in decreased access to markets.
Years later, I became familiar with the 1922 Capper Volsted Act. We were dairy farmers shipping milk to a cooperative that managed their organic milk supply to help ensure as many farmers stayed on the farm as possible. The Capper Volsted Act was passed to ensure that farmers could work together cooperatively to market their products. It is sometimes referred to as the Magna Carta of Cooperatives.
Unfortunately, for the past 40 years, little enforcement has taken place in the realm of antitrust. Today, our choices as consumers have shrunk. For farmers, the lack of antitrust enforcement has decreased their access to markets and processors while increasing costs of inputs due to decreased competition. Attorney Generals offices in individual states are reticent to file lawsuits in fear of the enormous capital amassed by the corporations they would be litigating with.
A co-operative (co-op) is a business owned by individual members – not large investors. At Menomonie Market Food Co-op we, as members, get a chance to have a say in how we are run. Our Ends Statement is much broader than sheer profits or market share. In part, it states that Menomonie Market Food Co-op will be central to a thriving healthy community and because of us, the local food system is strengthened, and the cooperative model is supported.
Where there is crisis there is also opportunity.
Today, there is a farm crisis. We are becoming more and more dependent on corporations for our food and less and less on small and mid-sized farmers. Some say that this will be the crisis that the family farm will never recover from.
There is also opportunity. We have the perfect structure here at MMFC to support independent businesses in our community owned by the people who live here. We carry products on our shelves that other co-ops, for example in dairy, supply to us. These co-ops and businesses value more than market share and more than profit.
Our cooperatives are a gift to us. They are the vehicle we can drive to sustain our farms, our neighbors and our markets. They can support supply management, farmer voices, rural life and community. We have a rich heritage born out of the crises of the past. As a student, I never learned of the work, the personal sacrifice, the courage, and the passion of the people who formed these cooperatives.
Today, I think of our ancestors and marvel at the ordinary people who rose up and did extraordinary things. We have what we need to courageously support each other.
Let’s step into that power.
Things You Can Do:
#1 Shop at the Co-op.
#2 Purchase items that are produced and sold by small businesses, farmer owned cooperatives like Organic Valley and Westby Cooperative, that benefit local communities.
#3 Educate yourself on the issue of antitrust. This issue does not just impact farmers. It is also impacting our choices in health care, telecommunications, transportation and more. https://civileats.com/2019/02/28/fixing-our-food-system-and-reviving-rural-america-means-breaking-up-big-ag/
#4 Purchase directly from a farmer.
#5 Think of your dollars spent as investment in your community.
#6 Recognize that the issues impacting farmers are largely beyond their control.