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Modern Milk

As someone with a passion for cooking, I have an increasing interest in the stories of common kitchen ingredients.  I want to know what has brought us to the milk of today and where its future might be going.

If you’re new here, check out my About page and get familiar with The Perfect Ingredients through my Cookbook and other entries in my Journal!

Did you grow up having a bowl of cereal for breakfast or having to drink a glass of milk every day?  Were you reminded regularly that milk will help you grow big and strong? Maybe even in your late teens were you reminded that it’s crucial for bone development.  Or maybe you’re in your 40’s or 50’s and are reminded to keep drinking milk to prevent osteoporosis.  So what’s the role of milk in our kitchen?

But maybe now you’re in your 20’s or 30’s and have been drinking plant based alternatives for a while without much thought.  Almond milk, oat milk, soy milk, and a few other varieties have grown in popularity.  In fact, for decades Americans have been drinking less and less milk.  And it leaves us wondering what’s the future of the dairy industry and the role it plays in our lives.

Protests, Minimum Prices, and the Demand for Milk

The government has had its hand in the dairy industry since the 1930’s.  This started in response to riots like the Farm Holiday movement in Nebraska.  Farmers would blockade roads, dump milk, and even march through state capitals throughout the Midwest. 

In response, the Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937 was passed that fixed a minimum price paid to milk producers.  The Act makes a connection between “the purchasing power of farmers” and “the national credit structure.”  And setting a fixed minimum price paid to farmers for milk was seen as within the “national public interest.” 

My personal commentary is that the logic here started out pretty good. This was during the great depression and it really was in the nation’s best interest to maintain the value of products that so many livelihoods relied upon.  The farmers whose 1930’s riots led to this act had been attempting to artificially decrease the supply for milk in hopes to increase the demand and therefore increase the price.  However, a question remains as to why this program is continued to this day.

What’s crazy is that this Agricultural Marketing Agreement isn’t just old history, these dairy regulations continue to affect the price of dairy and therefore our grocery bills.  Every month the USDA sets the minimum prices for liquid milk for the 10 national regions.  Just to make this 100% clear, milk is not allowed to be sold for less than these governmentally set minimum prices.  

The demand for milk was high during both of the world wars.  Milk was sent overseas to help support the troops.  But when the armies no longer needed such a large supply of milk, the government kept buying it to ensure that the prices wouldn’t crash, put farms out of business, and lead to more post-war economic challenges.  

In 1947 a dairy price support act was added to these dairy regulations.  This Milk Price Support Program keeps market prices artificially high by guaranteeing that the government will purchase dairy from processors at a set minimum price. They would buy the milk and process it into butter, dry milk, and “government cheese” which is said to have a taste between Velveeta and American cheese with a more pungent smell.  That’s right, the US has warehouses full of a stockpile of dairy!  In fact, in 1981 Regan gave away some of the surplus cheese because the stockpile had reached over 500 million pounds of dairy products!  It was in the late 1940’s and 1950’s when little milk cartons started showing up in government sponsored programs like school lunches.  The government was putting the milk they were buying to good use, but they were still buying more than they needed because inflated minimum milk prices kept fueling overproduction.

A specific concern with these dairy regulations is that they discourage innovation and attention to consumer wants.  Many dairy farmers rely on the government purchases of milk to sustain their business because no matter what the demand, this product will be bought thanks to the Milk Price Support Program.  

Milk consumption per capita has decreased over 40% since 1975.  It seems that dairy price supports can no longer hold up the dairy industry.  Dean Foods, the nation’s largest milk producer, filed for bankruptcy protection in November of 2019.  This really shows the direction that the milk industry is going.  However, it also raises questions.  If the government were to stop setting minimum prices for milk, will milk prices increase if the supply actually decreases?  Or will the prices decrease if the minimum milk prices go away because the demand has been decreasing for decades?

Dairy through the Pandemic

Millions of gallons of milk have been literally dumped in the past two years.  Amid supply chain problems and a general decreasing interest in cow milk, dairy farms have been struggling.  Towards the beginning of the pandemic with crazebuying and now again with supply chain challenges, the more shelf stable plant-based beverages are being seen as a better option than dairy milk.  

Another challenges is that cows need to be milked regularly to keep producing milk, they don’t just have an on/off switch.  No matter the fluctuations in demand, milk is produced at a fairly even and consistent rate.  

What’s My Take?

All of this was new to me in the past couple weeks, and somehow it rocked my world. Here are my three ending thoughts

  • The government should just stay out of the dairy industry.  The importance of milk during the World Wars shouldn’t justify continued subsidization by the government.  If Americans as a whole are drinking less milk, it should be reflected in the market prices.  Let capitalism fuel the direction of the modern dairy industry.
  • This might be a hot take, but plant based dairy alternatives should not have the word milk associated with them. It’s a misleading association with the dairy industry.
  • And let’s just remember that milk is definitely a good source of calcium, Vitamin A, and Vitamin D.  It’s a great way to keep your bones and teeth healthy, and the creaminess it adds to my tea is unsurpassed by any milk alternative I’ve tried so far.

In My Kitchen

Quantitatively, I drink about a half gallon of milk every two weeks.  It’s great with black teas, and trust me I know, I drink at least one pot of tea each day.  In regards to dairy in general, I am aware that I eat and cook with a ton of cheese.  In college I didn’t have cheese too often, but now I can’t live without it!  Mozzarella cheese on pizza (like my Busy People’s Pizza Recipe), pepper jack cheese on eggs, cheddar cheese with broccoli, cream cheese on pastries (no joke, cream cheese and guava pastries are amazing!), parmesan in soup, and the list really goes on.  

Plant based dairy alternatives have a lot going for them too.  They are more shelf stable and keep their texture more consistently when frozen and thawed.  As many people have been keeping a larger supply of food on hand in our post-pandemic world, these beverages are great!

Let me know if you liked this journal entry by leaving a comment or sending me an email! I’m thinking about writing an entry on different plant based dairy alternatives from almond milk to cashew cheese since they touch on topics of water conservation and sustainability. So let me know if there’s any interest for that and stay tuned!

Further Reading

Maybe some of this sounds a little crazy and you want to do a little more research.  Below are a few links to get you started:

Milk Madness – Oh my gosh you have to read this!  It may be a little dated since it’s from 2007, but it sums up some of the issues so well and it goes more in depth about how minimum dairy prices affect international trade.

Rethinking Raw Milk, 1918 – It’s a cool article about a female scientist, Alice Evans, whose research played a key role in recognizing the importance of pasteurizing milk.

 Radical Farm Protests – Turns out milk has been a subject of controversy for a while; this article flushes out the stance some farmers took in the 1930’s that led to riots but eventually what can be seen as fairer prices.

Dumped Milk, Smashed Eggs, Plowed Vegetables: Food Waste of the Pandemic – A New York Times article published in 2020 about how the Pandemic is affecting the dairy industry.

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