National Dairy Month, New York State, and the Plight of the Small Farm

by Alifair Skebe

June is National Dairy Month, a time that America has set aside to celebrate the bounty of milk produced across the country. Summer months experience a surplus of milk after the brief Spring months of live births and the coming in of the milk. At this time animals are pastured and milked twice a day. At The Cheese Traveler, we love cheese and celebrating all things cheese-related. Milk is the number one ingredient in the cheesemaking process along with salt, culture, and rennet. It is also the official beverage of New York State. In our research on the history of National Dairy Month, we had some surprising discoveries.

The auspicious date – 1937, the first “National Milk Month” later coined in 1939 “National Dairy Month”– coincides with one of the largest labor strikes in New York State history – that of the Dairy Farmers’ Union. As milk production increased with the aid of mechanical and scientific advancements in the early decades of the twentieth century, the depression era significantly decreased the demand for milk and dairy products. Moreover, the cost of transportation of milk increased. Retailers and large scale cooperatives responded by slashing prices, engaging in a price war, and developed a monopoly in the state undercutting the cost of production for small, family farms. So, as the National Milk Month campaign advertised at local shops to increase the demand for a surplus supply of milk, farmers were waging a battle on the farm front to stabilize prices on milk, respond to the increased cost of production, and secure their small farms.

The Dairy Farmers’ Union strike was not the first dairy strike in New York State, nor the first instance of corruption in New York’s dairy industry. In 1858, the “swill milk” scandal of watered down, contaminated, or doctored milk was uncovered in New York City which necessitated standardized practices in the industry for public health safety. Contaminated and diseased milk from poor milk handling to animal cruelty – such as feeding distilled whiskey mash to cows or lifting and milking a dying cow – was often and unknowingly the cause of transmission of infectious disease.   In 1933 as commodity prices fell, New York State’s milk strikes spread like wildfire and grew quite violent, bringing the state close to marshall law as one New York Times reporter noted. The 1937 strike, following the largest drop in milk prices in fifteen years, was eventually successful, as small family farmers shut down two of the largest milk cooperatives in the state through persistent and surreptitious means, from picketing with long boards with exposed nails to protect their picket lines from anti-strike motorists and greasing the train rails to prevent milk shipment departures from the facility.[1]

Some memory of the battle persists today as small farmers still bemoan the large-scale factories’ hold over pricing and the market. Small scale dairy farming continues to be difficult to near impossible to sustain on only commodity production.

To celebrate National Dairy Month, we at The Cheese Traveler see cheese production as the natural response to summer’s increased milk supply. It takes approximately ten pounds of milk to make a pound of cheese. A gallon of milk is about 8.6 pounds, so to make one lovely ten pound wheel of Madeleine for example, Sprout Creek Farm uses over twelve gallons of goat’s milk. Likewise, cheesemaking has been the historical solution to excess milk supply. Other countries with a long history of incorporating cheese in their diet such as Greece and France experience lower rates of hypertension and obesity in the population than those in the U.S. The health benefits of cheese – offering a high-quality protein as well as calcium, phosphorus, and Vitamin A[2] – provide a strong support for the continued development of cheese production and its ties to local and regional food culture.

In New York State, home of The Cheese Traveler and the third largest dairy-producing state in the country, small farms have turned toward farmstead and artisan cheesemaking as a value-added option to increase their viability. Value-added products are those that take a commodity such as milk and add labor, time, and craftsmanship to it to make it more valuable. The art of cheesemaking adds value in several ways: a low price commodity becomes an economically viable agricultural product, a perishable becomes an “aged” product, saving the cost of freezing or keeping milk cooled through the winter months of low milk production, and a commodity with little variation becomes highly diversified in form, taste, and craft.

The Cheese Traveler is deeply committed to selling the cheeses of these small producers who either use their own milks produced on their farms or use locally sourced milks from natural, grass-fed, pastured, or organically fed goats, sheep, and cows. So, as we commemorate June as National Dairy Month, let us also remember the efforts of our forbears who have fought to make food safe, affordable, and delicious. Cheese is a wonderful addition to any meal and can be added to enhance the flavor of many summer dishes. We have been enjoying the classic Mediterranean beans-n-greens with white beans, radicchio, mizuna, fresh oregano, rosemary, thyme, and garlic scapes, onion, balsamic vinegar; sautéed in butter; finished with olive oil, salt, pepper, and Toma Pepato from Cooperstown Cheese Company.

Ben and Mino enjoying a cheese plate together


[1] Kriger, Thomas J. “The 1939 Dairy Farmers Union Milk Strike in Heuvelton and Canton, New York: The Story in Words and Pictures” The Journal for MultiMedia History. Volume 1 Number 1 ~ Fall 1998

[2]Cheese and Healthy Eating.” Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy® and National Dairy Council. 2011

2 thoughts on “National Dairy Month, New York State, and the Plight of the Small Farm

  1. I was at a farm organization gahrteing this past week and came home more disturbed than before going there. I had a private conversation with a dairy farmer’s wife who reported than an environmental professor told a son’s class that farmers today do not need tractors. The same job could be done with horses and would be better for the environment. They just like to play with the tractors in the fields. This is just another example of educated? people spreading their fairy tales. I also talked to two people in the banking industry who agreed that the government has no intention to do anything about dairy pricing before the next farm bill. One of the bankers tried to talk to a politician before the last farm bill was passed. When he didn’t agree with what the politician stated an aide held up a sign that read, Do not argue with the Senator. How arrogant!!!!!! We do need to make changes, the question is how can we be heard? The farmer who shot his cattle and then himself didn’t even make the news in my area. I like the idea of making a video of foreign dairy farms, their unsanitary conditions compared to our dairy farms.Call it GOT IMPORTS? We should interview US dairy farmers and have them tell how financially tough it is tobe a dairy farmer. (and we need to tell the truth- let’s be honest even with good milk prices we only get to catch up on the debt accumulated over bad times. We need to get the point across that we have a huge investment that needs to return something or no one will be interested in dairying. And perhaps we could include the hearings prior to the last farm bill which can be found on the internet. All of the problems we have today were discussed years ago and ignored, and sadly some of the same politicians who knew about the pitfalls of the legislation will do nothing to help us today. If CWT money could be used to help Haitians, then our check off money should be used to produce and air the video!

  2. Ahhhh. Let the games resume. If and when peircs on the grocey shelf do go up grocery stores like Walmart, Price Chopper, etc. will say they had to RAISE THEIR PRICES because their suppliers (dairy processors) like Deans & Kraft RAISED THEIR PRICES. And the dairy processors will say they had to RAISE THEIR PRICES to the stores because of higher input costs from those damn dairy farmers! Everyone gets to RAISE THEIR PRICES except well, we know who those damn dairy farmers. Oh, let’s not forget the haulers if and when fuel goes thru the roof.It may explain why Kraft is working overtime to lower the farmgate price. The dairy processors have probably come to the conclusion that we dairy farmers have had it too good for too long! It’s time they lowered OUR PRICES.Here’s the irony, when dairy peircs on the grocery shelf do go up most consumers will think dairy farmers are getting rich! We’ve had our city friends tell us that in the past.This not news to anyone here on this blog but we’re the only player in this supply chain that doesn’t get to RAISE OUR peircs in response to increased operating costs. And the mega dairy coops that we have fooled ourselves into thinking we’re MEMBERS of and we thought were looking out for our best interests have turned out to be completely worthless because they’re always in bed with the processors.The madness has to stop!

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