Monday, January 25, 2010
An American Tragedy
This sylvan, romantic view of rural America may be your vision of a dairy farm. A far less pretty picture exists today and it was illustrated by the death of a New York dairy farmer.
Dean Pierson will be buried this week. Police say he was a troubled man. But people who knew him, fellow farmers, say his despondency was in no small part a result of the crisis that every small dairy farm has been living with for the past year.
Pierson left a note on the barn door, telling whoever found it not to come in, to call the police. Police say he killed his 51 milk cows, the cows that he milked every morning and every night. Then he turned the gun on himself.
He spared fifty others; heifers and calves who wouldn't suffer if he wasn't there to milk them every day.
It's not an isolated incident. Another dairy farmer in Maine, one who's desperately scrambling to market a new independent label, Moo Milk, after he and his neighbors were dumped by Hood, said there have been other farmer suicides in Maine. He says he's heard of similar stories in California. A New York hotline for farmers reports suicides are up.
The few milk distributors who control the market are showing a profit. Supply is down, gas prices are down, too. But dairy farmers are actually losing money - it costs them more to produce milk than they can sell it for.
I come from a farm family; my mom grew up on a farm. My cousin still farms, though it's become a very different world and he now plows hundreds of acres that he doesn't own.
I hate factory farms; they're inhumane, they unsafe, they're unsustainable. I do not believe that "milk does a body good". But I am so sorry for those few farmers who are trying to continue a lifestyle they've loved, that many of them have learned from their fathers, their grandfathers, for generations.
My condolences go out to Dean Pierson's family. His widow told the local paper she's hoping she can keep the farm going. I understand. It's the life she knows; it's the life her husband loved.
Something is very wrong. Farmers will tell you the problem is they're regulated while the market is flooded with milk from overseas that isn't regulated at all. Experts will tell you there's hardly anyone who understands milk pricing anymore.
Legislators call for an anti-trust investigation of the handful of companies that control the entire industry. Critics will say the government's subsidies have ruined the farmer.
I don't know the answer. But I do know that the problems led one farmer to such despair that he killed himself and his cows.