In late January last year, dairy farmers filled a pub in the tiny town of Greenwald, Minnesota (population 238). Organisers from the Land Stewardship Project – a sustainable agriculture nonprofit – expected 50 people to attend, but 130 showed up from all corners of the state.
Dr Richard Levins, professor emeritus of applied economics at the University of Minnesota, addressed the event, which served as part elegy for the thousands of small family-owned dairies lost in recent years and part rallying cry for those remaining, despite the odds.
Across the US, dairy farmers have struggled beneath the weight of an industry-wide economic crisis. The cause is the massive overproduction of milk by large dairy operations, which has saturated the market, driving prices down well below the cost of production.
Proponents of mega-dairies cite efficiency and economies of scale, arguing that the model is simply the next logical step in dairying. But opponents, including Levins, say such operations do incalculable damage to the environment and rural communities, and capture bigger slices of a finite milk and cheese market – to the detriment of smaller dairies barely hanging on.
“Unfortunately, the ‘there’s room for everybody’ argument doesn’t work so well in dairy. It’s a matter of simple mathematics,” Levins told the meeting. Bringing in a 5,000-cow dairy doesn’t increase the demand for milk, he said – it simply replaces 50- to 100-cow dairies. “We’re playing musical chairs.”
Rise of a mega-dairy
Dairy conglomerate Riverview LLP is by far the largest mega-dairy operation in the state. At the company’s flagship dairy in Morris, Minnesota, 10,000 cows wait expectantly for the feed truck. In the “nursery”, a still-wet calf, its umbilical cord dangling, struggles against a worker who tilts back the small head and inserts a tube of colostrum all the way to its stomach.
At one day old, calves are strapped into vests, machine-lifted into a truck and transported 10 miles away to the company’s calf facility. A few days later, they are trucked more than 1,000 miles, either to New Mexico (if bound for the beef market) or Arizona (if destined for dairy) – a move that Riverview says is for the warmer weather.
Riverview’s origins lie with the Fehr family, who began a crop and beef farm in 1939. In 1995, seeing an opportunity in dairy, they established their first 800-cow dairy and incorporated as Riverview LLP, a status allowing for multiple owner-investors. One of those investors was the Wulf family, who attended the same church and owned a beef cattle operation. In 2012, Riverview officially merged with Wulf Cattle.
Today, Riverview operates three linked but separate segments – dairy, beef and crop – with at least 25 facilities across five states: Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, New Mexico and Arizona. In Minnesota, the Morris dairy alone produces enough milk every day to fill six 32.5-ton (29.5-tonne) tanker trucks.
“We’re really bullish with the market,” says Natasha Mortenson, who works in community outreach and education for Riverview.
Modern US agriculture is hugely influenced by the vision of Earl Butz, secretary of agriculture under Presidents Nixon and Ford, who championed corporate farming, encouraging farmers to plant “fencerow to fencerow” and “get big or get out”.
Donald Trump’s secretary of agriculture, Sonny Perdue, echoed these sentiments at the 2019 World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wisconsin – a state that lost 10% (more than 800) of its dairy farms that year. “The big get bigger and small go out,” he said. “It’s very difficult on economies of scale with the capital needs and all the environmental regulations, and everything else today, to survive milking 40, 50, 60 or even 100 cows.”
Despite a 55% nationwide decrease in dairy farms between 2002 and 2019, cow numbers have held steady and fluid milk volume has increased – a fact that illustrates a trend toward fewer farms operating on much larger scales.
Between 2012 and 2017, Minnesota lost 1,100 dairy farms. In contrast, those years marked enormous growth for Riverview as it built three new Minnesota mega-dairies, a feedlot in South Dakota and expanded its calf and dairy operations to New Mexico and Arizona.
A similar strategy to capture the market was seen in the hog and poultry industries: buy out the smaller farmers at rock-bottom prices, lock in contracts with processors (or acquire your own processing facility), and then seal the doors so no one can get back in when the market rebounds.
Mortenson says Riverview only builds dairies where invited by the community, and, in Minnesota, when cheese processors have an ongoing need for more milk. “We sit at kitchen tables at every single neighbour’s house,” she says. “Does that mean that every single neighbour loves us? No, it does not mean that. But that’s life.”
One of those potential neighbours, a crop farmer in Dumont, Minnesota, says a Riverview official visited him in April 2019 and shared a plan to build a 24,000-cow dairy a mile away. The official offered to buy the farmer’s corn for feed, and to sell manure to him as fertiliser. The offer was declined. “I said, I’m not very interested in that because you’re not paying enough for the product, and you’re charging too much for the manure.”