Progressive Dairyman Editor Walt Cooley spoke with author Kirk Kardashian about what he hopes his new book detailing the challenges facing today’s dairy industry will accomplish for dairy farmers and consumers.
What is your ‘day job’?
KARDASHIAN: I’m a writer at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.
I’m sure someone may ask, so let’s get it out of the way:
Are you related in any way to the famous Kardashian sisters?
KARDASHIAN: No, as far as I know, I’m not.
So, if you were to recommend this book to a non-farmer friend, what one chapter would you suggest they read and why?
KARDASHIAN: I think I’d probably recommend the last chapter because it tells an encapsulated story of the challenges of being a dairy farmer, but it also provides this hopeful model of a cooperative in the Hudson Valley of New York that has created a new model of branding and selling their milk. It seemed to be a very smart way to do it. It gives consumers the tools they need to make informed purchases of dairy products. They can look for certain types of milk and they can know more about what they’re buying.
In just one word, how would you hope someone who reads your book would describe today’s American dairy farms? Why?
KARDASHIAN: Endangered. I think the statistics really bear that out. The number of dairy farms in this country has declined precipitously over the past 100 years. The longer there’s a real imbalance between the cost of production and the milk price, the more farms you’re going to see go out of business. And it’s not just small farms. Farms of all sizes are having a really rough go of it right now, and they’re at the end of their line. Unless there’s some sort of reform, we’re going to see more dairy farms go out of business.
In the book you state that dairy policy tends to try and fix the last attempt at policy reform. What dairy policies do you think might actually work?
KARDASHIAN: I’ve been reading up a bit recently on the Dairy Security Act in the 2012 Farm Bill. From what I’ve seen and from what I’ve gathered from talking to dairy farmers, that does seem like a pretty smart way to go about trying to give farmers some relief from the price fluctuations that are happening.
It has margin insurance, and if you sign up for margin insurance you have to also agree to reduce your production a little bit when there is too much milk on the market. That’s one thing that has been missing is the supply-control component because farmers do what they have to do to pay their bills and when milk prices go down they’ll try to make more milk to bring more money in.
In the aggregate that puts more milk out into the system and it lowers prices. So if there can be some sort of a supply control program like the one in the Dairy Security Act, I think that would a step in the right direction.
What part of the book was most difficult for you to research?
KARDASHIAN: I’d say probably the section on milk pricing and its various laws and regulations. I found very little literature on the history of milk pricing and how it developed so I talked with Robert Cropp, an emeritus professor of agriculture from the University of Wisconsin – Madison.
He’s been teaching for decades and he’s seen a lot of the changes that have happened. He’s seen the evolution of the system. He took me through the whole thing and so that was very helpful. But it was also difficult to research the section on Dean Foods and DFA, lawsuits are still going on, and nobody really talked to me about the specifics so I had to use a lot of the legal briefs to get my information.
Which section of the book was the most difficult to write accurately?
KARDASHIAN: Again, I think it’s the section on the milk pricing. It’s a very complicated equation. It was hard to make that both lively reading and also be accurate.
Of all of the personal interviews or meetings with dairy farmers that you completed for the book, which one is the most vivid and memorable? Why?
KARDASHIAN: The most memorable one was when I met with Ray Moore of Springfield, Vermont, whom I talk about in the first chapter. He grew up on this beautiful hilltop farm, and his love for the land and for the cows was palpable. We toured around the pastures in his pickup truck, and it was just so beautiful.
He was so passionate about being a dairy farmer, and he was good at it too. He had received premium bonuses from his cooperative. You could tell that he knew what he was doing. He got choked up when we starting talking about the day he loaded up his herd and sold them. It was really hard for him; he was heartbroken. That’s one of the stories that is going to stay with me forever.
Some may criticize your characterization of the dairy industry’s problems stemming from the size discrepancies between dairies (i.e., mega-farms vs. small farms). Do you think getting rid of mega-farms would solve most of the challenges you describe in the book? Why or why not?
KARDASHIAN: I’m not sure if the answer is to get rid of mega-farms – but maybe to just adjust the business model so that mega-farms don’t have such a huge advantage over smaller farms. Farmers were in a sense forced to get bigger because margins were so small.
They did the economically shrewd thing, and you can’t really fault them for that. I think what has to happen is there needs to be a transition so that the forces that caused those farms to want to get so big are less strong. As I talk about in the book, there’s lot of places where big farms are pushing some of their operating costs out into the public and they’re not being internalized on the farm. There are air quality issues in California.
There are water quality issues around the country. Lots of farms, especially in the West, can only operate because they pay milkers very low wages and ask them to work very long hours without overtime pay. If those advantages were taken away, then having a really big operation wouldn’t necessarily mean that you were going to be more successful than a small farm.
If you were to now write a second book about the dairy industry, what would you write about?
KARDASHIAN: I think I’d look more at dairy farming industries in other countries and see how they work. I didn’t really look at the international picture too much. I’d look for other sustainable dairy models in the U.S., and I’d probably dig more deeply into politics to see how it has affected milk policy.
If you were a dairy farmer, what aspect of the dairy business that leads to squeezed margins do you think would frustrate you most?
KARDASHIAN: I imagine it must be just horrendously frustrating to get a milk check that doesn’t have any relation to your cost of production. I mean if you know it’s costing you $18 a hundredweight to make your milk and your milk check is paying you $16 a hundredweight, then you know you’re losing money on your hard work. That would be incredibly frustrating.
What is your advice to today’s dairy farmers?
KARDASHIAN: Most consumers don’t know how hard it is to be a dairy farmer. And they often don’t know how or where their milk is made. There is a disconnect between consumers and producers in most cases. I think most dairy farmers are struggling out there. It is a hard industry; it’s frustrating.
If you want people to care about the longevity of dairy farms and dairy farming, then I think farmers have to make more of an effort to connect with their consumers. Show them who you are. Make them understand the ins and outs of your day-to-day life. Connect with them. I think it’s always good if consumers have a stronger connection with people who make their food.
So what outcome from publishing this book would, if it were to happen, make the book a success?
KARDASHIAN: At the very least, I think the book is starting a national conversation about dairy farming and getting people to think more deeply about it. If it causes consumers to make more informed choices about dairy products, then that would be great. If it influences policies that will actually make the industry more sustainable and better for dairy farmers, then that would be a home run.
Are you done with the dairy industry now that you’ve written this book?
KARDASHIAN: I don’t know. I’d never say I’m “done with the dairy industry,” but I imagine I won’t be writing another book on the dairy industry. It’s always going to be an interesting topic for me. PD
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