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Dairying’s dichotomy: Collectivism and individualism

Ryan Miltner Published on 24 February 2014

Illustration by mercedes Opheim

In the years that I have been working with dairy farmers, I have found them to be some of the staunchest defenders of individualism and freedom around. Obviously, individuals vary. But as a group, dairy farmers hold strong to their notions of individualism.



As an industry, however, dairy remains one of the most singularly collectivist businesses in the nation. I very carefully chose the word “collectivist” in that last sentence. Even still, its meaning is loaded with emotion and connotation.

The concept of a collective generates imagery of the commune, in its idealistic 1960s sense, as well as socialism and communism, with all of its Soviet-style production control and government dictates.

I desired to use “collectivist” in its more generic sense. Consider the following definition of collective from Merriam-Webster, “involving all members of a group as distinct from its individuals,” or the definition of collectivism, “a political or economic theory advocating collective control especially over production and distribution.”

In that sense, I cannot see how the dairy industry, and specifically the producer side of the industry, could be considered anything other than collectivist.

First, consider the dairy cooperative. The percentage of dairy farmers that are cooperative members stands at 83 percent, according to the USDA. The cooperative exists for the stated and express purpose of permitting individual farmers to band together in collective action in the production and marketing of their milk.


Largely, the production of milk remains an individualistic action, with each farm responsible for methods of producing milk. But the hauling, marketing and return of proceeds for cooperative member milk are anything but.

The marketing of milk and payment of producers remains the core function of the cooperative. And it is in these functions that the collectivist action reaches its zenith. While adjustments to individual producer returns are likely adjusted for components, quality and location, the cooperative acts to provide equitable, if not equal, returns to its members.

As a group, co-op members have elected to forgo the potential for higher returns (or perhaps no return) as competitive individuals and accept the risk for lower but at least some return as a collective group.

In the process, what would otherwise be considered free-market competition is reduced so much that cooperatives enjoy exemption from antitrust laws for their marketing actions. Few would dispute that this cooperative structure has provided benefits to the farmer.

Even in the role of production, the cooperative structure can create or impose collectivist pressures. As cooperatives attempt to balance the supplies produced by their members with the demands of their customers, calls for reduced production can and have been implemented.

In such instances, the desires of any one member give way to the broader group interest, as that mind and will is determined by the association’s leadership.


Likewise, the governmental regulation of milk marketing is embedded with collectivist mandates. The Federal Milk Marketing Order (FMMO) imposes upon handlers a minimum price which must be paid, while a companion policy requiring that these minimum prices be pooled, blended and made uniform among producers completes the order’s collectivist model.

The entire mechanism rings to me like, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

Add to that a mandatory promotion program, premised on the concept that because all producers benefit equally from generic commodity advertising all should participate, and descriptors like “socialist” begin to arise.

Yet, the broad support for these programs among dairy producers belies their strong belief in individual freedoms, capitalism and minimal government intervention. This dichotomy of thought creates, I perceive, a tension in the implementation and revision of dairy policies in the recently debated dairy title of the farm bill.

Recall that when initially proposed, the Dairy Security Act included a supply management program that was mandatory for all dairy producers in the country regardless of their status as a producer in any federal order.

Certainly, the considerations of producers in ascertaining whether a mandatory supply management program worked for them was premised on a litany of factors including geographic location, future plans and financial position.

But underlying each of those factors was this tension between the right of any individual producer to participate, or not participate, in the new program and the otherwise entrenched collectivist policies of the dairy industry.

In the absence of these other collectivist aspects, I would venture to guess that a supply management proposal would be dead on arrival. In fact, to propose any similar program in an industry without such a historical collectivist underpinning would be unfathomable.

The eventual decision to make the supply management and margin insurance provisions of the Dairy Security Act voluntary (although linked) represented both a pragmatic and logical compromise to reconcile the collective-individual tension.

Even though supply management was eventually removed from the final Farm Bill, dairy producers and processors would be wise to remember how this apparent conflict of philosophies was bridged. With little doubt, future issues of regulation and policy reform will likely resurface the industry’s tension between individualism versus collectivism. PD

References omitted due to space but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Illustration by Mercedes Opheim.

Ryan miltner

Ryan Miltner
The Miltner Law Firm LLC