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The Milk House: Bad principles

Ryan Dennis for Progressive Dairyman Published on 30 September 2016

When I was in junior high, our school principal showed up drunk at a basketball game. He shouted at the referees over a bad call, calling the decision “asinine.” When they gave him a warning, he told them to look it up.

It was the type of juvenile thing my friends and I said to each other, but it didn’t work out well for our principal because he was kicked out of the game.



Both parents and students watched in silence as the figurehead of our school was escorted out. I had once seen him tell a kid that he had 30 seconds to leave school property because he didn’t have a valid absence note – and then chase the student down the driveway while he counted down.

The man we had invested with so much authority, however, hung his head as he was taken to the parking lot.

The Irish farming community has recently been unsettled by scandal as the top officials of the Irish Farmers Association have been caught embezzling funds. It has come to light that the general secretary, Pat Smith, received salaries of more than $600,000 in 2013 and $500,000 in 2014, signed off by President Eddie Downey, who himself made more than $165,000 a year.

This occurred at a time when Irish dairy farmers were producing below costs at times last year and struggling to get by.

According to an Irish Times article written at the time of his election, Eddie Downey farms 140 acres in County Meath, raising heifers and poultry, and growing hay. Being elected president of the IFA is no small undertaking, as it included 13 head-to-head debates and meeting many of the organization’s 88,000 members.


The Irish Times also suggested that a campaign costs approximately $45,000. When Downey was elected, the president was not meant to receive a salary but only compensation for travel and to pay a hired hand to help on his farm while he’s away.

The IFA scandal was headline news in Ireland for many months, not only because it is a small island but because many citizens empathize with the farmer. It is still an agricultural nation at heart, with its population less removed from the farm than in other countries.

Farmers and non-farmers alike decried the injustice of producers having to struggle while its leadership filled its pockets. It was an act of betrayal that was felt by everyone.

Abuse of power by those meant to represent the interest of farmers is not a new phenomenon. Dairy Farmers of America, the largest dairy cooperative in the U.S., was sued in 2012 by dairy farmers in the Southeast and several years later by farmers in the Northeast.

The cooperative was accused of violating antitrust legislation by conspiring with Dean Foods to drive down prices paid to farmers. In both cases, they settled but did so without officially admitting any wrongdoing. Before that happened, however, farmers had to fight against the very organization that was meant to be looking out for them.

In trying to trace the epistemology of such events, one can start at the nature of both man and capitalism. The first is tempted by greed, and the second is driven by it.


Although the reverence of capitalism is tied into the American identity, the system isn’t particularly kind to farmers, who have much less countervailing market power than retailers and processors, and suffer with lower profits because of it.

Dairy farmers especially, with a perishable flow product that they can’t turn off or hold onto for higher prices, are at a particular disadvantage. There’s no way to know what motivated Eddie Downey or Pat Smith to steal from the IFA, but one could imagine these older farmers not getting a piece of the pie as big as they believed they deserved through the years – and thereby trying to take it when no one was looking.

Although it was a novelty to see the man who was supposed to discipline us get chastised himself at the basketball game, there was also a loss of innocence in realizing that those meant to be looking out for your own good aren’t always good themselves.

I think the Irish farmers would have been less indignant if it had been a mega-conglomerate in the processing or retail sector that defrauded them rather than one of their own.

While the financial damage will be felt regardless of the culprit, crimes like this seem to comment on the state of farming. Already lacking inherent agency in the market, being betrayed by individuals and organizations meant to be your advocate makes farming feel like a lonelier act.

It’s a nice feeling to know that someone has your back, and when it comes to the economics of farming, it’s also necessary. When that group is looking out for their own interests instead, it can make the whole system feel – to borrower someone else’s term – a little bit asinine.  end mark

Ryan Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. The Dennis family dairies and maintains a 100-plus cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorns.