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The Milk House: Civilization, that is to say, farming

Ryan Dennis Published on 31 December 2013

While in college, someone gave me a computer game called “Civilization.” In the game, the player is leader of a major society that existed at some point in human history. You build up and improve your nation, battling other world powers doing the same.

The end goal is to rule the world. To be victorious, you have to meet the needs of the people, manage relationships with other leaders and survive various hardships.

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Admittedly, I’m not very proud of this: Back home, milking cows between semesters, my idle mind would sometimes view the homestead in the context of the game. I would decide if spreading manure or dehorning calves would have more immediate benefits to my civilization (the farm).

I would leave cookies for the milkman to bolster our diplomatic relations (for better recorded weights). I would make sure cow comfort was maximized with adequate bedding and clean water (improving the productivity of my inhabitants).

I eventually learned that to win in “Civilization,” you have to find a way to always invest in your society, even when you’re under attack and using most of your resources to survive. If you don’t find a way to keep progressing, you will eventually fail to be competitive.

In reality, farming isn’t a game, and the challenges faced are anything but play. Agricultural media in nearly every country produces the same headlines: high costs, low margins. The means to invest doesn’t come easy and doesn’t come cheap.

Part of the magic trick of farming is finding a way to move forward when it is difficult to do so, whether it be milk quality, fertility rates or volume shipped. Generic advice falls short because each farm is a unique institution in itself; it can be an individual battle to get it where it needs to be.

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Technology changes quickly, and there are always new developments that test themselves against time and practicality before eventually becoming common. Sometimes, however, it’s surprising where it occurs. Iceland did not have a dairy industry until after World War II.

Many rural people had several cows that produced for their own consumption, but there was little milk shipped into Reykjavík, its urban area.

Even after the war, when Iceland received American money from the Marshall Plan and began the process of general modernity, it was still a relatively poor and underdeveloped country until it joined the European Economic Area in the ’90s. Today, however, it leads the world in many industries, from geothermal energy to ecotourism.

One of the biggest surprises, however, came with talking to Áslaug Helgadóttir from the Agricultural University of Iceland. Most Icelandic farmers that make their living solely with dairy cattle have 60 to 70 cows.

Expansion occurs relatively little, particularly because the government has worked to keep the industry profitable and doing so would be seen as undesirable by both the farmers and the social values of the country’s people.

Despite their small size, they actively look for ways to forge ahead, from experimenting with forages that can survive their unpredictable winters to new marketing schemes.

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“When you visit some farms,” she said, “make sure you check out the robots.”

“Robots for 60 cows?” I asked.

“Why not? It works.”

Managing a farm is anything but easy, but those able to move forward in whatever way they can – better management practices, more efficient equipment, infrastructure improvement – will be more productive in the good times and better able to meet the other challenges that lie ahead.

Those that have made it thus far have done it in a spirit of perseverance and willingness to keep progressing and investing in their holdings, even when it is difficult to do so. PD

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