Rascals in Robes, Honesty in Rags

The Maine legislature has recently adjourned. Having “lost” one-third of Maine’s commercial dairy farms since 2020 and reportedly inclined to keep the remaining 145 outfits in-operation, the legislature voted to “set up a task force that will study the challenges facing the state’s commercial dairy farmers and recommend ways to support the long-term sustainability of the industry by the start of the next year.” (Portland Press Herald, 4/3/24)  Let’s leave the now-standard abuse of the terms “challenges” and “industry” aside for now, and proceed to predict the outcome of the task force’s study. Maybe.

As with most agricultural commodities, dairy farmers sell their milk for less than it costs them to produce it, We know this because the U.S Department of Agriculture and the Maine Milk Commission regularly conduct and publish cost-of-production studies, where the various expenses (labor at $10 per hour, fuel, electricity, animal feed, etc.) are totaled for each “hundredweight” (100 pounds) of milk produced.

Note that the only cost-of-production numbers that policymakers ever see are what are called “short-run-break-even” (SRBE) calculations. Thus the fuel for the tractor counts but not the cost of the tractor or its replacement. Likewise, the cost to keep the barn lights on is noted but not the cost of the barn. The cost of the farmland doesn’t count either.

Years ago when Maine established a program to “subsidize” dairy farmers and get them a little closer to meeting the cost-of-production, I marveled that the only number mentioned in polite company was the SRBE calculation. The actual costs that reflect return-to-capital, capital improvements, and profit—— as are routinely figured (and insisted upon) by actual “industries” or “businesses” ——went uncounted and politely unmentioned.

Puzzled, I asked one of the state’s better-known dairy farmers why they never cited the actual numbers. “Well,” he said, “ We’re afraid they’ll think we’re being greedy.”

Thus the remorseless dairy farm apocalypse grinds on as producers continue to suffer their losses in stoic silence. Farmers weren’t always so meek. Back when a majority of Americans lived on farms and (as today) were getting screwed by business “interests” and the boss-ocracy, rural populists like Mary Ellen Lease were somewhat more direct. Perhaps best known for her general advice to farmers (“Raise less corn and more hell.”) she spoke at the People’s Party convention of 1890 in words that ring true today:

“Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street…. Our laws are the output of a system that clothes rascals in robes and honesty in rags…. The politicians said we suffered from overproduction. Overproduction, when 10,000 little children… starve to death every year in the U.S. and over 100,000 shop girls in New York are forced to sell their virtue for bread…”

“There are thirty men in the United States whose aggregate wealth is over one and one-half billion dollars (Over 750 today). There are half a million looking for work…. (6.5 million today) We want money, land and transportation. We want the abolition of the national banks, and we want the power to make loans directly from the government. We want the accursed foreclosure system wiped out…. We will stand by our homes and stay by our firesides and we will not pay our debts to the loan-shark companies until the government pays its debts to us.”

“The people are at bay, let the bloodhounds of money who have dogged us thus far beware.”

Those grievances are today no less real, but the political class pays no attention. Famously, after the speculative real estate/ derivative bubble burst under Bush the Lesser, and the foreclosure-fest ensued, his successor, Barack Obama met with corporate CEOs at the White House in 2009. He announced, “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.”

They needn’t have worried. His administration put them and their friends in high places and the downward mobility of urban workers and the farmer-remnant continued.

As life expectancies decline in the US and “deaths of despair” afflict the urban poor, NBC reported in 2019,  …”from 2005 to 2015 suicide rates grew by 30% in half of rural counties, a larger increase than in urban areas.” Nebraska Farmers Union set up a “suicide hotline”  decades ago. The trend is spreading eastward.

“Some dairy cooperatives have started to send suicide hotline numbers along with farmers’ checks for milk.  Agri-Mark Inc., a … cooperative in the Northeast with about 1,000 members, started sending the numbers …. after a third member died of suicide in as many years.” (See “Best advice to U.S. dairy farmers? ‘Sell out as fast as you can.’ “ NBC News, 6/30/19)

Got milk?

Dial 1-800-SUICIDE.

Richard Rhames is a dirt-farmer in Biddeford, Maine (just north of the Kennebunkport town line). He can be reached at: rerhames@gmail.com