Q. I live in Pennsylvania where dairy farmers are in financial crisis. I’m vegan. Is it possible to promote veganism and support dairy farmers’ welfare?
— I’m Vegan, Not a Villain
A. Dear IVNV,
First of all, let me stop you from shouldering the weight of the entire American dairy crisis alone. As an individual (or even part of a herd) you’re not hurting dairy farmers by choosing to be vegan. Even if you were the most fervent promoter of veganism in the world, you’ll probably never turn the whole world vegan. There will always be people who support dairy farmers by, you know, eating and drinking dairy. So no need to cry over spilled soy milk — there are plenty of other ways for you to support your local dairy farmers.
I’m not sure how this fits into your personal vegan practice — I’ve known vegans who fall all across the spectrum on this point — but, it being HOLIDAY TIME, you could buy a bunch of locally farmed dairy presents for your loved ones who haven’t transitioned over to the vegan side (yet). The Center for Dairy Excellence says the No. 1 way you as an individual can help dairy farmers is to buy their products. (Duh, kind of.) And dairy analysts have been encouraging dairy farmers to branch out from plain milk into cheese and yogurt production — so you can support local farmers who have gotten started doing that.
Now, you may not like that option because it sends some mixed messages in terms of your personal ethics, especially after years of delivering the “why not Christmas yam!!!” line at every holiday party.
The current dairy crisis is, it turns out, due to some structural problems. For starters, U.S. dairy farms have ramped up production with cows bred to produce up to seven times as much milk as they did 100 years ago. At the same time, the domestic population of dairy drinkers has shrunk. More dairy + fewer dairy-guzzlers at home = too much milk on the market, which means a lot of farmers are forced to sell at a price that doesn’t even cover their cost of production.
For a vegan, the decline in dairy demand might be seen a victory; for a dairy farmer, it can be a death sentence. That’s not a joke or an exaggeration — suicide and mental health crises are on the rise in Pennsylvania since the milk price fall. Your concern for your neighbors, IVNV, is well-warranted.
Here’s what the Pennsylvania government is working on to help local dairy farmers: labeling milk products to designate that they’re farmed in Pennsylvania, and courting large dairy producers to open more in-state processing plants to lower costs for farmers. Here’s what it’s not trying to do: limit the price-dictating power of large corporations and milk cooperatives, which some farmers see as “corrupt cartels.”
So let’s review your options: you could buy your grandma a cheese ball for Christmas. Or you could wage a full-on offensive against free-market capitalism! Or take the middle ground, which is yelling (gently) at your elected officials.
You could consider contacting your state senator and/or representative (look them up here) about supporting state-level legislation that protects small farmers from price drops. The federal Farm Bill, which currently awaits the president’s signature, has some new provisions in it to protect dairy farmers from unsustainably low prices. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, for example, wrote a measure into this Farm Bill that reimburses dairy farmers for premiums paid on insurance programs that, well, didn’t actually pay out.
Farm Women United, a Pennsylvania-based organization, issued their representatives a (rather strongly worded) request last winter to state their positions on policies that support small dairy farmers. Their letter gives a good overview of the different types of policies that can harm or help farmers, so you have an idea of what to bring up if you talk to your representative.
But I do have some bad news, or at least some conflicting news. It’s likely that some non-dairy alternative “milks” you enjoy — You know: Almond, oat, cashew, soy, rice, hemp, coconut, macadamia, quinoa (lotta options out there!) — could be seen as threats by the dairy farmers you want to support. There are multiple pieces of legislation brewing to prohibit these products from being labelled “milk.” If you’ve got no affection for that word and you’re down to drink soy “nectar” or something, you can write in your support of such legislation to your representative, if it crops up in Pennsylvania. But even if such legislation were to pass, there’s some debate over how much that legislation would actually benefit small farmers.
Furthermore, that law probably brings up the ethical debate at the heart of your question, IVNV: Can you work against the market viability of products that don’t harm animals in favor of protecting your neighbors? I don’t know whether you’ll be comforted or distressed by the fact that part of the shifts in demand for milk is due to consumer concern about animal welfare. That’s the fundamental dilemma you’re facing here, and I can’t answer it for you.
But I do want to tell you how much I love this question, because it’s an excellent example of what is wonderful about many vegans. The fundamental ethos of veganism is that it’s all about limiting the harm you do to the Earth and to animals. You’re asking how you can limit the harm being done to your human neighbors. That dairy farmer love you’re flexing runs counter to a lot of unfair stereotypes about vegans, so I’m delighted you’ve given me the opportunity to showcase that.*
With both eggnog and eggless nog,
*Lest anyone think I’m congratulating myself, I’m not vegan. I did try it once.