Review: Milk Money

Title: Milk Money: Cash, Cows and the Death of the American Dairy Farm
Author: Kirk Kardashian
Senior Writer Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth
Publishing Info: 2012, U. of New Hampshire Press
Book Type: Explorative essays on the American dairy industry
First, I take offense to the subtitle “and the Death of the American Dairy Farm.”  Did he mean the “Conventional American Dairy Farm?”  Perhaps this gives a clue to his overall take on the dairy industry.  

Kirk Kardashian was first a lawyer (Vermont Law 2004) and then a freelance writer and now is a senior writer at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.  He got interested in the dairy industry because of his daughter’s daycare at a local Vermont dairy. He wanted to understand how the family could work so hard and yet never get ahead financially.  Thus, in 2009 he launched into a deep investigation of the dairy industry and published Milk Money in 2012.  “I wanted to know how the dairy industry had arrived at its current location...I wanted to uncover the implications of that journey...And I wanted to know how we might navigate to a place more just, prosperous, and sustainable” (xv). He is not a dairy farmer, nor evidently had any family in dairying.  This is not a limiting factor on his work, it just gives insight that he is looking in and not within.

The book is very easy to read and peppered with entertaining descriptions of characters  people ranging from dairymen to animal rights activists to migrant workers and veterinarians.  It also has simple chapter titles such as “The Workers” and “The Animals”   that make it possible to just read a chapter and come back to the book later.  The early chapters give an overview of dairy statistics, the evolution of dairying, and the mutant gene that allows the consumption of milk.  The later chapters are focused more on one topic such as “The Environment,” with the final one focusing on a particular producer-handler in New York. It almost seems that some chapters were better researched and had greater depth than other chapters, most notably the thin last chapter. The enormous amount of facts, interviews and personal accounts lack true documentation, though Kardashian does offer some footnotes. 

Kardashian does a good job of pointing out a major problem for dairy farmers: the low price of set by the confusing Federal Milk Marketing Order.  Also how dairy farmers are basically held hostage by the large co-ops that were originally started to help them (read: Dairy Farmers of America, Darigold, etc.).  He also explains how the dairy industry is subsidized to create too much milk, and how that continues to lower the milk price.  These are standard facts every dairyman knows.  Yet, it is a good introduction of these problems to the majority of Americans who just want cheap milk.  His investigative information on the dirty deeds of Dean Foods, worker conditions, and animal abuses are about what I expected.  It does not surprise me that a large corporation is greedy, nor that workers without rights are treated poorly, nor that animals are abused by bad people.  

In general the book focuses a lot (with reason) on the Northeast milk market and particularly Vermont.  He does delve into generalities of the Midwest and Southeast dairies, and for the West only highlights mega-dairies in the San Joaquin Valley of California.  The dairies he focuses on are all either sad stories of families that had to get out of dairying smaller operations (maybe up to 1000 cows) or they are 10,0000 + mega-dairies.  Except for the final chapter he does not highlight any small, local dairies that are producer handlers or any organic dairies.  Thus, his overview of the American diary industry really is the conventional dairy industry...which, within reason is what most American’s get at the grocery store.

I have two major problems with this book: 1) the complete lack of investigation of the small/organic/producer-handler diary sector, and 2) the apparent lack of a conclusion.

In about three pages and seven paragraphs, Kardashian quickly describes and then eviscerates the entire organic milk movement!  He even erroneously claims that Organic Valley “ended up being bought by Dean Foods” (218)!  This blatant error along with his quick overview of the organic market, and his reliance on the point of view of one non-organic dairyman Sam Simon, patently demonstrates Kardashian’s fundamental misunderstanding of both the USDA Organic label as a marketing tool and the separate underlying organic farming methods used to improve pasture and cow.  He allows Simon’s opinion that organic farms “are a bunch of shit holes” to serve as the defining judgment of all organic farms.  I agree that not all organic farms are run how most consumers may believe they are run (cows frolicking in pasture), and large corporations have produced a lot of “organic” milk in very marginal ways (Horizon Dairy...i.e. Dean Foods).  Yet, to just lop all organic dairies into being “shit holes” without apparently researching them or visiting them, well, that to me is just poor writing and lazy. 

My second problem stems from the book just ending after the chapter “Grass-fed, free-range, streamline baby.”  I had slogged through this entire book and was looking forward to this final chapter, thinking it would sum up his thesis and give insights to the future of the dairy industry...perhaps highlighting organic, grazing, local and producer-handler dairies that buck against the large co-ops and corporations thus reducing the affect of the Federal Milk Marketing Order, etc.  Yet, alas.  The final chapter instead, incorrectly lampoons the organic industry as stated above, and then focuses on one large producer-handler in New York that became its own creamery (getting milk from many dairies) called Hudson Valley Fresh.  I laughed out loud when I read that the problem for producer handlers was capital outlay of “a minimum of $2.5 million” (228). Sure for huge processors maybe in the model of mimicking large corporations, but if the real future of American dairy is producer-handlers serving local communities (which I believe it is), then the outlay is much smaller for on-the-farm processing plants on smaller dairies. And then the book just conclusion, no idea on what Kardashian feels is needed or would help.  Just the end of the chapter.  He answered the first two parts of his thesis above, but dropped the ball on “And I wanted to know how we might navigate to a place more just, prosperous, and sustainable” (xv).

Thus, overall, I don’t find this book delivers what it promises.  It is a good overview of standard problems in the dairy industry, but focuses too much on conventional dairy without any investigation into the growing small/local/organic/producer-handler dairy movement.  Further, he doesn’t even delve into the growing debate about raw milk and the ability for raw milk sales to be a boon to local dairies since it requires less infrastructure and capital. The broad overview of cow genetics, milk prices, environmental woes, animal cruelty, and worker abuses again is a good refresher for any American that drinks milk, but doesn’t do much for a dairy farmer.  I guess Kardashian’s goal was more about highlighting these issues and fostering discussion than actually shinning the light on positive aspects of the dairy industry and growth in the non-conventional sectors.  Thus, I’d recommend this book to non-dairymen wanting to get a broad overview of the conventional dairy industry.

Response via email from author 24 May 2013:
Thank you for reading my book and taking the time to write a review. I regret the error about Organic Valley. And I don't think the book presents an indictment of organic dairies; it just shows that they are not the holy grail of dairy production. I decided not to write much about non-conventional dairies because they represent such a small slice of the industry and I had limited time for writing.

In any event, I wish you the best of luck with your new dairy operation. The country needs more people like you, making a high-quality product for a local community.