Why the Milk Train Stopped

My dad used to ride the local “milk train” from college at Creighton University in Omaha to his family farm near Fordyce in Cedar County, Nebraska. I don’t know when that train stopped running, but the reasons for its demise can be traced to a disastrous set of public policies that encouraged systematic disinvestment in owner-operated diversified farms.

Diversified?

Diversified farmers raised several types of crops and livestock. They milked cows that grazed on open pastures. They fed very little grain and did not use expensive chemicals and equipment. Chickens were raised for meat and eggs and butcher hogs consumed the excess milk and grain. The hogs were trucked to livestock markets in Omaha and Sioux City and the milk and eggs rode the train to Omaha. Although by no means perfect, this farming system operated throughout the Midwest and Plains States.

Public Policy, Disinvestment and Economic Decline

But starting after the Second World War, local bankers and diversified farmers faced competition from big city banks and government agencies. The USDA played a leading role in convincing farmers to borrow ever-larger amounts of money to finance the application of petroleum-based fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides on corn, soybeans and alfalfa. These crops were (and are) trucked to dairy cows, hogs and chickens housed in closed confinement barns and beef cattle held in large feedlots.

Over time, these policy and investment decisions produced a steady decline in the number of diversified farms as well as the processing plants that once supplied near-by Missouri Valley cities, and export markets. The processors have moved south and west in search of cheap commodities, water and labor.

As a result, Missouri Valley residents now spend billions each year on non-local (read imported) meat and dairy products. For example, we estimate that Kansas City and Omaha area residents spend a combined 300 million dollars a year on imported organic food (USDA, OTA and Census data). Fresh vegetables are the biggest organic import.

A Sustainable Economic Development Strategy

We can compete on price, quality and availability with most imported fresh vegetables by building locally financed, four-season greenhouses near big cities. These modern high capacity facilities can create new jobs while reducing water and energy consumption. They can also eliminate harmful chemicals and fertilizers in our food chain by using soil mixtures based on well-composted livestock and poultry manure from efficient diversified organic farms.

On economic development, its not hard to imagine large and efficient sustainable farms and gardens around every big Missouri Valley city. There are no good reasons why these farms and gardens should not be locally owned and operated by the folks who do the work. Further, sound economic development policy demands that near-by processing plants be owned by entrepreneurs (including workers) who earn reasonable profits and living wages. This is no pipe dream!

Farmer-owned Food Brands

We know smart conventional, natural and organic farmers, ranchers and feeders who are already marketing specialty meats and poultry through established commodity channels. In order to by-pass volatile commodity markets, some of these producers want to own retail brands, and yes, contract with locally-owned food processors and distributors to supply high-end Missouri Valley grocery and food service outlets.

You can help us get started by considering an investment in a new farmer-controlled marketing company. We are using Slow Money principals to guide the organizational process. To learn more about farmer-controlled marketing and local financing, please go to Raised Free.

Finally, we are planning to develop our two Omaha area farms to showcase the latest in efficient organic farming technologies and marketing methods. We would be delighted to discuss our plans with qualified investors and experienced organic farmers and gardeners.

Thank you.

Jim Steffen
jim@massenafarms.com
402-317-2639

 

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