By Robert Turner
The kids have grown up and left the farm, and the old tire swing now dangles there without purpose.
The dairy business is gone, and so are the cows. But there are still a few neighbors hanging on.
Some mornings, after the sun has been up for a few hours, I see a big, silver-colored, liquid tanker-truck rolling down Pennsylvania Road near my old farm and I know it’s full of raw milk coming from the Bonham farm and is on its way to a milk bottling plant near downtown Asheville.
It gives me hope, and I think for a moment about how lucky we are to still have these things—a dairy farm and a place to bring and bottle milk locally. Because to be dependent on things from faraway places, like milk from California, is not freedom.
There used to be hundreds of dairy farms spread out across Buncombe County (now there are two), and in the 1950s there were 22 milk-bottling plants in Western North Carolina. Now there’s only one large milk bottling company left in the region, located in West Asheville. There are just four milk bottlers left in the entire state of North Carolina, and only two in South Carolina.
The West Asheville dairy processing facility was built in 1965, and since 1982 has been run by Milkco Inc., a subsidiary of Ingles grocery stores. Milkco sells its product under the popular brand Sealtest. The company employs about 250 people, which makes it one of the largest employers in the county, and it processes a whopping one million gallons of raw milk every week.
Milkco produces only bottled liquids at the facility, but sells cream and other by-products to producers who make yogurt, butter and ice cream.
Milkco’s president Keith Collins says that there has been a slight uptick in milk consumption over recent months, which may be related to more people eating at home and drinking milk with a meal versus a soda, a glass of wine or a beer at a restaurant. Over the years, the size of the plant has grown from 45,000 square feet to more than 145,000 square feet. Most of the raw milk supply comes from local farms within a 150-mile radius of Milkco’s facility. It’s a hold-out in a dairy business that has been decimated by consolidation in recent years.
Two dominant players have controlled most of the dairy products that we consume in this country. Dean Foods controls most of the fluid milk markets (up to 100 percent in some parts of the country). Meanwhile, farmers in many parts of the country have only one dairy cooperative that they can sell their milk to—Dairy Farmers of America (DFA). And this past year DFA purchased Dean Foods.
When you control the market and there’s little to no competition, it’s easy to manipulate milk prices so you pay less to farmers while price gouging consumers. The Department of Justice recently fined DFA $12 million for price manipulation. Go figure.
The state of Wisconsin, once considered the “dairy capital of the world,” lost 8 percent of its dairy farms in 2018. Farmers are feeling the pinch from lower prices and the massive consolidation of the business, as larger producers buy up or push out smaller ones.
After decades of extreme concentration and centralization in a food industry that includes industrial monoculture, many are beginning to realize that we need to decentralize production and decision-making. Where there are vast monopolies and the concentration of wealth and power into fewer and fewer hands, capitalism begins to break down. Capitalism requires competition and a level playing field.
Regional strength and resilience come from the conscious breaking down of larger national structures into smaller and more manageable local ones, along with the understanding of place—our place. Regionalism is not a political movement toward separatism. We are all proud Americans. But we do need to build self-reliance with the understanding that we are a unique and valuable region with our own strengths and capacities. We can feed ourselves and become less dependent on things from faraway places.
Thank goodness Asheville still has a milk processor called Milkco where a farmer can still bring her raw milk. And thank goodness we have local food growers and processors who give us freedom from want, freedom from dependence and freedom of choice.
Robert Turner is the director of the Creekside Farm Education Center and the author of Carrots Don’t Grow on Trees: Building Sustainable and Resilient Communities. To learn more, visit EatYourView.com.