OPINION The phrase “big dairy” is often used to depersonalize dairy farmers and imply some large, faceless force foisting an agenda. Consolidation has occurred in agriculture for generations and family farms are expanding. But about three-quarters of U.S. dairy farms have fewer than 100 cows on them, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture.
The largest farms produce the most milk, but even the biggest ones – 189 dairies with more than 5,000 cows – are too numerous and geographically dispersed to create a monolithic giant, the federation stated. More than 95 percent of all dairy farms, regardless of size, are operated by families.
“Big dairy” also appears to be a misnomer when one takes into account corporations. Land O’Lakes is ranked 212 on the Fortune 500. Dairy Farmers of America would make the list if it were publicly traded. Both are farmer-owned cooperatives. The cooperatives are tiny compared to health care, with four entries among Fortune’s top-10 companies, or oil with four in Fortune’s top-25.
Maybe big dairy is a myth invented by those who want to make farmers seem “big” to advance some contrasting image. Some competitors might want to be viewed as small-company, plant-based upstarts.
Perfect Day is selling tubs of imitation ice cream at $20 per pint. The company received funding from Temasek – a venture-capital arm of the government of Singapore – and Archer-Daniels-Midland, with $64 billion in annual sales. Other plant- and cell-based alternatives are financed by Jeff Bezos, whose net worth is about $115 billion, and Bill Gates, whose net worth is more $100 billion.
The gross receipts of all 40,000 dairy farmers in the United States – an estimated $39.9 billion – represent just two-fifths of Jeff Bezos’ net worth.
Dairy is a significant U.S. industry. The sector as a whole is responsible for about 3 million U.S. jobs and has an overall economic impact of more than $620 billion, including indirect effects, according to research commissioned by the National Milk Producers Federation and other dairy groups.
The dairy industry is comprised of family farmers, cooperatives and companies of all sizes and types. They believe in the health and nutrition of their products and support them against opponents. Those opponents usually aren’t anywhere near the underdogs they pretend to be.