April 23, 2009
A Perplexing and Promising Tale of Milk
The story of how one B.C. farm has become fed up with the distance their milk travels to be processed and is now exploring how to keep it local.
Slowly but surely, the absurdity of our globalized and resource-intensive food system is becoming apparent to more and more North Americans.
One of the most interesting sectors of the food system to deconstruct and from which to unearth just one of these absurdities is Canada's dairy sector.
Helping to share this absurdity is Wayne Harris, an experienced dairyman who has farmed in the Creston Valley of B.C. for fifteen years. He and his wife Denise operate Mountain Valley Dairy.
Sustainability is of significant importance to the Harris family and over the past seven years, they've been actively transitioning from the conventional models of raising their animals on a heavy diet of grain to a pasture based and organic model. For the Harris family, environmental sustainability translates to economic sustainability.
"I'm not happy with the direction the industry is going," says Harris.
Harris is referring to the rapid consolidation of farms taking place throughout the sector. It's commonplace now for small farms to sell their animals and their quota to bigger farms. To put numbers to this trend, and using available stats from Statistics Canada; between 2004-2008, dairy production in B.C. increased by 1.9%, yet, the number of dairy farms decreased by 15.2% between 2001-2006.
Adding to this climate of consolidation has been the consolidation of processing plants. Similar to most sectors of the food system, processing of food has become extremely centralized and has hollowed out the infrastructure required to process the milk close to the farms producing it. Both of these trends translate into milk travelling a much longer-distance between the farm and the consumer.
The Creston Valley, where Mountain Valley Dairy calls home, paints a telling story of our perplexing food system.
"There are six other dairies in the valley," says Harris, "and our milk gets loaded onto a truck with their milk and that milk gets directed to whatever plant needs it."
No processing plant exists in Creston and so in spite of these seven dairies producing quite a lot of milk, that milk is not available to Creston residents! Instead, the closest dairy legally processing milk is 435km away, however, that dairy is small and is likely not capable of serving the Creston market. Instead, milk consumed by Creston residents is either coming from processing plants in Abbotsford (673km), Edmonton (787km), Red Deer (634km) or Saskatoon (1068km).
The absurdity doesn't stop there.
It must also be kept in mind that those distances do not include the distance that the milk travelled from the farm to the processing plant. As an example, for the milk from Mountain Valley, you can multiply those numbers by two! If their milk gets pooled and processed in Saskatoon, the milk might very well return to the Creston Valley (another 1068km). There is, however, no way of actually knowing exactly where their milk ends up, because by that point, the milk has been pooled among many different farms. Upon being pooled, the milk ends up being used in one of many dairy products and stamped with a familiar brand of one of the handful of companies controlling the market.
In a nutshell, this is our food system!
While these long-distance economies of scale might have looked good in the past, the economic and ecological climate of today should create cause for concern. At the very least, the rising cost of fuel and the vulnerable supplies of this fuel should leave any North American community seeking to ensure that farmers and their food remain close to home.
Wayne Harris is certainly not happy with this situation. In the past few years, he's been exploring his options to keep some of his milk close to home.
In late 2008, that option became Kootenay Alpine Cheese (KAC) - the result of a significant financial investment and years of planning and learning.
KAC is now producing three styles of cheese using milk from their pasture-raised organic herd and processing it on-site. Due to the overwhelming demand for local and organic food, KAC is currently sold out.
The demand and support for their cheese has encouraged Harris to even begin thinking how he might be able to process fluid milk too (industry term for any liquid dairy product).
"Had I realized the demand for our cheese would be so high, I might have more seriously considered building a fluid processing plant instead of a cheesemaking one," says Harris.
In the end, it's clear that one of the key solutions to this perplexing food system story, is for eaters to get behind their local farmers and show their commitment and support. In the case of Mountain Valley Farm, it might just translate to all of their milk one day remaining in the region.
Deconstructing Dinner is heard on radio stations across Canada and is available as a Podcast. More information on today's topic can be found at (www.cjly.net/deconstructingdinner/041609.htm).
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