Say Cheese: A Dying Family Industry

Photo by Jared Benedict - Jill Henderson

At one time in the not so distant past, the central Ozark region was well-known for its rich and productive dairy farms.  As few as ten years ago, you didn’t have to travel far before coming across rolling pastureland dotted with the distinctive black and white patches of Holstein heifers grazing the green, green grass of home. 

Back in the day, the majority of dairy farms in the Ozarks were small, family-run outfits whose labors contributed to the economic vitality of a region scarred deeply with low-wage jobs.  Those days of small farms and farm-produced goods have been steadily declining in recent years, only to be replaced by massive factory farms And Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO’s) in flatland states where more animals per square inch is the bottom line and degradation of the environment takes a back seat to profit.

CAFO’s are about as far away from that quaint cottage industry that once thrived here in the Ozarks as one can get. Arkansas is filled with these types of operations (primarily chickens) and the slaughterhouses that pay consistently low wages and employ multitudes of illegal immigrants to process them. These huge warehouses of flesh and bone deny the animals the dignity of even a smidgen of a natural life – no matter how long or short that may be.

Cut to what is left of our rural farm heritage – a family rising before dawn, a walk across a dewy morning field, the creaky swing of a pasture gate leading to the barn, the steam rising off well-tended cows jostling for position at the feeding trough as the family readies the cows for the first milking of the day. It’s an idyllic scene from a rural landscape in the not-so-distant past. For most families, the milk produced on an average homestead was enough to satisfy the family needs for fresh milk, cream, cheese and butter with enough left over to make the farm enough money to live by.

In those days most people didn’t rely on food safety regulations when buying milk – they trusted the farmer to keep their cows, and the milk they produced, clean and healthy.   It’s not difficult to imagine unsanitary conditions in a barn, but sanitation can be controlled.  In the case of dairies, sterilizing milking equipment and storage tanks, sanitizing cow udders and human hands, and keeping a close eye on the health of the cow, all reduce the potential for contaminants.  As someone who likes whole, raw milk straight from Ol Bessy, I take it upon myself to know from whom I buy my milk and other dairy products and to see for myself the conditions in which the product is produced. I am aware that perhaps I take some measure of risk in this venture, but if recent history has anything to add to the discussion, I am just as likely to get sick from products sold at the grocery store.

By the mid-1700’s, it was understood that microbes in food could be killed by applying a certain amount of heat.  But commercial applications of pasteurization for liquids didn’t begin in earnest until the 1890’s when an industrial-sized pasteurization machine was developed.  With this new machine, milk and many other liquids like apple juice and vinegar would by law require pasteurization before being sold to the public.

Photo by UnisouthOpponents of pasteurization claim that the heating of raw milk reduces its rich taste and nutritional qualities while killing off the naturally beneficial enzymes and bacteria found only in raw milk.  Proponents of pasteurization claim that the process is necessary to safeguard unsuspecting citizens from dangerous microbes that are sometimes found in raw milk and that no nutrients are lost during the process.

Depending on which state you live in, there are a wide variety of regulations relating to the sale of raw milk for human consumption.  And while y ou may or may not be able to buy raw milk or raw milk products legally, there is no law in any state that prevents you from drinking raw milk produced by your own cows.

According to retail sales of raw milk are “legal in 10 states, on-farm sales are legal in 15 states, herd shares are legal in 4 states and there are no laws on herd shares in 6 states, and “pet food” sales are legal in 4 states.  Thus, it is possible to purchase raw milk or obtain it from your own animal/herd or herd shares in 39 out of 50 states”.

In Arkansas, sales of raw cow milk are illegal, however, sales of raw goat milk is not. But in Missouri, on-farm sales of raw milk are allowed. So why is it that so many dairies or small farms don’t sell raw milk?  As one dairyman told me, “If I sell you even one quart of raw milk and the processor finds out about it, they will never buy another ounce of my milk again.”  That’s serious and direct pressure from the milk industry to keep farmer’s from selling raw milk to individuals.

Couple that threat with the almost ridiculously low prices processors currently pay for raw milk, daunting food safety laws and increased pressure of regulation on small dairies and then throw into the mix the recent introduction of the new Food Safety and Modernization Act, Senate Bill S-510, which seems to favor mega-farms over family ones, and it’s easy to see why many so small farmer’s felt the yoke tightening around their necks. That was enough to force family after family to make the hardest decision of all – to walk away from their small dairy farm.

That brings us back around to the reasons for the increasing loss of family dairy farms in the Ozarks.  And while many dairies have gone under the wheels, a few family dairies remain. Of these, many have decided to become part of a dairy cooperative made up of many individual farms. In most cases, co-op members are guaranteed a market for their product, essentially increasing their selling power to the industry at large. Also, in some cases, dairy co-ops actually produce their own secondary market products such as cheese or ice cream. But for independent dairies, the game has always been the same – either get big, or get out. That is, until recently.

With the stirrings the self-sufficiency movement started by concerns over the results of Y2K, came a renewed interest in local and natural foods that has steadily grown in scope and size. The movement has grown to include a demand for all manner of natural foods – including raw milk and raw milk products from small, family-run dairies such as Morningland Dairy in Mountain View, Missouri.

In August of 2010 this small, family-run dairy gained national attention – not because of its hand-crafted cheeses, or the way they treated their cows, or because they were a model of success for small dairy producers – rather, Morningland’s fame came in the form of a State raid on a raw food store in California, where a sample of Morningland’s cheese was said to have tested positive for staphylococcus aureus and listeria monocytogenes bacteria.

The FDA and the Missouri Milk Board immediately demanded that Morningland Dairy shut down its operation and destroy nearly a year’s worth of cheese production valued at $250,000.  Morningland claims that the type of cheese the FDA supposedly tested for the two bacterium were never even sold to the raw food store in California. So far the dairy itself has passed every inspection for physical contamination of both milking and cheese-making equipment, and Morningland has refused to destroy its local cheese supply until they get what they feel is a fair testing of every batch of prepared cheese stored in their on site coolers by the State of Missouri.

The trial, which was held earlier this year in West Plains, Missouri, has still not reached a final conclusion. Although the Dixons have managed to stave off the repeated destruction order for the time being, the family business as they know it was crushed under the weight of lengthy and expensive litigation by a state with seemingly endless pockets.  Morningland Dairy, and the Dixon family, are the latest victims of an increasingly dying breed – the small family farm.

All the while the Morningland Dairy battle ensued, the State of Missouri and the corporate-farm touts have been pushing, yet again, to operate animal CAFO’s smack dab in the heart of the karst region of the Ozarks and multi-millionaires are moving in from out of state, buying up and clear-cutting prime forestland to create a massive dairy operation that spans at least three counties and drilling a huge number of deep water wells to irrigate that pasture.

What is it that we are supposed learn from this lesson is this: Battles over small farms such as Morningland Dairy are worth having if it means a return to a way of thinking and eating and living that supports local people, local economies, cleaner environments, food security, and freedom of choice. And ultimately, it means the life or death of small family-run farms in the Ozarks and all across the United States of America.

Jill Henderson is an author, artist and editor of Show Me Oz. 

…and don’t forget to tell your friends you got it from

6 responses to “Say Cheese: A Dying Family Industry

  1. Heartbreaking on so many levels.

    • It really is, Martha. But as a community we can change things by supporting small farms and honest-to-goodness local businesses and avoiding those massive corporate enterprises. This way our money stays at home, boosting the local economy and spurring on more family-run enterprises. Morningland Dairy may have lost the business they built up over 30 years, but it looks as if they may go to a “subscription-based” dairy in which you can buy into the production of the farm and the foodstuffs they produce. Much like a CSA – Community Supported Agriculture.

  2. What a thorough overview Jill. So sad though……..with people thinking that Amendment-1 for the Aug. is actually a “right to farm”(which of course is only a chosen title to fool people so mega-agricultural operations – CAFO’s can operate without impunity in Missouri) is something that supports all farmers. It doesn’t of course. It mostly targets more of the family farms. Any small farmer still operating needs their community support now. And, keeping the larger operations out of Missouri can only protect what we still have. Thanks again.

    • Thank you, Jerre. It’s so sad to see people manipulated by fear over such an important aspect of our community. It’s a state-wide ballot initiative, so I’m hopeful that the amendment will not pass, despite the aggressive ad campaign and robo-calls. Only a few more days and we’ll know…

  3. I wish I could read an article about food that would make me happy. It is so disheartening to see how major corporations have just invaded every aspect of life to make sure they don’t miss a dime of profit at the cost of the rest of the world.

    • I know what you mean, Alexander! I’m so focused on the so-called Right to Farm bill that I’m all wrapped up in the negative. But when it’s over, I’ll write a happy piece about food just for you!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s