Big Milk

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Northern France normally brings to mind lush green countryside, enchanting villages, and traditional cider and cheese made in rustic farmhouses. But since 2004 the area has also been home to Mille Vaches, a milk-producing superfarm capable of housing 1,000 cows—quite the eyesore in this imagery.

The model is a successfully replicable one: In Idaho, USA, you can now find stables with 35,000 Friesian cows; in Saudi Arabia, 85,000; and soon 100,000 in China. The dairy industry has fallen prey to gigantism and industry. The trend for growth is spreading across Europe as well, with the goal of producing huge amounts of milk at low costs, making profits from biogas plants that burn the manure of thousands of cows. But in the throes of this transformation, what future is there for the little guys?

The Cheese 2015 conference that explored the issue focused on the case of Confédération Paysanne versus Mille Vaches, an agricultural David and Goliath which saw a trade union of small- and medium-scale farmers stand up against the development of the massive dairy farm in the region of Picardy, east of Normandy.

“We knew that this mega-dairy would be the end of us small-scale farmers.” Laurent Pinatel, farmer and spokesperson for Confédération Paysanne, recounted the ongoing battle against the farm. The plant, the initiative of a wealthy building entrepreneur, was conceived to produce large quantities of cheap milk and be manned by low cost migrant labor, with the idea of exporting the model to other areas in France.

Confédération Paysanne’s concern was not only that it would destroy the livelihoods of small-scale farmers by selling milk at rock-bottom prices, which would be impossible for smaller producers to match, but that the mega-dairy would take up 3,000 hectares of fertile land, which could otherwise be used for farming: a cut-and-dried case of land grabbing.

Pinatel recounted how, with their protests falling on the deaf ears of politicians, the group members were forced to act. Over the last few years they have held non-violent protests against the building of the plant, blocked a truck that was transporting cows, and carried out symbolic but harmless actions such as dismantling the factory’s giant milking machine and handing it to the French Agricultural Minister.

They have since been fined, threatened, detained without water, interrogated, and given a sham trial and criminal sentences. “We have been treated like terrorists just for making noise about something that poses a great danger to food and citizens… It makes us wonder about what type of society we are living in.” Their victory was partial but significant: The country’s main distributors rejected the milk, but the dairy is still going strong, selling its milk in Belgium and Italy.

Terenzio Borga, farmers and President of the Veneto Regional Association of Milk Producers expressed the most optimistic view on the panel: “Even if you don’t protest against these factories farms, they will shut down anyway. If you’re not a farmer and don’t care for animals, you will fail… Low quality milk will have problems surviving because it will have to compete with countries that produce it even more cheaply.”

His optimism wasn’t shared by everyone present. Raffaella Ponzio from Slow Food talked about the organization’s work visiting small-scale producers in marginal areas. “We see small-scale producers who are facing very difficult situations. I don’t believe that they are safe; at most, they get by. We wanted to invite Confédération Paysanne here because their model of standing together instead of working in an isolated manner gives us some food for thought; our own producers in Italy could follow suit.”

“Small-scales farms are disappearing, in France and elsewhere,” added Pinatel. “Every second day a French farmer commits suicide. This is alarming! Is this what we call sustainable agriculture?”

Eugenio Mailer from Slow Food France, who chaired the conference, brought up the point of the enormous amount of damage that industrial production can do even in a short time. “The industrial model is a losing one, but it is a damaging one because it works at the speed of light, while farming is naturally very slow. Even if factory farms eventually fail, in a short time they can destroy the soil and do irreversible harm.”

The panelists were unanimous on one point, however: the only way to save small-scale production is to focus on quality. “The only way to be profitable and survive is to give our products added value,” said Terenzio. “People believe in top quality, local products. If I’m optimistic, it’s because I see the difference in value between good- and poor-quality products.”

Mailer cited an unpublished study carried out in the 1980s which found that high quality products were more likely to survive a crisis. “If a product is generic and inauthentic it’s more at risk. Perhaps if this study had been published it would have helped us manage the current crisis.“

“People still want products from small-scale producers; they want milk from cows that graze,” said Pinatel. “Does the public know that cows are now considered machines in a factory? We live in democracy we need to give a voice to consumers. We need to change the system together and go towards high quality products.”

If Milles Vaches is a model that can be replicated around the world then so is that of Confédération Paysanne. Like the Indonesian folktale goes, the elephant can conquer the human, and the human can conquer the ant. But the ant can crawl into the ear of the elephant and drive it mad, so the ant ultimately conquers the elephant.

Imagine what a whole colony could do.