Wednesday, April 28, 2010

How far can innovation get you in a broken dairy system?

HildeThis was the question I was grappling with last week as I sat on a panel on behalf of Farm Aid at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sustainability Summit – a day-long conference promoting sustainability through new ways of thinking and solutions-oriented dialogue. My session was entitled: "Agriculture and Innovation: creating value across the supply chain," and was focused specifically on US dairy. Farm Aid has worked with dairy farmers throughout our 25-year history. Many of you may have been following our activities during the current dairy crisis (dairy farmers continue to see milk prices half the cost of production or worse – a situation they've been facing for over a year now!)

The panel also included an Organic Valley dairy farmer from Vermont, the VP of public relations and government affairs for HP Hood LLC — one of the largest milk conglomerates in the Northeast, and a graduate student who has spent the past year analyzing the dairy supply chain in New England. It was a very interactive, dialogue-heavy format, which meant plenty of time for Q&A. The majority of the questions were trying to tease out creative ways for increasing market opportunities for dairy farmers and for bringing new farmers to the land.

The emphasis was on innovation, which can certainly be a good place to focus collective attention. After all, family farmers are some of the most creative people I know. And, don't get me wrong — I'm all about innovation generating critical change in the market place and momentum for a more sustainable future. But, in a dairy system that is completely broken, with an outdated pricing formula prone to severe manipulation, import loopholes, funky milk substitutes posing as dairy, and the failure of the government to follow through on long-overdue anti-trust investigations (whew!) — I have to say, innovation can only get us so far. And, unfortunately, the focus on innovation can sometimes leave us blaming the farmer for lack of creativity when they don't succeed when, really, the problem is the system itself.

I was glad to be on the panel to provide a different perspective — to challenge the myth that the current dairy crisis is simply the result of too much milk; to paint a picture of just how devastating the crisis is for family dairy farmers across the country and what's at stake for our communities, economies and natural resource base if they're forced off their land; and to push for real solutions that restore competitiveness and fairness in the marketplace so that the creativity and innovation we know farmers cultivate so well can truly take root and flourish.

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