Politics & Other Mistakes: The ‘M’ word
It’s legal. But it’s still controversial.
Its health benefits are debatable. But that doesn’t deter its advocates from making outrageous claims.
And no matter where you buy it, it’ll be strictly regulated just like alcohol, tobacco and firearms. But for far more dubious reasons.
After decades of political upheaval, Maine and the nation are still trying to come to terms with how to regulate a seemingly benign agricultural product with a name that begins with the letter “m.”
Hell no, I’m talking about milk.
For reasons that have never made sense, the sale of moo juice is subject to an array of rules more complicated than those governing such toxic substances as campaign finances, nuclear waste disposal or excess gubernatorial verbiage. Selling milk is significantly more difficult than selling Donald Trump’s agenda to Portland’s liberal legislative delegation.
The most obvious example of regulatory excess is Maine’s law controlling the retail price of milk. Unlike other forms of price controls, which attempt to protect consumers by placing maximum limits on how much can be charged, the state sets the minimum amount.
Excellent question, for which there seems to be no good answer. In theory, the law against bargain milk guarantees that dairy farmers receive enough return to remain in business, thereby propping up a traditional rural industry and preserving open space for future generations, who will neither be able to afford nor appreciate it.
How’s that worked out?
Not well. In 2001, the state had 645 commercial dairy farms. That number has declined nearly every year since then, until today there are fewer than 250. While the average farm is considerably larger than at the turn of the century, that hasn’t resulted in an improved bottom line. Most of them are struggling to survive. While milk production is up (those damn cows have no grasp of economics), profits are down due to a glut on the market.
To combat that trend, farmers have tried a couple of approaches. They offered organic milk at a premium price (remember, Maine rule-makers let them charge more, just not less). Unfortunately, the recent recession and the lack of large numbers of consumers willing to pay extra for something that’s not demonstrably healthier than the out-of-state, industrial-dairy milk from Cumbies has left that marketing effort in disarray. Another attempt to increase profits by allowing wider sales of raw milk has failed at least three times in the Legislature and a few other times in court. Add in all the incomprehensible interference from the 2014 federal farm bill, and it’s small wonder the dairy industry is in udder despair. (I swear the editor made me use that cow pie of a pun. Complaints should be directed to that cud-chewer.)
There is, however, a bright side to all this overregulation. Cow-control officials collect fees from the dairy industry and also receive cash from the state budget, with this money set aside to help farms in distress. Which, as previously noted, is nearly all of them.
In the past two years, this fund has given out $32 million to offset farmers’ losses (a sum that would no doubt have drawn the ire of state welfare bureaucrats if it was discovered that any of these recipients were immigrants from terrorist-plagued nations). That’s a lot of money to prop up a dying industry. Although, it’s probably less than we’ve wasted trying to salvage all those shuttered (and soon-to-be-shuttered) paper mills.
Maybe it’s time to put our efforts into promoting a form of economic development that’s more likely to be profitable, even without a continuing infusion of public funding. And maybe it’s possible to accomplish that without any loss of agricultural jobs and while maintaining a reasonable facsimile of the rural lifestyle.
Maybe it’s time to seriously consider that other “m” word:
You know, like kangaroos. There’s got to be some kind of market for them. And the only competition is Australia.
We could own this deal.
The real “m” word is marijuana. Any dairy farmer who isn’t thinking about putting in a pot crop should be stuck in the butt with a cattle prod.
I figure I drink less milk in a year than beer on an average Sunday afternoon. Other significant statistics can be mailed to email@example.com.