Article was written by Leigh Presley, Agriculture Extension Educator.
Originally published in the Kenosha News.
Our nation has been celebrating dairy products and the dairy industry in June since the late 1930s. I took a look back at the decade when June Dairy Month became a national celebration to provide some context for recognizing the importance of dairy’s past and present in 2020.
Much like the reality dairy farmers are living today, the 1930s brought significant challenges to the dairy industry. The Great Depression contributed to depressed milk prices, with many dairy farmers receiving prices in 1933 that were half of what they were paid in 1930. In Wisconsin, this led to frustration among farmers, especially those whose milk was sold for cheese or butter processing instead of fluid milk for bottling. At the time, fluid milk prices were slightly higher than prices received for milk destined for processing.
Groups of farmers throughout the state joined together to petition for higher prices by dumping milk and blocking roads to cut off supplies to processors. The milk strikes of 1933 led to violent interactions between striking and non-striking farmers, milk shippers, processors, and National Guardsmen called in to respond to the strikes.
Eventually prices rose and the government intervened in the milk pricing issue, initiating a complex system that is still in place today to help stabilize prices. As the dairy industry rebounded, grocers started a campaign to encourage milk consumption in June, a month when the spring flush of grass has dairy cows producing at their peak. In 1939, June Dairy Month became a national celebration and an effort to promote milk and dairy sales during times of surplus.
Since then, dairy farmers have experienced lots of volatility, and a string of several years of low prices leading up to 2020. The situation dairy farmers are in today has a lot of parallels to the 1930s. A time of crisis has completely disrupted the industry, and milk prices have taken a hit. We’ve seen Wisconsin farmers forced to dump milk and cut supply – not in an effort to increase prices, but to reduce the amount going to processors that have no home for the end product.
In past years, regardless of the economic situation on farms, we’d be able to stop and celebrate June Dairy Month alongside farmers at one of Wisconsin’s dairy breakfasts. Most breakfasts this summer, including the annual Kenosha County Dairy Breakfast, have been cancelled. Though we can’t celebrate in-person, there are other ways to enjoy dairy products, recognize the tireless work of farmers, and support them during a difficult time:
Donate to the Hunger Task Force’s Dairy Recovery Program, www.hungertaskforce.org/dairy/ or the Wisconsin Food and Farm Support Fund https://wfbf.com/wisconsin-food-and-farm-support-fund/—two programs working to support both farmers and food insecure populations as we deal with the fallout of COVID-19.
Take a driving tour of rural Kenosha County, noting dairy barns and farmsteads. Look out for unique features such as ornate couplas atop barn roofs, clay tile silos, or painted barn quilts.
To celebrate June Dairy Month in 2020 is to celebrate the resiliency of dairy farmers through difficult times, both past and present.