What Happened to the Family Cow?

Except from “Keeping a Family Cow” by Joann S. Grohman

Some of the forces that ended the keeping of a family cow are the same ones that stressed the American family.  A desire for consumer goods that didn’t require much work, work in factories & the automobile.

Because of its extremely perishable nature, milk initially presented a challenge to distribute.  In the late 19th Century as the size of American cities rapidly expanded, the demand for milk was met in several ways.  Rural dairies had a good reputation and made a valiant effort to get milk delivered fresh and cold by train.  In most smaller towns and cities it was possible to get fresh milk delivered right to the door by the actual producer.  Such dairies took enormous pride in their product.


Milk trains moved through the countryside before dawn picking up the familiar milk cans that waited on platforms.  The milk did not travel great distances and it was bottled and delivered fresh to doorsteps that very morning.  Cans on their way to the creamery were kept cold from blocks of ice cut from northern lakes in winter.  Ice cutting was an important industry in northern states.  The big blocks were packed in sawdust, available from sawmills, and it kept right through the summer.


Dairymen well understood that milk quality depended on healthy cows, clean milking practices, rapid chilling and expeditious delivery.  Milk itself tells the take at the table.  There are two ways to achieve a safe product.  Number one is by conscientious handling. Number two is by sterilizing and preserving the milk.

Small dairies able to exert quality control every step of the way, often even bottling and delivering their own milk and cherishing the one-on-one relationship with their customers, supported the #1 method.






Larger, well funded consortiums seeking control of dairying favored #2.  Their approach was to pool large quantities of milk, drawing it from greater distances, overcoming problems of quality by heat treatment.  They called the heat treatment pasteurization, tapping into name recognition of the great French scientist, Louis Pasteur.  The outcome of this struggle was by no means a foregone conclusion.  Heating changes the appearance, flavor, nutritive and culinary properties of milk and none for the better.  As for its keeping qualities, everybody and his grandmother knew milk goes sour after a few days (no refrigeration).  Everybody preferred fresh milk and consumers understood perfectly well that pasteurization served as a substitute for quality.  Dairymen who wanted to continue selling fresh milk geared up for more efficient delivery using ice and seemed about to make their case for quality control at the source.


Then came the winter of 1886, the winter the lakes didn’t freeze.  Lacking ice, the case for fresh milk was lost by default.  Dairy farmers were forced to sell their milk to middlemen as they do to this day.  They have never been able to regain control over their own product.


Consumers had their minds changed about pasteurization by a fear campaign based on disease hazards said to be unavoidable from unpasteurized milk.  Indeed, this is likely to be true when milk from thousands of cows is pooled, as it is today.  Pasteurization was instituted for the benefit of distributors.



Today’s supermarket milk prices are relatively low because dairy farmers, even taking rapidly diminishing subsidies into account, are paid at a rate that barely covers costs and they cannot market their milk freely.  They must sell to consortiums under fixed contracts that are government regulated.  And processors have certainly made milk conveniently available in markets.  If a plot had been hatched to eliminate small farmers, place milk production and distribution in the hands of the few, and permit almost everybody to forget what milk was meant to taste like, a better plan could not have been devised.






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