Yves here. One issue is that cows are subsidized.
One of my readers’ ancestors come from the Aran Islands, in Galway Bay in Ireland. He has described them as beyond dirt poor, as in they had to import their dirt.
In the late 19th century, the Aran Islands had a status like that of Nepal, as in they were seen as impoverished but spiritual, as well embodying a then-older version of Irish culture. Aran Island was particularly popular with writers, and one source of income for the locals was taking in visitors as boarders, since there were no hotels.
When this reader went to visit a family homestead, which has some cachet by virtue of having hosted John Millington Synge, among other, he noted how the houses for sale, which in most cases seemed an awful lot like huts, had eye-popping asking prices. He asked what people did for a living. The answer?
“They have a cow.”
Indeed, the island was for the most part divided into quarter acre plots separated by stone fences, with a cow in each. Apparently that was enough to qualify them as farms and allow them to get subsidies from the EU.
By Barkley Rosser, Professor of Economics at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Originally published at Angry Bear
What is it with cows? I mean their flatulence does add to global warming, but they seem so benign, chewing their cud while producing milk and meat. Why is it that national leaders get into fits of backstabbing over them, or especially over all that milk they produce?
Well, of course, that is it; they produce a lot of it, and a variety of products come from the milk, which sometimes markets do not want as much of as some of the other products. This is probably the main reason that in international trade agreements, where highly protected and subsidized agriculture is always a difficult topic, dairy products are often at the top of the list. For years, the predecessor of the EU, the EEC had “butter mountains” from all the excess butter governments bought to stabilize the market and keep the Danes and the French from stabbing each other in the back too viciously. The US also had a butter mountain problem for a long time, much of it stored in Madison, Wisconsin where it caught fire back in 1991 and burned for 8 days. Yes, we must protect those Wisconsin Dairy State cows as Trump is struggling to dop!
Back in 1972, when I was a grad student at U of Wisconsin, then Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire thought briefly of running for president (he didn’t in the end) and showed up at the econ department one time to give a speech. For those who do not know, he was very popular and although a Dem had a bipartisan appeal. A major part of this was a reputation he had for being very clean and not taking money from special interests. He had an image of saving taxpayers money as he handed out “golden fleece” awards to people or entities he determined were wasting public funds. So, of course, in his speech “The Prox” went on and on about all his money saving efforts. At the end one prof asked him, “Senator Proxmire, if you are so much for efficiency and saving money, why do you support dairy import quotas?” To this The Prox just smiled and said, “Well, after all, I am the senior senator from the state of Wisconsin.”
As it has been in Europe, so between the US and Canada since NAFTA a handful of commodities have off and on been the center of trade disputes, with restrictions holding on both sides. Lumber and dairy have probably been at the top of the list, althought technically dairy is outside of the NAFTA. As it is, both sides have heavily subsidized and protected dairy in various ways. Nevertheless, based on rising exports of ultrafiltered milk that can be used to make yogurt and cheese from the US to Canada, the US has managed to build up a $400 million annual surplus in dairy products trade (which has decreased slightly). Last year the Canadians reacted to that and engaged in a reclassification of that type of milk and made changes in their internal pricing, which has led to a decline of exports of this product from both New York, home of Senate Dem leader Schumer, and from Wisconsin, home of House Speaker Ryan. Ah ha, even thought the US dairy trade surplus remains substantial, this is clearly a stab in the back!
So now Canada is the worst enemy of the US and its leader deserves to go to hell, although the now heart-attack-stricken Lawrence Kudlow suggested that perhaps Trump engaged in his tough rhetoric and refusal to sign the G-7 communique after he left to show Kim Jong-In he is a tough guy, able to beat up on the oh so polite Trudeau who refused to buckle while protecting his cows. Oh, once again those apparently benign beasts have shown us how truly dangerous they are, weapons of mass destruction for sure.
I have no problem with agri subsidies – as long as they are aimed at genuinely smallholders, which tends to be a problem.
Problems in parts of Europe are that majority of the subsidies goes either directly to large companies, or the large companies manage to siphon those subsidies from small farmers via increase in inputs etc.
For example, the current Czech PM significantly enhanced his already major fortune this way. To all terms and purposes he owns the Czech agriculture – either directly, or as supplier of inputs, or as a (pretty much largest by a magnitude) buyer of outputs.
Amongst others this means that CZ has the largest area under cultivation for rape seed, as an input into bio-fuels. That is even after EU asked its countries to eliminate subsidies for this, as it was shown to be, in effect, worse than not using bio-fuels. Czech govt instead of eliminating the subsidies extended them further few years.
The fascinating story on this was that he got into power on an “anti-elite, I will clean the corruption” ticket. I guess he eliminates the corruption he’s not part of, or, even better, makes his practices legal..
I should have said but didn’t that I think tariffs and subsides to promote considerable self sufficiency in critical resources is key. Food ought to be a priority. However, the frequent occurrence of the “mountains of butter” suggests an overshoot in dairy products. The US’ new version seems to be overproduction of cheese, with a related overuse of cheese in prepared and restaurant foods. For instance, it has become hard to get a salad at a restaurant that does not have cheese in it.
I remember getting those, if I remember correctly, five pound chunks of FDA cheese at the monthly food give-aways for the “deserving poor” back in the seventies. I loved it. People got fed, somewhat, and the dairy farmers got supports from the government. A win-win situation for nutrition and amity. Now, something more Dickensian is at work. The retail prices of the cheese in the supermarkets has increased roughly fifty percent over the last year or so. And there is a surplus!?
For what it is worth, Phyllis, my wife, grew up on the last working dairy farm in Jefferson Parish Louisiana, (home of Metairie, main suburb of New Orleans.) I remember helping her Dad care for his few milk cows, years after the dairy had been sold off to land developers, a Gentleman Farmer enterprise that kept him ‘grounded’ and happy. Those aminals are a lot of work to maintain. If you milk them, it’s a 24/7 enterprise. Farming is more accurately to be considered a “calling” than anything else.
This is an example of what I like to consider a “contrarian” knowledge set. Applying economies of scale engender negative knock on effects. The main social loss associated with the Industrial Revolution can be considered to be the degradation of Pastoralism and Agriculture as lifestyles. The mind set associated with both ways of living are generally described as being conservative, with a lower case ‘c’. Whether this conservatism is innate, or induced, is a discussion for another time.
Personally, I like cows. I got along well with Johns’ Guernsey.
My mother would buy those 5lbs cheese bricks for $1.
You mention the “overuse of cheese in prepared and restaurant foods.” Oy, tell me about it. I’m sensitive to the whey protein in dairy, and it seems to be everywhere. I’ve found whey in soups, sauces, breads, protein bars, and even “non-dairy” coffee creamer. Thoroughly reading labels is now a necessity in my life, thanks to the overabundance of dairy.
Dairy production is a vast mucous conspiracy promulgated by tissue manufacturers. ;p
Hah! Or acne-cream manufacturers. I discovered that I was sensitive to dairy when I started eating two yogurts a day as a dietary experiment. The resulting acne outbreak was the worst I’d had since my teenager years. In the aftermath I gave up dairy entirely, and my heath (and complexion) improved markedly.
But there are some days I really miss ice cream. Oh, to eat cookies-n-cream again…
I’m also allergic to milk proteins, and it’s getting harder and harder to eat milk free where prepared foods in the US are concerned.
No surprise that milk chocolate contains milk, but did you know that most US dark chocolate does also? So do most nonbutter “spreads” (fake butter).
A few days ago I threw away an unopened airport tuna sandwich in disgust when I belatedly read the ingredient list and discovered that in addition to the slice of cheese, which I intended to remove, it contained sour cream! In a tuna sandwich!
A recent trip to Italy surprised me in that it was much easier to eat dairy free there than in the US. France was much worse though. I had a chef come out of the kitchen to chew me out for asking that cheese be omitted. The French diet appears to be milk with a side of everything else.
I remember a couple of years ago the US govt. bought $20 million/11 million pounds of cheese in order to keep the prices farmers were getting from dropping too low due to a huge surplus. So if that surplus/overshoot is still on going and cheese is cheap especially compared to other food cost then restaurants are more than happy to use cheese.
It’s all a Dr. Evil plan by cows to take over the world. There are about 1.5 billion of them already and they are just waiting to reach parity before they make their moove. They already outweigh us by a factor of 1 to 7 which gives them the advantage. They would have done so earlier but the lack of an opposable thumb has held them back! Cows will one day rule the earth-
Our only defence is to organize a massive world-wide barbecue with cows as the guest of honour before it gets too late. Take them all out in one hit is what I say!
Gary Larson already anticipated this...
I love Gary Larson. He should have called his strip The Cow Side.
Juvenile delinquent cows sitting on a electric fence smoking cigarettes.
In many Texas counties, they outnumber humans by a huge number. not that the ‘ranchers’ treat them nicely. course when they get organized it will not be fun to be rancher
In Uruguay the cows outnumber people 3 to 1. Cows here are grass-fed, producing some of the best beef in the world. The people of Uruguay eat more meat per capita than any other country, barbecuing it on the parilla. That’s just the cow facts, floks.
Small farmers certainly benefited hugely from the early EU, but as Vlade above notes, agricultural subsidies been gradually captured by the big producers. In Europe now there aren’t quite so many direct subsidies for dairy – what has happened is that high milk prices (often driven by very high demand from Asia) has made it super profitable, aided by grants for the capital investment needed for a big operation (small farms just can’t afford the plant required to store milk to modern requirements). Irish dairy farms now earn an average of around 1,000 euro profit per hectare, but a farm needs to have a substantial size to be viable – at least 50 hectares (yes, this is tiny by American standards, but not unusual in Europe). Unfortunately, grant programmes aimed at small farms and more environmentally appropriate systems are generally incoherent and short lived, so its very difficult for farmers to depend on them. Its easier just to lease out your land to your bigger neighbour who will soak everything in nitrogen to get more grass for his herd.
As for the Aran Islands, indeed, they were very poor. The soil was made by covering rotting seaweed and sand with a thin layer of precious topsoil. They didn’t even have much wood – gates were made by stacking stones. Although they were seen as lucky during famine years as they had fish as well as potatoes and dairy. But the more recent high house prices is more due to tourism and second home demand. Farming is almost dead on the islands, its just not viable to transport animals to the mainland and back for sale.
Aaahhh…. cattle. Reading this piece made me remember a post from Dublin Opinion, called “What the Hell has Cattle got to do with NAMA?”, that I read a decade ago.
The author Conor McCabe also wrote Sin’s of the Father, where he gives by far the most compelling account of the development of the Irish state.
Within the linked to article there is also a link to another post, Lights of the City.
There’s lots of good stuff in there. I reread both posts after reading the post above, and found I wanted to quote almost the whole thing verbatim. For anyone interested, I’d highly recommend both the posts and the book.
Thanks for those links, very interesting reading, I largely agree with them. I would though add that one unusual aspect of Irelands agricultural development was the very early construction of a railway system in the 1840’s onwards that was specifically designed for cattle – nearly all railway stations were designed to get livestock onto trains to Dublin where they could be shipped to the UK. Its long been theorised by economic geographers that this had the effect of undermining local businesses across Ireland, as it also allowed earlier penetration of manufactured goods than in other European countries, while denying towns the benefits of more industrial oriented railway systems.
I’d also suggest the articles do underplay the fact that from the mid-30’s onwards FF governments did try very hard to use tarrifs and supports to industrialise. There were some successes (the ESB, for example), but mostly it was too little, too late, and badly done. But otherwise, yes, he makes excellent points.
He gives credit in the book to the Fianna Fail policy in that regard, but not without acknowledging how they tied their hands behind their back with their monetary policy, (a policy, you guessed it, designed to maximise returns to the cattle trade).
The trains thing is really interesting. There are two quotes I’d like to make from the New History of Ireland I, pg.5 and pg.6,7
It’s the very first chapter in the very first book of the series, and it really packs a punch. So we know that there is a long root in our development. Of course there were later on in Irish history the little known sculoags, our very own yeoman and necessary precursor to native industry. Both the penal laws and prevailing economic conditions cost them dearly however, and so graziers quickly replaced them.
What was that thing Mark Twain said about history rhyming?
Yes, as people on this blog would no doubt all say in unision, what Ireland needed from the 1920’s on was someone who understood MMT (or at least, the dangers of linking your currency to a much stronger one). Independent Ireland suffered a half century of unintended austerity caused by conventional monetary and fiscal thinking.
I think the impact of beef and dairy in particular can be exaggerated historically. The great Palladian mansions of Ireland were built, not on cows, but on grain. The great late 18th Century internal arteries of southern Ireland, in particular the navigable reaches of the Nore, Suir and Barrow, plus the Grand Canal, are lined with granaries, not cattle sheds. From the mid-18th Century to the Battle of Waterloo, high grain prices led to Ireland converting to arable wherever it was viable – and potatoes and oats elsewhere, in order to keep the poor peasantry fed. Cows were a relative luxury, usually only raised where there was no easy transport to market. It was the Battle of Waterloo that changed things – as the European armies went back home, agricultural output rose, American grain imports arrived, and grain became uneconomic again – hence the economic collapse in Ireland which led to the great Georgian streets of Dublin turning into slums. Thats when Ireland reverted to the old Gaelic and Celtic order of a cow oriented society. The development of trains made this a little more profitable, but it wasn’t enough to save the great estates, which of course were broken down, leading Ireland to turning from a landscape of aristocracy and peasantry to one of small farmers, each with a few cows and a cabbage patch.
This landscape, however, was unable to support 8 million people. So a million were allowed die, and another million were allowed leave, followed by many more. Ireland, of course, was a major food exporter right through the famine.
So I agree with McCabe that the influence of cows on Irish society is not fully appreciated, especially by the left, its a more recent phenomenon, one dating from the land reforms of the later 19th Century. Unlike other great cow societies like Argentina and Brazil, Ireland is one of relatively small yeomen/kulaks, not great ranchers. I think you can see FG as the rancher party (John Bruton having being king of them), while FF were the kulak party. But they all love their cows, especially on the hoof. Mind you, FF later became very enamoured by beef processors, but thats another (1980’s) story.
I’d have to check to be sure, but I don’t think our monetary or fiscal policy were conventional back then – Fianna Fail took power at the time of Roosevelt and Keynes. And whilst the effects may well have been unintended, I don’t think their consideration was all that great. Hell, it took till the 60’s with Wittaker and Lemass to run a deficit. The point McCabe is making is that the policy was set irrespective of the external environment or consequence on the overall welfare of the state. And he’s quite persuasive on that. For those looking to understand how a state can implement austerity irrespective of it’s consequences, and indeed what those consequences are, that it was practiced here for the guts of a half a century makes it a pretty invaluable if somewhat complex case-study.
Whilst I find Irish history tragically fascinating, I have to admit large gaps in my knowledge. For example, until a couple of years ago, I wasn’t aware that during the time-period of the 1740’s there was another devastating famine, resulting from the cold of the little ice-age, and of course, imperial neglect. So whether what you describe, or what McCabe describes is correct regarding the 18th century, I can’t be the judge. Variable geography and climate is an inherent part of our landscape, (as described above), and so therefore is the make-up of the agrarian economy. So it’s entirely possible that both of you are right.
Nonetheless, I’m going to lift a quote from the post I linked to above. McCabe is quoting Michael Beames’ book Peasants and Power: The Whiteboy Movements and Their Control in Pre-Famine Ireland (Sussex: Harvester Press, 1983).
As always, it seems there was more than one Ireland.
When I said ‘conventional’ I was thinking in terms of fixed exchange rates and balanced budgets, sort of pre-Keynesian, even post Keynes. If I recall correctly the academic justification for the notorious FF giveaway budget in 1977 was that Ireland was stuck in a permanent Keynesian recession, so all it needed was a good fiscal push and all would be rosy. It didn’t quite work out as expected.
So far as I’m aware, there hasn’t been any deep research on the 18th Century famine. There was pretty much a major famine a century in Ireland – in the previous century there was a terrible one in Munster, mostly caused by cattle confiscations. I’m not sure when the dietary change for the average peasant changed to potato, I think that was mostly late 18th Century. The typical Gaelic peasant would have eaten a mix of grains (oats, barley), with lots and lots of the now trendy hipster fermented milk products (not much meat). When I travelled in Tibet a few years ago I couldn’t help thinking that the diet was similar to what I’ve read of pre-18th Century Ireland – lots of barley porridge and butter/milk concoctions. Jonathon Swift wrote about the diet of poor Dubliners, and it seemed to be mostly grain porridges (he correctly noted that this led to the poor being healthier than the rich, as the rich loved eating lots of meat and imported luxuries like sugar, leading to lots of suffering from gout, etc.).
But I’m not really arguing that McCabe is wrong, although I’d suggest the deep obsession in Ireland is land, not the cows. As a relative once said about a certain counties inhabitants ‘they’d kill you there for a piece of land where you couldn’t see the grass for stones’.
The grazier dominated political-economic model of Ireland in the 20th century sounds very like what my friends in Wyoming tell me about their state. There, a large landowning class will allow development that reinforces their political control (mining, energy development, money laundering), but discourages things like tech development — it might bring in the wrong kind of political demographic.
Wyoming should have -stan at the end of the name.
“…the cattleman’s life has remained a goal for ambitious Irish countrymen to aim at.”
And how! I sit on a cattle ranch ranch writing this because my grandparents — him from an Inis Mor – North Conamara family, and her from a Cois Fharraige dairying family — could get land to raise cows in the arid American West. The cult of the cow in Irish culture is kind of a family joke with us.
It even has its own ancient literature :)
you cud be right, i’ll have to chew on it.
I can’t stomach that.
And, in Sweden, like other northern European countries with short growing seasons, dependent on milk products, for calories, there is an interesting academic literature on dairying and dairymaids.
Two interesting points: during the 19th and early 20th centuries, on the large farms, milk was used as
‘payment’ to the numerous ‘statare’ or contract laborers, who lived on the farm, most often in a hovel (stuga), and worked the land for the landlord.
Lena Sommestad details the importance of dairymaids in running a dairy operation. Dairying, up to the introduction of machine technology in the 20th century, had been considered a purely female sphere. There were at least two schools for dairymaids in Sweden, and the larger farms would provide training. Being in charge of a dairy operation, including record-keeping, cow breeding and care, milking, butter and cheese making (the last two were important value-added sources of farm income), provided economic opportunities for women. All this changed as the development of machinery and the engineering and mechanical skills required for its operation and maintenance, transformed dairying into an approved male profession. Apparently it was considered taboo for a man to milk a cow, but once automated milking machines were invented, it became ok for a man to hitch up the machine to the cows’ teats.
Thats very interesting – in Ireland it was the opposite case – milking was always seen as mans work – in a traditional mid sized farm up to the 1970’s a farmers wife was responsible for the chickens and pigs and the ‘garden’, where fruit and veg was sold. Even the two household budgets would have been kept separate. When dairying expanded, the milk operations meant few bothered any more with chickens or pigs or a garden, so women either became housewives, or took on work in the nearest town to supplement income. Both had significant impacts socially (whether for good or ill, is up to who you talk to).
Yves’ lead-in reference to the isle of Aran reminded me of Flaherty’s 1934 film Man of Aran. I recommend it, here’s some fairly well-balanced commentary:
Ironically, in the original draft of the TPP Canada was to dismantle its supply management system. The follow up agreement without the US allows Canada to maintain supply management.
To be clear, supply management is not a government subsidy they only enforce the rules. The cost of the program is paid directly by the consumer in higher dairy prices, 30%-75% more using my personal dairy consumption habits. If you don’t drink milk, you’re not paying into the system.
In Texas, they give ag exemptions to oil companies because they have cows in their tank farms.
Anyone can get an ag exemption in Texas. You only need 1 animal unit per 5 acres or so depending on the county.
The wealthy get a recreational exemption by putting in a lake.
Anyone else remember that Dilbert cartoon where Dogbert and the robot Ruebert (IIRC) are talking?
This sounds similar:
Some advantages to the Canadian approach is that there is no excess (butter mountain, lake of milk, etc.) produced and that the cost is not hidden – in fact it is in your face every time you go to the store.
Given that obesity ranks as one of the top health threats for Western countries, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are substantial unintended side benefits in terms of reduced health expenses due to the high price of dairy products in the country.
Having said all that, it is clear that Trump was fishing around for some reason to pretend to be mad at Canada, whether it was the War of 1812 or whatever, if there were no dairy supply management here he would have just found something else to whine about. There probably isn’t a country in the world with lower tariffs against U.S. products than Canada and there’s no issue with a trade deficit, but here we are – presumably Trump had some reason for his actions, but it could just be looking tough for Kim, or he could just be sad that Trudeau is taller than he is, or it could just be seen as a low risk way to lash out in general and look tough, maybe he thinks it is a good gambit with respect to the NAFTA talks (not really sure how, but he could still think this)…
For family-size operations, western cattle ranching is an economic basket case, and that’s despite the favorable tax policies, aid programs, and abilities to lease grazing on public lands. When we put our place up for sale, the realtor told me they were also marketing it as a recreational property, “Because, as you know, as a business cattle ranching just doesn’t pencil out.” That must be why our newest rancher neighbors include a big construction contractor, a builder of big-box stores, and the owner of a chain of retail home-fencing stores. The land is too expensive, and you need too much of it, to maintain a family income for it to be open to any new entrants that just want to raise cows. You have to have outside money, a lot of it, to get into it if you didn’t come from a ranch family — nobody could generate enough income from cows to pay off a loan for the land.
The tiny holding sizes I have seen in Wales, Ireland, France, and Switzerland amaze me. It is almost as if rural society was considered worth supporting.
My family has run a diary farm for several generations now and for at least the last 50 years they have milked 60 cows. My father, who is not particularly economically or politically minded, has expressed his consternation on more than one occasion about a small increase in milk prices causing small farmers to increase their herds, which in turn causes overproduction and a drop in prices and the need for subsidies.
This is part of a systematic problem we can’t seem to solve. And it will never be solved as long as every yahoo can jump on the bandwagon of any trend, trying to make a quick buck. See: the recent rash of people buying up property to rent out as illegal hotels (aka Airbnb). But regulation is a dirty word in the US – we solve our problems in the manly way by shooting the offenders.
Not sure how you solve for human greed, but Canada seems to have a better approach than Uncle Sugar’s of dishing out subsidies to corporate “farms” that don’t really need the money in order to produce more than anyone needs.
The Guardian has a good article on the Canadian dairy industry.
The current system enjoys a 75% approval from the Canadian people. Then the author went to Wisconsin: