In the Land of Milk and Money

Yes, we’ve got milk and plenty of it, from a venerable business that is high-tech, ultra-efficient and, for many, still offers a rewarding way of life

For many Americans the word "farm" conjures up a dairy operation, with cows grazing serenely in sunny pastures. There's a tacit assumption that the farm is small enough to be easily manageable by the family that owns it. Today, however, milk forms the foundation of a $75-billion-a-year industry in the United States, and bigness has come to the farm. One dairy operation in California's Central Valley, the Van Exel farm near Lodi, has 1,200 cows on its 2,000 acres and employs 45 full-time and seasonal workers, including a nutritionist, a geneticist and a veterinarian. Its top cow produces 38,000 pounds (that's 19 tons) or 4,400 gallons during a ten-month lactation period, which is by no means the record.

Milk consumption has stayed flat despite the rising population. The number of dairy farms has fallen precipitously, dropping to just 116,000 today from 330,000 in 1980. People are not drinking less liquid; it’s just that more of what they drink is soda, juices, alcoholic beverages and designer water. The dairy industry is fighting back with ads featuring milk mustaches on celebrities and a "Got Milk?" campaign.

As recently as the 1980s, production far outstripped demand, and the government was paying dairy farmers $1 billion to thin their herds while it bought tons and tons of surplus cheese. The government itself actually bought dairy cows, reselling them for meat.

Today's dairy farm is mechanized, computerized and, above all, big. The end product, however, is the same as it was a century or five centuries ago: all manner of cheese, yogurt, butter and, in perhaps its purest form, the stuff you put on dry cereal or use to wash down a piece of chocolate cake or simply pour into a glass — milk.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.