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Ben & Jerry?s Misinformation PDF Print E-mail
Written by Steve Dittmer   
Wednesday, 16 November 2005
AFF Sentinel Vol.2, #51
Ben & Jerry's Misinform Consumers
Recruitying Consumers into the Campaign to Save the Family Farm

Do-gooder n. Someone earnestly bent on doing good (but often too obtuse to see what harm may result from interfering).

Bad dictionary! Define one term using another not commonly used word...

Obtuse adj. Not keenly perceptive or sensitive, as an obtuse mind.

From my own definition of "do-gooders": usually someone not aware of inconsistencies in their positions, not devoted followers of "logic." Irony escapes them completely.

Do-gooders are bad enough when they stay close to home and only voice their concern and ill-conceived fixes to small groups -- who ignore them. Progression from being do-gooders to being activists -- and dangerous -- occurs with the hiring of lawyers and publicists, making them full-fledged menaces to society and the economy.

Such were my thoughts in looking over Ben & Jerry's latest television campaign, the first in a series of five. The first commercial talks very little of the quality and characteristics of their ice cream, but instead tries to recruit the public into a campaign against "big factory farms." Here is just one big- name example of dozens of groups anxious to "reform" mainstream agriculture.

The ad claims that the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery - which probably produces great quality milk - is losing business and government subsidies to "big factory farms."

Government subsidies are not paid out at different rates according to the number of cows milked. So it is not uneven or unfair revenue that creates any chance of St. Albans farmers losing business. It's the cost edge the bigger farms may create themselves with economies of scale and greater efficiency.

What exactly is the dividing line between an implied "nice" St. Albans Cooperative farmer from a farmer with a "big factory farm"? How many cows are too many? Is the St. Albans Cooperative not open to membership from dairies larger than a certain size, say, 300 cows? (There aren't - we checked.) St. Albans' Web site talks a lot about producing quality milk, milk prices and their diversification into wholesaling, etc. Not a word about a cutoff point for dairy size or what bigger dairies are doing to their members.

Is there some way we're unaware of determining that the St. Albans cows are happier? Ben & Jerry's maintains that St. Albans cows see more grass. And because of the farms smaller size, "impersonal treatment of animals is impractical" and the farmers "know the cows as individuals." Listen city slickers, with a handful of "pet" exceptions, most cows would as soon not see a human from one year to the next. Personal attention from humans is not high on their wish list. They tolerate a dairymen to give them feed and water and ease the pressure on their udder, not because they crave quality time and caresses. They respond to proper care and conditions but their psyche is not so complex as a do- gooder from Vermont imagines. And trust me, every cow gets milked and gets checked out individually every milking, whether it's a big dairy or a little dairy.

The USA Today story said the Ben & Jerry's Web site and their 450 scoop shops will, "offer more information on how to save the family farm - starting with buying Ben & Jerry's, of course," ("Ben & Jerry's Returns to Social Issues," 10/17/05). The story quotes Ben & Jerry's CEO Freese as saying that their $5 million ad campaign on saving the family farm is "something that's important for us as a society to address."

We agree with Freese up to a point. More ways to make all family agricultural operations more competitive is needed. But it is up to the families and their industry organizations to figure out how to do that. "Society" does not really understand, or for the most part, care about the family farm, as much as getting quality food at affordable prices. Freese said one of the company's missions is to be "a force for social and economic justice and the environment."

What does that mean? The first commercial decries the fact that America is losing farms, "due in large part to the proliferation of industrial agriculture, encroaching urban development and other economic shifts in agriculture." The spokesman is a "first- generation" Vermont dairy farmer who milks 50 cows. The ad urges consumers to log on to their Web site to find out steps they can take on behalf of small and mid-sized farms. One step is asking Congress to use the 2007 Farm Bill to "slow the expansion of industrial farming."

They also urge consumers to write to their Congressman for a renewal of the Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) program, which subsidizes milk prices when they get too low. Ben & Jerry's and the National Farmers Union have embarked on this collaborative effort to urge producers and consumers to send this message to Congress.

The company points out that the number of U.S. farms has dropped from 7 million in the 1930s to around 2 million today.

"At the same time, the number of industrial-sized farms continued to grow and government incentives continue to favor them," they claim. Since the payments are the same for everyone, we assume they're complaining because smaller farmers don't get paid more per unit than bigger operations.

They note that USDA stats show as many as six out of ten farm households lose money on their farm operations each year. You don't imagine that Vermont dairy farmer in the ad makes a living from his 50 cows without off farm income, do you? What would the American economy be like if not just agriculture, but steel, autos, computers, groceries, banking, insurance, etc. were all cottage industries operating on such a scale?

While we do not consider it immoral and it's certainly not illegal for thousands of Americans to have part- time farm operations, that doesn't mean it is the most efficient or most profitable business model. If all of agriculture was like that, this wouldn't be the country with one of the best fed for least-cost populations in the world.

Next Time: What Gets Ben & Jerry's About "Industrial" Agriculture?

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