Big Ag Says "Get Big or Get Out." For Deliteful Dairy, There's a Third Way
by Zach VandeZande
January 20, 2021
For better or worse (mostly worse), one of the most influential figures in modern agriculture is Nixon’s USDA Secretary Earl “Rusty” Butz. Butz is something of a villain in the small agriculture world, and for good reason—he’s the guy who championed Big Ag, thinking that an American agriculture system that pushed for efficiency at any cost was an American agriculture system that was healthy and thriving. In Earl’s world, uninterrupted fields of profit—mostly corn and soy—stretching across the nation is precisely what was meant by “amber waves of grain”; under his watch, Big Ag was born, and its mantra, uttered frequently by Butz, was “Get big or get out.”
That legacy has a long tail. In an October 2019 interview, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said, “The big get bigger, and the small will go out, and that is what we’ve seen here. It is very difficult with economy of scale and capital needs and all of the environmental regulations and everything else today, to survive milking 40, 50, 60 or even 100 cows, and that’s what we’ve seen.” There’s a sense of inevitability to his words, as though economies of scale in farming are just a fact of nature and not a system that was imposed by his predecessor through policy and philosophy.
But there’s a growing counter-trend embodied by people like Brooks Long, a 7th-generation dairy farmer who, along with his wife Katie, started Deliteful Dairy in 2017. For the couple, it’s a reinvention of a long legacy: his family has been raising dairy cows on their land since 1831. They are the people Perdue is talking about—the 40, 50, 60 cow operation—and they reject the thinking of Big Ag. When thinking about what it meant to take over the farmland from his grandfather, Brooks offered up a third way: “It was time to get bigger, get creative, or get out.”
The combination of creativity and legacy is at the heart of Deliteful Dairy’s new operation. Brooks had long lamented the adulteration of milk as a product, and he wanted to get back to what made milk good in the first place. That meant taking charge of where much of his milk goes with a new on-site production facility focused on low-temp pasteurization and non-homogenized milk products. The benefits are obvious, as they’re now producing a line of wonderful creamline milks that have a rich, creamy flavor that’s miles beyond what even the best grocery stores offer. They’ve also built a retail space on the land that buts up against the pasture and sells their products alongside those from other farmers in the region, with a bakery on site and a deli counter coming soon.
Transparency is important to the Longs. In warm months, customers will be able to sit on the patio and see the cows graze on pasture, and the retail space looks in on the production facility so customers can watch the milk take the very short journey from there to the shelf. Where our food comes from doesn’t have to stay hidden behind supply chains and the magic of a grocery store. It can be right out in the open, and it can be celebrated. That’s what Deliteful Dairy is—a celebration of milk at its best.
The “get big or get out” mentality bears many costs, and one of them is that the family farm, which used to be the backbone of our food system, is now something that needs to be fought for. Brooks and Katie Long are bringing the family farm back into the spotlight in Maryland, just like so many farmers who are rejecting the legacy of Earl Butz.
Big Ag posits the idea that more is better, but people like the Longs offer up a different idea: better is better. Better products, better treatment of cows, a better experience for the consumer that connects them to land and community.
Deliteful Dairy products are available for home delivery with Number 1 Sons