What does Harvard know about milk, anyway?

You’ve probably seen the ads. Some famous face sports a white “milk mustache” and encourages you to drink more milk. Everyone from Shaquille O’Neal to Taylor Swift to Martha Stewart.

Celebrity endorsements might be enough to convince some people to add more dairy to their diet, but I’m guessing it took a lot more than that to get Harvard University thinking about cows. They didn’t settle for a glass or even a whole gallon. They recently bought a 6,000-head dairy operation in New Zealand for their $27 billion endowment fund.

As much as I love milk — on cereal, with dinner, and before bed, I have to wonder what Harvard was thinking. I’ve worked with several dairy farmers in Georgia and North Carolina. I’ve met a lot of hard-working people. I haven’t seen excessive wealth.

If running a dairy was really lucrative, more people would be doing it. The reality is quite the opposite, especially here in Western North Carolina, where the number of dairies has plummeted. In Haywood County, for instance, the number of dairies has dropped from 43 in 1992 to just nine today.

When I was growing up, they put pictures of missing children on the panels of the milk cartons. One friend half-joked to me that they should revive that practice, but use a picture of a dairy farmer to go with the old question “Have you seen me?”

It’s those same declines that make me want to invest in dairies, though not in the same way that Harvard has. Western North Carolina is still home to 70 dairy farms with around 5,000 dairy cattle yielding more than $19 million in annual cash receipts. That’s a lot of milk. It’s also a lot of jobs and a whole lot of land, including pastures, corn fields, and hay fields. In total, these dairy farms help maintain thousands of acres of land. These fields also provide wildlife habitat, help absorb heavy rains and floodwaters, and enhance the scenic views that draw millions of tourists to our mountains. In short, when dairies do well, we can all benefit.

Investing in these dairies isn’t easy, but we can all start by buying more milk and ice cream and other dairy products. Finding local milk can be a challenge, though. We’ve made great strides lately in labeling the origins of our produce, but most dairy products have not followed suit. Many local store brands do in fact contain milk from local dairies, but the labels rarely boast the fact. Other brands may have milk from Pennsylvania, California, or elsewhere. Maybe if enough people start asking, we will soon be able to identify — and buy — milk exclusively sourced from Appalachian dairies.

Until then, please go ahead and pour yourself a tall, cold, white one — every day if you can. Your actions will still help increase the demand for milk, and that will help dairy farmers and dairy farms all over. It doesn’t take someone from Harvard to see the value in that.

(George Ivey is a Haywood County-based consultant and author of the novel Up River. Contact him at www.georgeivey.com.)

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