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45—Manure aka B.S.

I listened as the dairy wife on my third farm tour described the demands on family dairies now competing with those agribusiness facilities with thousands of cows. After recalling the hard but simpler world of her grandfather’s fifty-cow dairy farm, she said a family friend in Wisconsin had just sold his sixty-cow dairy rather than take on the pressures of expansion and subject his cows to less personalized treatment. 

And as I listened, I watched her hundred-plus cows lumbering along the narrow cement walkway into the milking parlor. The milker was efficient and quick, mechanically wiping off the teats, hooking them up to the milking machines, and when each cow had given her three gallons moving the animal on.

Rotary Milker in and Industrial Dairy
There was no abuse here, only the impersonality of process. 

This was exactly what I’d experienced as a teacher in a system that herded children through overcrowded classrooms on their way to graduation. 
As the years passed and the system became mired in problems, the impersonality grew into a subjugation to process.
(For an introductory contrast between the family and corporate dairies, click here.)

Schools in this culture became like businesses committed to increasing production at the lowest possible cost. In the case of schools, the product is the children themselves, also known as test scores and the graduation rate. 

As some forty years of school reforms were based more on political, financial, and administrative expediency than sound teaching methods, achievement declined. Image in corporate cultures being everything, officials maintained graduation rates by dumbing down the curriculum. The obsession with testing was a bureaucratic solution that was no solution at all but rather a diversion from admitting and reforming failed policies. As student populations increased, budgets for expanding facilities did not keep pace. All this had turned many schools into arid learning environments, not much different than grassless feedlots.

Cows, of course, were not children or pets. For thinking of them as such, one would be charged with anthropomorphizing or, even worse, sentimentality. But the books I’d read celebrating bovines did just that. They portrayed cows as the sentient and personable Holsteins I’d encountered in the roadside field. However, the reality of their life on the farm was not the homey barns and happy pasture pictured in the books.

Nothing in those books even hinted at the problems inherent in those two little facts, presented as aside in John Pukite’s, A Field Guide to Cows: 
“An average cow drinks about 30 gallons of water and eats 95 pounds of feed per day.” (p. 85)
A 1,000 pound cow produces on average 10 tons of manure a year.” (p. 73)

The bullshit in education was just as deep, although harder to spot because there was no stink. By the late eighties, for example, the policy in my high school had been to give a “D” to any student who “did the work.” Quality was irrelevant; illiteracy, rampant. Only the graduation rate mattered. My supervisor’s justification for this intellectually and ethically bankrupt policy was that, “if an employer sees a student has a D in Basic English, they’ll know not to hire this person.” 

Teachers were left to flounder in the absurd contradiction of those bureaucratic directives to “make learning fun for kids” while preparing them to “raise test scores.”

Politicians claimed that America has the best institutions of learning in the world. But while many of them had one, often two degrees from these institutions, they still seemed to lack the character and skills required to solve the problems affecting our wellbeing as a nation. 

In this culture of profit and power, welfare of the cows and the welfare of children were secondary to production. And so family farmers like teachers became complicit in the business. The paradox was profound and heartbreaking.

William Dempster Hoard
In this paradoxical world, the process that turned cows into a business conflicted sharply with the community spirit and camaraderie of the dairy parade. The farmers I’d met were part of a hard-working community taking pride in delivering products I and most consumers used and took for granted. What’s more, these family dairies were competing with a corporate mentality that increased production in their grassless feedlots full of cows by pumping the animals full of hormones and antibiotics. 

Born in 1836, William Dempster Hoard would become known as the Father of Modern Dairying. He had a sign in his barn saying all cows should be treated like mothers. During his term as governor of Wisconsin, Hoard promoted the tuberculin test that eventually eradicated tuberculosis from American herds. He also ensured sound dairy practices by establishing Wisconsin’s Dairy and Food Commission that stopped the practice of substituting coconut oil for butterfat in cheese. And in his commitment to defending the rights of the common citizen, he convinced the Wisconsin legislature to pass the state’s first compulsory school-attendance law. 

And shouldn’t all these things be connected—for to foster a healthy society, all must be healthy. 

Several days later, I went to the Tillamook county fair to meet some farmers and compare stories. Perhaps the book I’d wanted to write about the American education system was really quest for new myth. The ways of the corporate culture had become a cliche. The question was how do we find a way to restore the milk of human kindness in a culture where power and profit have become the sacred cows? 

Next: Ruminations

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