Not Just Black and White

Published on: 08:46AM Dec 02, 2010

The Wall Street Journal made notice earlier this week of a trend that’s part and parcel of the unmistakable locavore movement:  the appearance in the past decade of what are essentially farmstead dairy manufactures, farms that both milk the cows, and then make that milk into cheese, or yogurt, or similar products.  But the thing is, this dairy locavore movement is itself part of something larger.

The focus of the story was on the growth of these micro cheesemakers in New York state, but it’s also something that has happened in other parts of the country, making every manner of dairy product.

Such operations are certainly one way to avoid the proverbial “middleman,” and capture all the consumer retail dollars involve in such transactions.  This assumes, of course, that you have a ready market for those products.  New York, with its proximity to tens of millions of people, is well-situated in that regard.  Other less populace places, like, say, Nebraska, where there are more cows than people, pose a bigger challenge to creating a market suitable for sustaining this type of enterprise.

I was thinking about the growth of these grassroots dairy food makers while reading David Brooks’ book “Bobos in Paradise,” which is about a decade old itself (but I like to let certain books season a while before I read them).  Brooks, who also writes a column for the New York Times, hypothesizes that the growth of demand for things like farmstead, artisanal dairy products is a result of a certain demographic of people who have more disposable income, a counterculture outlook, and are willing to pay a significant premium for such non-mainstream consumer goods (good examples are microbrews, local wineries, or the stuff typically sold at farmers markets). 

Brooks’ book is a sociological profile of a type of people who tend to be trend leaders.  They display a more subtle form of conspicuous consumption, and you can see their imprint in all different kinds of marketing today (such folks have made Steve Jobs an even richer man).  Our media and politics have certainly fractured; so has the way consumer goods are produced and sold.

The challenge for farmers, of course, is that it’s hard to predict exactly what kind of market there is, long-term, for potentially fickle and picky customers.  Investing in a cheesemaking plant, and devoting considerable resources to marketing the resulting product, is a dicey deal even in the best of times – which these clearly are not.  Some succeed, while others don’t.  That’s the way it always is for small businesses.