In the Spotlight

News & Features
The Milk Spiller
By Marisa Helms
June 4, 1999
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0

Since the 1950s, Minnesota farmers have protested on and off over what they see as an unfair milk-pricing system. Back in the mid-60s, many farmers took the national spotlight when they spilled millions of gallons of milk on streets across the country. Since the 60s, protests have become less visible.

OUT ON THE FARM, Mark Rohr is a lanky, soft-spoken man with a bachelor's degree in philosophy. He's also a Minnesota dairy farmer who's spent his life on the land.

It's been a tough year in the dairy business. Milk prices bottomed out a few months ago, dropping from $16 for each hundred pounds, to around $10 dollars. Rohr sees the issue personally and philosophically, complaining that the low prices are forcing small farmers to lose their businesses to large agricultural corporations.

"I strongly believe we're in midst of a hostile takeover," Rohr says. "And I don't think that bodes well for family farming, for rural America, and ultimately for big city America."

Angry about the drop in milk prices and worried about the future of his farm, Mark Rohr recently decided to do something about it. With his "I farm therefore I am" cap on his head, Rohr headed down to the Capitol steps with a barrel of milk, and did what his parents and many others did back in the 60s: he dumped it on the street.

Rohr's lone protest made the evening news. And all the regional papers carried his photograph; a man - alone - with a steady stream of white spilling by his side. Even with the publicity, Rohr says his protest turned few heads. "Part of the reason I spilt this milk, was I wanted to know what the peoples feelings were; what their emotional level on this is," he says. "I don't know if everybody's so busy or apathetic." It may be both, and a bit more. Farmer Brad Rach says bitter memories of 60s protests still linger for some farmers. Rach is the regional director for the National Farmers Organization.

Though other farm groups were active in the 60s, the NFO was a strong organizer for upper-Midwest dairy farmers and sponsored nationwide milk dumping protests in the 60s.

"It was a pretty wild time because there were a lot of members who dumped, Rach says. "There were a lot of non-members who dumped at that time, but there along with them were a lot of friends and family members of people who didn't dump - who didn't think that was the right thing to do."

Whether the memories are bitter, depends on who you talk to. Retired dairy farmers Elmer Arceneau, Leroy Heschen, and Elmer Kettler are just a few of the farmers in 25 states who dumped their milk; refusing to sell it for two weeks in March 1967. Elmer Arceneau may be retired, but he's still active in the NFO. He's disappointed by the organization's lack of support of Mark Rohr's recent milk dumping protest.

"I think it's the best organization there ever was, but as far as I'm concerned, our national leaders were sleeping," he declares. "Why weren't they out there backing him up? To get farmers to do that. If we had a bulk tank at the Capitol every day of the week. When that milk took that $6 drop, we should have had a bulk tank of milk down there."

Still, the NFO's view on protest has changed. Rach says the organization wants members to change the pricing system from within, rather than with activist protests. Instead of dumping milk, NFO policy is now to give it away to hungry children overseas.

Rach says the NFO is still a farmers' advocacy group, but one that acts more like a union. He says the NFO's strength now lies in tactics like collective bargaining.

Philosopher farmer and lone protestor Mark Rohr agrees farmers need to work together to survive. "This country boy with a major in philosophy has it figured out, and a lot of people without a major in philosophy have it figured out," Rohr says. "It's people working together with other people."

Whatever the NFO policy, Rohr - who's a card carrying member - says he'll continue to protest in his own way, and do what he can to save his own farm and help others save theirs.