RIDGEWAY, Minn. – When Mike Gilles dreams, he dreams big. Waking in the middle of the night, the Minnesota dairyman realized he had a viable solution to depressed milk prices and milk oversupply – a solution that would please both consumers and farmers.
Gilles milks 110 cows in southeastern Minnesota on a ridge a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River. He started farming during the farm crisis of the 1980s, first by hiring out on a dairy farm, then buying his own herd and land. He said those were difficult times with inflated interest rates.
“(But) I can remember when I could buy a tractor without taking out a loan,” he said.
During the past 30 years he has built his herd and transitioned to grass-fed milk. He prefers using crossbreds for high components with primarily Jersey, Norwegian Red and Brown Swiss breeding. Along with his 100 acres of pasture, he rents another 150 acres of cropland. He buys his grain, bedding and some of his hay.
Milking is done in groups in a stanchion barn, with cows living on pasture most of the year and in a pole barn during inclement weather. Calving is done in spring and fall. Milk is sold to Kwik Trip stores via Foremost Farms.
“I need to be as efficient as I can,” Gilles said.
Increasing his herd size to compete with big dairies is not a viable alternative because of the topography of the region. Gilles considers anything of less than 250 cows to be a small farm.
“There’s enough of us out there to be a voice yet,” he said. “They’re still out there. The little guys can’t speak out because they have to be home to milk cows.”
He points out beef processors are down to four big packers and that’s where dairy is headed.
“It doesn’t have to be a handful of farms; that is a choice,” he said. “This country is based on capitalism so we cannot sell supply management.”
He calls his plan “My Fair Wage Milk.” It’s simple, he said. Using statistics he found in Hoard’s Dairyman and rounding out to whole numbers, he proposes paying all licensed dairies $30 per hundredweight for the first million pounds sold. Anything more than that amount would be paid market price. He bases that on the idea of consumers receiving a minimum wage for their pay. He said $30 in today’s dollars would be comparable to the $13 Gilles was paid for milk when he first started dairying.
Processors and retailers would earn a tax credit for participating in selling fair-wage milk, similar to tax breaks big oil companies receive. The tax credits would be cheaper than the current subsidies in the Dairy Margin Program, he said. Milk and cheese could be labeled “Fair Wage,” which would give incentives for consumers to purchase the products. It shouldn’t cost the consumer anything to implement.
Gilles said he thinks the idea could bring some farmers back to the farm.
“The chain reaction would be so significant,” he said.
It could help small creameries be competitive. Local suppliers would start selling more products and equipment.
Alex Romano of the Land Stewardship Project is interested in the idea.
“I think we’re looking at long-term relief,” she said. “We need to look at what would be an actual living wage and cost of production. I am honored to work with people like the Gilles family who are standing up for their right to meaningful work that pays them fairly.”
Gilles said of his “My Fair Wage” plan, “People don’t want a quota. People don’t want a subsidy. Farmers don’t want a quota. Farmers don’t want a subsidy. Farmers don’t want supply management. We want all farmers treated the same. I’m not a scholar, but I’m not stupid. I’m just a farmer; tell me what’s wrong with this idea.”