Friday, December 13, 2013

Dairy dilemmas: Milk and cheese as "wicked problems"

Dairy cows at Appleton Farms in eastern Massachusetts
Sandra Batie, an agricultural and resource economist at Michigan State University, uses the term "wicked problem" to describe issues so fraught with internal paradoxes and inconsistencies and so overlaid with competing and often contradictory ideologies and assumptions that it is difficult or impossible even to have a collective conversation about them, let alone figure out how to fix them.[1]  Batie sees agriculture as a particularly "wicked problem," and much of my recent focus on food and farm history arises from this same idea.  Because we have so little shared sense of how we got to the food system we have now, many of the attempted fixes and alternatives often feel fragile and ungrounded.

Take dairy.  It's one of the agricultural sectors most overlaid with both nostalgia (think milkmaids, butter churns, black and white Holsteins on a Vermont hillside) and ideology (think childhood nutrition, school lunch subsidy, and the raw vs. pasteurized debate).  It's also one of the liveliest frontiers of local-food revitalization (think urban professionals turned artisanal cheesemakers).  

Yet it's a component of the food system whose history is particularly murky and ill-understood.