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Opinion | Jennifer Graham

Milk’s enablers

Americans are addicted to dairy’s wholesome image

ISTOCKPHOTO/H.HOPP-BRUCE/GLOBE ILLUSTRATION

The doctor says my 10-year-old daughter needs to cut down on an insidious beverage that’s of dubious nutritional value, leaches calcium from our bones, and can make her fat.

Skim milk.

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Forget demon rum. Now there’s demon milk, vilified by the anti-dairy lobby and the anti-dairy-subsidy lobby. But it’s a favorite of the Graham family lobby, which goes through six gallons a week.

It’s liquid crack, really, distributed through a network of suppliers who speak a language users don’t understand, and who conspire, with the government’s help, to manipulate us into wanting ever more of their product through shrewd marketing campaigns. The Wisconsin 6 Cheese Pizza from Domino’s? Behold the Milk Mafia at work. There are people — a group called Dairy Management Inc. — whose sole job is to up the nation’s consumption of saturated fat.

Four months ago, the nation’s mooers and shakers said milk would cost $7 or $8 a gallon by now, as prices soared into the stratosphere when farm subsidies expired and the country lumbered over the milk cliff. It was my family’s best chance of breaking free of our milk addiction. Instead, Big Dairy was saved by the cowbell, or rather by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose provision extending $5 billion in subsidies ensured that the government will help fund the nation’s milk habit for at least another nine months. Enablers, all.

This coddling of the dairy industry isn’t only happening in faraway Wisconsin or idyllic Vermont. In Massachusetts, dairy farms got $1.1 million in subsidies in fiscal year 2012 for the state’s 13,000 milk cows. Even though it costs farmers more to make milk in New England than in other parts of the country, a glass of cow juice still costs less than a can of Red Bull. This pleases mothers everywhere — even those who otherwise oppose government dependence — and enables everyone who’s Got Milk to keep doing so, cheaply. Never mind that Dr. Spock (the pediatrician, not the Vulcan) told us to stop drinking it 15 years ago.

You’d think more people would have disembarked from the milk train by now, just because of the murky mechanics of the industry. Dairy people speak of hundredweights and pounds of milk, even though the consumer sees it in gallons. There are stories of price-fixing and shady trading, unsettling fines paid to settle lawsuits about price suppression. (Just last month a Vermont lawsuit alleged that the Dairy Farmers of America manipulated trading to drive up the price of cheese.) And then, of course, the practice of luring consumers to premature, cholesterolly deaths with million-dollar marketing that lures us into the Milky Way.

We need someone like Milton Friedman to sort out the tangled teats of dairy economics. But he’s gone, and we’re left with Kirk Kardashian, the Vermont writer whose 2012 book “Milk Money,” on “cash, cows and the death of the American dairy farm,” was supposed to make me sympathetic toward the farmers, but instead left me foaming like a cappuccino.

The book opens with the arrest of a hard-working, good-hearted Vermont dairy farmer for bad checks, written in desperation to feed his herd in hard times, and I was dutifully incensed for a few pages — until I learned that the checks had been for $7,500 each, at which point, I decided the cows could starve and I’ll have water. Writing fraudulent checks for thousands of dollars is a crime, not an oversight, and the market cannot offer forgiveness for poor management to one business, and not another, based on the perceived wholesomeness of its wares.

Call me a cereal killer.

Kardashian concludes his dairy-farm obituary with worries that “the Cheap will finally overtake our allegiance to the Good” — that the big super-dairies will flatten the small farms out of existence, and that there will be no more Hood nor Garelick on the East Coast, just powder trucked from California, then reconstituted. In this dire future, “For much of the Northeast, there would be no such thing as local milk,” he warns.

It’s true that the small farms are disappearing. But having inspected the prices of Maple Farm Dairy in Mendon, Crescent Ridge in Sharon, and other local dairies that deliver to homes around Boston, I’ve concluded there’s still plenty of people prepared to pay for the Good.

This is the land of milk, honey. We like it so much, we pay for it twice.

Jennifer Graham is a writer in Hopkinton. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.
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