Milk Prices and the Decline of Rural Life

Friday April 1 was my husband’s ninetieth birthday, and among the many cards he received was one from our insurance agent, “In the year you were born. . ., ” containing a chart of prices now and then.


1926 2016
Bread (1 pound) $       0.09  $              1.43
New Domestic Car $   310.00 $     24,160.00
Average Income $1,518.00 $     53,657.00
New Home $     4,850 $   292,300.00
Milk (1 gallon) $       0.56 $       3.28

Just a cursory look at these numbers shows that the cost of a gallon of milk has increased a mere sixfold in the last ninety years, while the cost of everything else has increased much more.  Here’s the same chart showing the multiplier for each item.

1926 2016 Multiplier
Bread (1 pound) $       0.90  $         1.43 16
New Domestic Car $   310.00 $24,160.00 78
Average Income $1,518.00 $53,657.00 35
New Home $     4,850 $292,300.00 60
Milk (1 gallon) $       0.56  $         3.28 6

All this sounds great for the consumer.  A gallon of milk has increased only sixfold while income has increased by a factor of thirty-five.  Of course, Mr. Average Consumer is spending a lot more for his house and car, so a gallon of milk at $3.28 might actually be a hardship.

Raw Milk For Sale signBut what about the dairy farmer?  His costs have gone up also, even if he is still living on the family farm and doesn’t need to buy a house.  He needs a pick-up truck  and feed for his cows, must pay vet bills and upkeep on his property, plus insurance and dozens of nuisance expenses.  All these have gone up many-fold, yet the farmer must get by with a payment that reflects decades-old values. (NB. the farmer today actually gets about half the retail price, or about $1.70 per gallon.)

If milk prices reflected the thirty-five-fold increase in income since 1926, a gallon of milk would sell for $19.60 per gallon. And that’s just about what milk sells for—raw milk, that is—in some parts of the country.  A gallon of raw milk purchased at a store in California costs $17.00 or more.  Champoeg Creamery in Oregon provides milk for $24 per gallon—and has a waiting list.  We sell raw pet milk at our farm in Brandywine, MD for $12 per gallon and reckon our customers are getting a bargain.

What happens when the dairy farmer gets only $1.70 per gallon of milk while prices for everything else skyrocket? He goes out of business, of course.  A few years ago, USA Today reported that dairy farms in the U.S.  were folding at the rate of sixteen per week. America has lost over eighty thousand dairy farms since 1992.  Here in Maryland, the number of dairy farms has plunged from sixty-seven hundred in 1965 to twelve hundred in 1990 to less than four hundred today. Those dry numbers reflect untold suffering and hardship—often even suicide.

Tobacco Barn - Now booking for 2023-2034

When America had something like two hundred thousand dairy farms, it had a vibrant rural life; little towns , each with a movie theater,  a furniture store, a car dealership and a tractoold midwest theaterr supply store; several churches, all full on Sundays; a high school with a marching band and a drill team;  the countryside dotted with proud farm buildings. Today a drive through rural areas takes one through shuttered towns and past crumbling barns—as you can see from these photos I took on a trip to the Midwest a few years ago.

Midwest Barn

In 1970, Americans spent about 22 percent of their income on food, and only 3 percent on health; today we spend about 7 percent of our income on food and 16 percent on health—either way, the total is about the same. Except that when you are spending that much of your income on health, you likely are suffering a diminished lifestyle in other ways, such as reduced income, increased worry and fatigue, lowered expectations and fewer opportunities.

I have often said that compulsory pasteurization is a key factor—perhaps the main factor—in the destruction of rural life.  When a farm family can sell raw milk directly to the consumer, at a price that reflects their costs and the value of the product, they make a decent living, stay on the land, send their children—healthy children—to the local public school, and spend their income at local businesses—while at the same time providing their customers with a superbly healthy food, one that will ensure optimum growth and reduced asthma, allergies, eczema and respiratory infections, even when they also eat occasional French fries and candy bars.

Compulsory pasteurization is the curse that not only destroyed nature’s perfect food, but also took away the right to sell milk directly to the public, and to set the price for that milk.  Now the farmer sells to the dairy co-op and has no choice in the price he receives.  Since there are only four major dairy companies in the whole U.S., each one with delineated territory, the farmer cannot go elsewhere to get a better price. In the early days of the co-op system, farmers signed on with the promise of fair compensation, protection from price fluctuations and the promise that the milk tanker would come to their farm, no matter how small it was.  No longer.  The price is no longer fair, often fluctuates, and dairy companies have begun refusing to pick up from small dairies, especially those that populate remote areas.  When the truck stops coming, dairy farmers go bankrupt not one by one but en masse. This handwriting is on the wall in our state of Maryland, where most dairies are small by today’s standards.  Why should the dairy company pick up 400 gallons from a dairy farm in rural Maryland when for the same cost it can pick up 4000 gallons from a confinement dairy in New Mexico?

Can we reverse this great sucking sound from the countryside? Can we put prosperity back into rural life?  The answer is yes, although it will take time and require the efforts of many thousands of people.  The solution is to drink raw milk, and whenever possible, purchase that raw milk straight from a farmer.  Along with the milk, we should purchase eggs, poultry, meat, produce and artisan products directly from farmers or small-scale producers—but milk is the key to rural revival.

See more of my musings on the role of raw milk as the basis of a vibrant, equitable economy here:

P.S. My Dad liked to tell the story of what it cost to go to college when he was a freshman at Cornell, in 1937. Plane fare from Los Angeles to New York was $300, and his tuition for a year was also $300.  Today you can still get a round trip ticket LA-NY for about $300 but a year’s tuition at Cornell is $51,000, an increase of 170-fold. Nothing has increased more in the last ninety years than the price of education. Feed your kids right—with raw milk and cod liver oil—and maybe they’ll get a full academic scholarship!

The Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF) has championed raw milk since its founding in 1999, providing ongoing information on raw milk safety, health benefits and availability.  In 1999, the Foundation’s raw milk website,, listed just 30 sources of raw milk in the whole US—today there are at least 2000 listed sources and many more operating under the radar.  In 1999 farmers could provide raw milk (through sales, as pet milk or through cow shares) in just 27 states; today the number if 42.  If you have benefited from raw milk, please be a member of WAPF to support the Foundation’s important work.  You can sign up now at and clicking on Join Now.

Author: Sally Fallon Morell

Sally Fallon Morell is best known as the author of Nourishing Traditions®: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats. This well-researched, thought-provoking guide to traditional foods contains a startling message: animal fats and cholesterol are not villains but vital factors in the diet, necessary for normal growth, proper function of the brain and nervous system, protection from disease and optimum energy levels.

8 thoughts on “Milk Prices and the Decline of Rural Life”

  1. I looked all over the web and bread prices in 1926 averaged .9c per loaf. This was before Wonder bread, which sold for .5c per loaf. My grandpa worked for them in the 1930’s and told me it sold for .5c per loaf. And my neighbor lady (now deceased) remembers her mother buying a loaf of Wonder Bread for .5c and her dad squashing it in a small pile and telling her mom he would not eat that junk! The mom made bread daily and she was happy to have a day off, though it did not work that way!
    I found an Amish family who sells me ‘pet food’ (raw milk) and I pay $2.00 per gallon. They came up with the price. This is milk that would be tossed as their Jersey makes more than they can consume daily. I get 2 gallons per week on same day. I get the cream and all and make butter from the cream. I supply my own containers. My cost is $4.00.
    There is a herdshare I could buy from- but it would cost me $20 per gallon- No thanks! Their milk is no better than what I am able to get from the Amish, and perhaps not as fresh as I get what was milked that morning. The milk is usually still warm. The herdshare has an upfront cost and then a cost of $80 per month for 4 gallons, and only two days per month when I can pick it up or have it delivered. I don’t want milk that is two weeks old. I like my fresh that day milk and the ability to get fresh milk weekly.
    And yes, my dogs do get some!
    People need to make money from their product, but $20 per gallon is too high for me!
    I sometimes buy Hartzler’s Milk (from Wooster, OH) as it is non-homogenized, low heat pasteurization, and only heated as long as laws allow. It is my 2nd choice when the cow is freshened and there is no milk. This costs me $3.75 half gallon in glass bottles ($1.75 deposit on bottles). The cost is still cheaper than the herdshare.
    I am in the city and unable to have my own cow or chickens, but I also do things for the Amish such as pick up foods for them (shop for them) and only charge them the cost of the food (no gas or time costs) and save them egg cartons and help in other ways. They are happy and so am I. They do not feel taken advantaged of and neither do I think I am taking advantage of them as I help them in many ways. I have also made new friends.

  2. It is similar here in the UK. I just did a few calculations and a gallon of organic supermarket milk (non-homogenised) is roughly 4 dollars a gallon, the raw Guernsey milk we have is around 15 dollars a gallon delivered to us. I can also on occasion buy raw goat milk “for pets” locally for the equivalent of 8 dollars a gallon.

    Thankfully the larger industrial systems of the US haven’t got hold here yet, but dairy farmers certainly feel the squeeze on both income and production with many going out of business. Often they are paid less than production costs (a lot of demonstrations by both farmers and the public on this recently) so completely unsustainable. I fear mega dairies will become a reality here within 10 years.

    We buy all food direct now where possible, so local CSA veg box, local farm for meat and eggs, grow and raise where we can. It may cost more on the wallet, but both health and local economy wise that money is well spent.

  3. I was thinking .90 a loaf was quite high too but if you look at the multiplier 16 then .90 must be a typo, it’s .09 a loaf.
    I also think $10-20 a gal is way too much. It’s a free market tho so I just buy from ppl who charge reasonable prices. Most areas in our country don’t have access to any real milk or only to ppl who overcharge. That’s sad.
    Will it change? Doubtful, 95% of ppl I talk to are appalled I would eat raw eggs, let alone use raw milk. They’d die before ingesting it. Feed it to their children??
    This is why the market is so skewed, it’s only a miniscule sector thus the inflated prices. It’s a political thing more than anything…power, not facts, is what is determining supply. My own second cousin lost his farm in the 80s so it’s not just farming outside the box that’s at risk tho. All private farming is becoming a foodie thing.

  4. Wonderful article. Thanks. I would pay $50/gallon for raw milk. For me its medicine. I just don’t get sick. I am productive. I write, create, walk, run, and feel like I did when I was 20. Its amazing. I love my farmer, wish I could buy from every farmer around me. But we can only consume so much milk. My goal is to have 100 herdshares around the Bay Area. Still working on it.

  5. I recently reread some books out of a children’s series I enjoyed back in the early 1960s: “Swallows and Amazons” by Arthur Ransome. In the book there are many mentions of what the children eat on their adventures while sailing on a large lake in England. They make a daily early morning excursion to a local farm to get a container of “fresh milk” (it must have been raw, straight from the cow in 1930 when the book was published). They also eat tongue frequently and other organ meats, along with some bread (doubtless home made), and a few vegetables. I pay $10/gallon for some excellent raw milk from Jersey cows. I would happily pay more.

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