The production and processing of milk and dairy products in Mississippi and across the country have undergone tremendous change since the antebellum era. The manner in which milk is produced on the farm and how milk is processed into dairy products has undergone especially dramatic structural evolution over the past fifty years. Technological innovations and institutional developments have resulted in many modifications in the procedures employed to market milk and dairy products from dairy farmers to processors to consumers.
Through the 1800s, milk and dairy products were usually produced and processed at home by family members who cared for and milked the cows and made butter, cheese, and other items. With no refrigeration, milk was produced and consumed on a daily basis at virtually every home. Very few commercial dairies produced and bottled milk for sale to Mississippi’s urban populations prior to the 1920s.
Over the next three decades many small commercial dairies sprang up near Mississippi population centers. These operations sold raw milk to local processors that usually bottled milk and made a limited variety of dairy products and delivered them to customers’ homes. This period saw the creation of numerous municipal or county “milk sheds” (like watersheds), tightly restricting the processing and marketing of milk and dairy products. Dairy farms milked between ten and fifteen cows and were located short distances from the population centers to reduce the time needed to transport highly perishable milk supplies. Farmers typically placed raw milk in five- or ten-gallon metal milk cans and set them on the side of the road for pickup by flatbed trucks, which hauled the milk to plants within the local milk shed. Estimates show that Mississippi had more than ten thousand dairy farms and perhaps as many as one hundred milk plants during the 1920s. During this era, Oktibbeha County was known as the Milk Pitcher of the South, claiming more than eight hundred dairies within its milk shed.
Post–World War II technological changes led to the elimination of local milk sheds and eventually the termination of home delivery of milk and dairy products. Innovations included the sanitary and efficient movement of raw milk over long distances, refrigeration techniques that extended shelf life, and larger, more efficient processing plants. An obvious but often overlooked feature of the structural revolution has been the development of the interstate highway system, which provided the impetus for the creation of a highly organized and sophisticated trucking industry. In the 1950s and 1960s the number of dairy farms drastically declined across the nation, especially in Mississippi, where the number of farms fell from more than 5,000 in 1950 to 1,636 in 1970. Between 1950 and 1970 advancements in dairy animal genetics, nutrition, and management more than doubled the average annual milk production from a single Mississippi dairy cow from 2,790 pounds (332 gallons) to 5,860 pounds (698 gallons). As in many other agricultural industries, the surviving farms were much larger operations.
Contributing to these fundamental changes in the dairy sector were the organization of regional milk cooperatives and the integration of corporate food chains into milk processing. Groups of farmers established these cooperatives to ensure the sale of milk to processors and to facilitate transportation and marketing. More important, the cooperatives improved farmers’ market power, enabling them to bargain with processors to raise milk prices. During the 1960s and 1970s Dairyman, Southern Milk Sales, and Gulf Coast Dairy Cooperative became prominent Mississippi institutions. Increased competition from much larger dairy processing firms during the 1990s resulted in combinations of marketing cooperatives so that by the end of the decade, a single dairy cooperative, Dairy Farmers of America, dominated the state. Dairy Farmers of America has members all across the country and claims to market about 35 percent of all the milk produced in the United States.
Since the late 1970s Mississippi and the rest of the Southeast have experienced drastic reductions in the size of the dairy industry. Dairy farms and cows have moved from the region’s hot and humid weather conditions, which increase the difficulty and cost of producing milk, to the arid West and Southwest. The number of Mississippi dairy farms plummeted from 987 in 1980 to 315 in 2000. In 2005 Hurricane Katrina devastated many of Mississippi’s remaining dairy farms, more than 75 percent of which were located directly along the storm’s path. By July 2007 only 162 farms remained, and that number has continued to fall, reaching 120 in 2011 and 85 in 2014. That year, these farms produced 21.9 million gallons (188 million pounds) of milk valued at $48.6 million. Mississippi ranked forty-first among the states in milk production and now imports milk from Texas, New Mexico, and other states to meet consumer needs. As of 2014, Mississippi had two commercial milk processing plants, located in Kosciusko and Hattiesburg, as well as three on-farm milk bottling plants.
- F. J. Adcock, M. D. Hudson, P. Rosson, H. M. Harris, and C. W. Herndon Jr., Choices 21 (2006)
- C. W. Herndon Jr., Hoard’s Dairyman (2006)
- Mississippi 2015 Dairy Fact Sheet, www.southeastdairy.org