The March 17 headline, “Is Winona County's animal unit cap killing business?” asks a provocative question, but the article itself offers few answers to what we should really be asking: Are mega-dairies good for rural economies? Some digging shows the answer is no.

Dairy farming represents a significant boost to a community, a boost that row-cropping, for example, just can’t match. The University of Wisconsin estimates a dairy cow in that state can generate $34,000 a year in local economic activity. But by automatically equating more cows with more economic activity, promoters of mega-dairies miss a key point: The local economic value of milk production on one factory farm is not the same as if it was produced on several small and medium-sized operations.

The Journal of Dairy Science found that having more dairy farms in a community is associated with a more positive economic and socioeconomic environment than just pure gross sales of milk. University of Minnesota economist Richard Levins points out that as dairies add thousands, and even tens of thousands, of cows, the number of communities with NO dairies of ANY size is increasing at a phenomenal rate. That is a direct result of mega-operations, with the help of government policy, pushing out their smaller counterparts through massive over-production.

What makes for a thriving Main Street — more cows or more farmers? As a Minnesota hardware store owner once told an economics researcher: “You know, I haven’t had many cows come in here lately.”

(Brian DeVore is the media coordinator for the Land Stewardship Project.)