When milk gets out of hand

Ever since the Maine Milk Commission was established under the Department of Agriculture, there has been off-and-on agitation to abolish it and return to catch-as-catch-can policies of lacteal distribution. The purpose of the commission, vaguely, was to give a leg-up to the dairy farmer, although the middlemen were never heard to complain, but the function seems to have been to put the traditional family cow out of business and to remove the house-to-house milkman from the village scene. The least-considered result of price control on milk, over the years, has been the decline in esteem of the dairy industry. There's a good chance this decline will soon effect changes, perhaps reform. The idea may someday be termed a noble experiment.

Back in 1947 when the commission had the less pleasant title of the Milk Control Board, it entered into a propaganda scheme with the professors at the state cow college, and there appeared a neat Bulletin 451 for July which offered statistical proof that it cost money to distribute milk in Maine markets. The document was used by the author, Alvah L. Perry, in his requirements for a degree of Master of Science. It was also used variously to support official contentions that consumers should be charged more.

Like all such bulletins, this one offered some food for thought:

The seasonal change in milk and cream sales was much greater in areas where the summer tourist trade was important.

Ninety-nine percent of the retail sales were handled on retail routes.

As the customers per mile increased, the volume delivered per hour increased.

In those hideous times, milk came in glass bottles, which cost 6.2 cents for quarts, 5.7 cents for pints, and 4.9 cents for half pints. Then, the study revealed:

One of the more important factors affecting bottle costs is the number of trips per bottle before being lost or broken.

An average of 26 trips per bottle were made in the Portland market, as compared with 37 trips in the Millinocket-Aroostook area. Another conclusion I appreciated at the time was the cost factor of credit: ''Distributors suffer considerable losses because of the inability of many patrons to pay their milk bills.''

Coming as it did, just after we as small farmers had been obliged by increasing restrictions and overlapping inspections to retire our milkers to an abattoir, this careful study was not immediately amusing. But as time ran along I found myself looking at it now and then with a smile. The average number of times a glass bottle gets broken has always seemed to me the finest joke line in American literature.

Our family cow of my boyhood (sometimes two) offered more bounty than our family used, so we sold milk, and on my way to school, I would drop off two quarts at the Stevenses' back porch, and set one quart inside the shed at the Bartlett home. On my way home from school I would pick up the empties, and a regular evening chore was to scald them and have them ready on the shelf for morning. We had heard about pasteurization then, but nobody believed in it, and from the morning milkpail my mother would strain milk directly into the three bottles. Try that sometime if you would like to know about being in the milk business. The pail would hold 16 quarts, but would have 10 or 12. There was no spout; she used no funnel. And nary a drop on the shelf, ever.

The average number of times a glass milk bottle gets broken is once, and with me that was not a statistic, it was a disaster. Musing along, meditating on innumerable important matters, I would have my books, my lunch bucket, my three milk bottles, and my two hands. Sometimes I had my slingshot, or an apple I had swiped. And I would arrive home with one fewer milk bottle and a handful of glass. ''Another one broke on me,'' I would say, and Mother would say, ''How do you ever manage to keep on being so clumsy!''

My father would say, ''Gorm, gorm, gorm!''

I never knew, and they never knew, that my small effort as a milkman would one day mount in importance until a professor would statisticate it, confound his designs, produce his tabulations and footnotes, and thus get a quart of milk up to a dollar or so. The Stevenses and the Bartletts, broken bottles and all, got out of it for 6 cents a quart.

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