Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Bag Balm as Metaphor

Driving down Vermont country roads these days I often see a sight that breaks my heart: a small dairy farm in the process of dying. It happens in slow motion: the roof begins to sag, the equipment to rust, the fences to lean. And then, one day, the cows are gone. In the spring, dandelions sprout in the barnyard and Virginia creepers climb the silos which, by the time winter comes around again, stand decapitated in the snow.

There were over 11,200 dairy farms in Vermont in the 1940s, 1,091 ten years ago, and only 749 last year. It's mostly the little dairies that go bankrupt, while the mega-farms, those with over 700 animals confined in barns, have doubled in number. Falling milk prices, government regulations, high equipment costs, and, especially, the change in Americans' drinking habits (less milk, more beer) are all to blame.

The situation is so depressing that last February the co-op that owns Cabot Creamery sent farmers a list of suicide prevention hotlines along with the milk check (See Seven Days).

Fewer farms, more macmansions: Vermont is not quite what it used to be. If you doubt Vermont's drift away from its rural, farm-based identity, all you have to do is look at the change in the Bag Balm tin.

Created in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom in 1899, Bag Balm, that panacea for skin-related cold-weather ills, originally came in a green tin with a picture on the lid of a cow's head framed by a garland of clover leaves and blossoms. The side panels featured a drawing of an udder along with indications and directions for use: "For minor congestion of the udder due to calving, high feeding, bruising or chilling..."

The farmer was instructed to massage the balm gently into the udder fifteen minutes twice a day, or oftener. After a few sessions, those old-time farmers noticed a smoothing and softening of their own chapped skin. And this is how, despite the "Veterinary use only" caution on the tin, Bag Balm spread from the cows to their caretakers and then to village dwellers, skiers, tourists and assorted flatlanders as a sovereign remedy against winter skin woes.

This year, when a succession of weeks with below zero temperatures gave my spouse's hands that old sand-papery feel, he went out to get more Bag Balm and came back with a smaller tin that proclaims itself "Vermont's Original Bag Balm." The formula is the same, as is the pungent, uncompromising smell of the ointment, and there is still a picture of the cow's head on the cover, albeit much reduced. But the drawing of the udder is gone.

In fact, there is no mention of udders at all in the new tin. Gone also are the instructions to "thoroughly wash treated teats and udder before each milking....[After milking]strip milk out clean, dry skin and apply Bag Balm freely." The manufacturers must have figured that all this talk of teats and stripping would freak out customers who don't want to think about where milk comes from. Instead, they are now marketing the Balm as a "skin moisturizer for hands and body," Vermont's version of Jergen's or Eucerin.

Not that I blame the makers of Bag Balm. They are just trying to keep their business afloat, and with fewer cows with sore teats around, they had to expand their customer base. They have a gorgeous website which includes a video of real farmers talking about the product. But I miss the old tin, whose no-nonsense instructions transported me, every time I opened the lid, to the steamy inside of a dairy barn at winter milking time. I imagined the Holsteins, big as school buses; the doe-eyed little Jerseys; and the farmer making the rounds from cow to cow, filling his bucket and squirting an occasional milky jet into the mouth of the waiting barn cat.

This (admittedly romanticized) scene is becoming as rare as the original tins of Bag Balm.What can we do to help small farmers hang on, not just in Vermont but all over the country? Those of us who are neither economists, politicians, or farmers can start with what is right in front of our noses: we can buy, eat, and think local. And if like me you don't drink milk, you can still help the cause by buying local cheese--in Vermont, we have an astounding 150 varieties.*

*France supposedly has 1,000 varieties of cheese, but also 67 million Frenchmen, vs. fewer than 700,000 Vermonters.



10 comments :

  1. At book group the other day a good friend who tends to make proclamations that annoy the hell out of me proclaimed that small farms are dying because the farmers should never have been farmers in the first case. I challenged her on this -- I have farmers in my family and in my husband's family. My dad grew up on a dairy farm as did my husband. I asked her if she knew of this first-hand or if it was just some podcast she'd listened to. She said that the farmers who she worked for when she was in college (she went to Whitman College in Walla Walla Washington) were what she was basing her comment on.

    As for Bag Balm. Having grown up around farmers and being married to a brother of practicing farmers, Bag Balm has been in my life since day 1. Sad to hear they are changing their tin, but glad to see they are still around and hope they will be in the future.

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    1. I meant "first place" not "first case"

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    2. Your friend's argument against small farms smacks of "blame the victim." As for Bag Balm, it looks like it will survive, in one form or another.

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  2. Do cows still need this stuff? Are the cows milked by machine having the same problems? Just curious. Sounds powerful.

    Loss of farms is hard; I still remember my greatgrandparents' farm in Michigan.

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    1. I don't know anything about cow management, but I assume that milking by machine is harder on the udder than milking by hand. I always milked my goats by hand (I never had more than two).

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  3. Something similar is happening in NZ. Though I don't know that smaller farms are dying, it's just that they are getting bigger and more intensely farmed. Dairy has had a huge boom here (due to global dairy prices increasing) in the last decade or so, and it isn't unusual to hear about companies owning multiple dairy farms. The average herd size (I've just looked it up) is about 400 cows.

    My parents used to have dairy cows. You're prompting me to think about this for a post, as otherwise I'll write it all here!

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    1. Oh, and as I was reading this, I knew that Bag Balm would have to include lanolin. (I looked that up too.) From a sheep-farming nation, lanolin was what our dairy farmers always used. It's great for chapped lips.

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    2. You're so right about lanolin--and, BTW, Vermont's earliest farms were sheep farms, which probably led to the use of lanolin by dairy farmers. I look forward to reading about your family's dairy cows.

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  4. An excellent post. I didn't realize their marketing had changed. This gives me a lot to think about...

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