One of my most recent escapades introduced me to the wonderfully simple dynamics of small-town business. Two girls I know invited me to go with them to their grandfather’s house to collect the milk. At the time I had no idea what it was for, but I was dying to get out and see more so I graciously accepted. The trek wasn’t easy on my carb-infused, exercise-deprived body, but the breathtaking view of the countryside was well worth it. We walked about forty-five minutes through some trails, then straight up the side of a mountain until we met a petite, jolly old man perched beneath a cow just a-milking away. When his two hearing aids finally caught our hellos, he stood up, took a look at me, and gave me the most genuine, cheerful greeting. He asked me all about where I’m from and what I’m doing here and whether I’m interested in getting married to a nice boy from Zuleta. After some pleasant chatter, he returned to his labor as I watched, mesmerized by his meticulous technique. When he finished, he handed me the freshest glass of milk I’ve ever tasted in my life, still warm from the utter. I told him I wanted to learn how to milk a cow myself. Without hesitation, he invited me back the next day, an hour earlier, to receive my lessons.
My first try didn’t go so smoothly. My swift motions spooked the cow, making her sprint off, knocking over the bucket of milk the old man had just collected. Luckily, he was patient enough to let me try again on another cow, this time holding her on a leash and carefully walking me through the process. It looks so simple when he does it, like he just pulls a lever and out pours the milk. But I soon found out there’s a lot of technique involved. Once I got a rhythm going, it took me almost fifteen minutes to fill up about an eighth of the bucket (although a lot of the milk ended up on me or on the ground). I thanked him for letting me try and let the professional finish up the rest.
Once we had all the milk, we carried it back down the mountain to a small cheese factory at the far end of town. There, we poured the milk into a measuring bin and the girls told the man working how much it would cost. I watched as the man recorded the amount and the price in a log- the fee to pay at the end of the month I presume. Then, I asked him if he would show me around the factory. After some uncertainty concerning our intentions, we convinced him of our genuine curiosity. He led us through a building hardly larger than my bedroom and briefly explained the process of making the cheese. He works a shift from 8 a.m. to 4 a.m. to make one fresh batch. When it’s done, they sell it to small stores and restaurants (not large supermarkets) because they will buy it for a fair price. At the end of our tour, he gave us a block of cheese right off the shelf to take home.
I couldn’t help but think it so strange that the milk I just took by hand was going to be made into cheese the next day by this man, then sold to a family in another little town nearby in a few months. The whole progression is so simple and personal. It’s hard to imagine businesses like this still exist when almost everything in the United States today is mass-produced to be sold around the country or even around the world. Could you imagine tracing your cheese back to the exact cow that produced the milk that made it?
This method of small business ensures that everyone who puts in the effort profits from the production. The small farmer with his two cows gets paid for his portion of milk every month. The family that owns the cheese factory gets paid a fair price for their products. The storeowner makes a modest profit from the sale of the cheese. And the consumer is satisfied with a quality product at an affordable price. No expansion of large buildings or loud machines could ever deliver such benefits all around.