If Blue Bell goes belly up, it’s going to be a very bad day

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Folks I know who work in the Louisiana dairy industry haven’t had a lot to celebrate lately.

Fourteen years ago there were 434 dairies operating in Louisiana. Now there are fewer than 130 herds remaining, with 90 percent of them confined to just three parishes.

The fluctuating costs of resources such as feed, fuel, fertilizer and land always seem to outpace the market price of milk and other dairy products.

Then there are twice-a-day sessions in the milking parlor, constant equipment maintenance, stringent government health regulations, environmental restrictions and other headaches that add up to make dairy farming a very difficult way to earn a living.

When it comes to grit and determination, it’s hard to beat a dairy farmer. Most of them I know have at least three things in common: the farming lifestyle runs through their veins, they walk slowly and they look like they could use a good long nap.

While my hat’s off to those resilient men and women who work hard to keep dairy products on our dinner tables, I have to say there’s one phase of the operation that’s much less taxing on the typical farmer that I previously thought.

Not long ago I spent some time at a commercial dairy farm to conduct some research on a story I was writing.

Before the farmer began to tell me about the rigors of his job, I assumed the toughest part had to be rounding up all those cows and getting them to the barn – once in the afternoon and then again during the wee hours of the morning.

I envisioned something like a dusty cross-country cattle drive along the old Chisholm Trail, through hostile Indian territory, something right out of a John Wayne movie, lariats flying through the air, horses galloping wildly with nostrils a-flare, dogs scrambling about and chasing down the strays, cowboys shouting and whistling and bellowing, “Hi-ya! Get along there, little dogie!”

When it came time for the afternoon round-up, I braced myself for the big scramble, steadying my telephoto lens and positioning myself in just the right spot to get some breathtaking action shots of the farmer and his rugged ranch hands wrangling with those ornery, temperamental bovines rodeo-style.

Instead, the farmer stood outside the gate casually chatting on his iPhone while his slouching, slightly disinterested ranch hand – wearing a hoodie and puffing on a Pall Mall, seemingly in no hurry at all – simply climbed aboard his four-wheeler and rode out into the field. When he got within eyesight of the herd, the cows knew that was their signal to shuffle on over to the barn. It was like a well-coordinated moo-cow military drill unfolding in slow motion.

I was baffled at first, but when I saw the size of those bags, which looked to be on the cusp of exploding and triggering a severe milk blizzard from one end of the pasture to the other, I realized why it didn’t take much coaxing to get the girls moving in the right direction.

I could imagine them saying, “Good grief, is that old grumpy guy with the cigarette butt in his hand ever going to get out here? What’s taking so long?! I need some relief!”

At any rate, I have a lot of respect for those who choose to do the work of a dairyman. That’s why I was elated, though still a little perplexed, when the news came out last month that butter and other dairy products aren’t quite the dangerous foodstuffs we’ve been led to believe for the past four decades.

The British Medical Journal recently published an article indicating that new studies show dairy products such as butter and cheese maybe aren’t the kinds of toxic poisons we’ve been told.

Wouldn’t you know it, after 40 years of being slammed with the message that consuming butter is like begging for a trip to the emergency room, we’re being informed that real butter is one of the most easily absorbed sources of vitamins A, K and K2, and it’s rich in important trace minerals such as chromium, manganese, copper, zinc and the powerful antioxidant selenium.

Instead of convincing us that butter is death-in-a-stick, now we’re told the iodine contained in butter can keep your thyroid functioning properly, that its conjugated linoleic acids can prevent cancer and it doesn’t cause weight gain because it’s burned quickly for energy rather than stored.

I’m glad for the farmers, who have waited a long time for a little good news. But I’m also glad for myself. Now I’ll feel a little better tonight after supper when I reach into the kitchen cabinet and pull out my green plastic cup with the co-op logo imprinted on the side, open the freezer door and retrieve my half-gallon container of Blue Bell ice cream, grab my fancy monogrammed sterling silver scoop and fix myself a nice cold night cap.

And I’ll feel even better when I pour in some milk – skim, of course – to get that super-smooth homemade shake effect. Aaaahhhhhh!

While medical researchers spend a lot of time and money deciding whether saturated fat is good or evil, or whether a boiled egg is as bad as a bullet to your heart, I’ll probably feel great either way, because a nice cold night cap is about the only legal means of making the cares of modern life fade away and putting my soul at peace after a full day of hearing how every last thing in the world is going to give me cancer or a stroke or dementia or cause my arteries to close.

If we wait long enough, we’ll be told that French fries, slathered with melted cheese and a quarter-inch layer of salt on top, are the latest miracle food and have been found to completely reverse the aging process.

I hope these new nutritional findings help keep the Louisiana dairy farmers in business for a long time, but I also hope it does likewise for the dairy farmers in Texas. That’s the home of Blue Bell Creamery.

If Blue Bell goes out of business, I’m in big, big trouble.

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