So what you’re saying is, you study the history of…cheese…?

I often struggle to explain what it is I study.  Most terms don’t capture it adequately, it being something rather interdisciplinary, thematic, and transnational.  Cheese, I tell people, if I want to get a smirk out of them.  Labour, agriculture, and the natural world, if I want to be a little more accurate.  The industrialization of the Ontario dairy industry, if I want to sound obnoxious.  Capitalism and the exploitation of nature and people, if I want to sound incendiary.

So I’ll tell you a story about milk.  That’s what good historians do, right?  (In fact, milk stories are quite rare, which is why I have a potential PhD dissertation.)

It might be hard to tell, but cheese making was a big deal in Ontario in the second half of the 19th century.  Over a thousand cheese factories had opened by 1906, and many considered it an eminently ‘Canadian’ pursuit, whatever that means. Most of these factories were tiny operations, sometimes family-based, but they weren’t immune to the wider processes of industrialization underfoot. Quite the contrary, actually: farmers and members of the dairy associations were increasingly concerned with making their operations more scientific in an attempt to increase the scale of cheese production.

However, this was easier said than done, because milk was of variable quality and spoiled easily.  Prior to pasteurization, this seemingly mundane biological fact vexed cheese makers – or more accurately, their employers – to no end.  The key to large-scale production was standardization and uniformity.  If they could make bigger batches of cheese at once, production would be more efficient, thus capturing economies of scale.

To do so, cheese makers had to pool milk in large vats before turning it to cheese. At most factories, the milk was collected from a considerable number of farmers (and an even greater number of cows).  The sources of milk, therefore, were varied.  All of that milk was of different quality and reflected the particularities of specific cows, farms, feed, and milking methods.  Some farmers’ milk was better than others’.  So here’s the rub: a large batch of milk, being liquid, would be ruined if one farmers’ poor quality product was pooled with otherwise better milk.

A Babcock tester at the Cheese Factory Museum outside London, Ontario

The milk was was owned by individual farmers, who were paid by volume almost until the end of the 19th century.  But in 1890, Dr. Stephen Babcock of Wisconsin invented something called the Babcock Test, which was a means of measuring the quality of milk in terms of its fat content.  In an attempt to encourage farmers to improve the collective quality of milk, dairy association members and college instructors tried to implement this new system of payment. They were trying to produce a uniform, standardized input so they could produce larger batches of cheese, and in turn, capture the benefits of economies of scale.  In short, they needed a homogenous product to make more money.

But nature and labour relations got in the way of this march of industrial progress.  Firstly, the cheese makers – who were usually wage labourers – were reluctant to implement the system because their job security often hinged on currying the farmers’ good favour.  Many factories were cooperatively owned by the farmers, meaning that cheese makers had no interest in pointing fingers at their employers for bad milk, lest they lose their jobs.  Even when farmers didn’t collectively own the factories, a farmer accused of supplying less-than-wholesome milk could easily shift their allegiance to a neighbouring factory.

Secondly, it turns out that ensuring uniform and standard milk required exhaustive and highly-skilled effort on the part of cheese makers, even with the Babcock Test.  The technology did not replace the need for skilled craftsmen.  (I use the term ‘craftsmen’ here somewhat cautiously, because there are a host of interesting gender dynamics involved that I haven’t really dealt with yet.  Suffice to say that most of the labouring cheese makers were men.)  Cheese makers still relied heavily on their knowledge of milk – of nature – to ensure a high quality product.  The problem was that at this very time, cheese makers were facing declining wages and a loss of the skills that made them the artisans they historically had been.

So the turn of the 20th century presented the cheese industry with a strange, if temporary, conundrum.  The logic of capital suggested that industrialization and standardization extend to all facets of the cheese making operation, including labour, but milk’s very nature prohibited this.  They couldn’t standardize milk and labour too.  Quite the opposite, in fact: homogenizing milk required that the industry stall the deskilling of cheese makers’ labour.  Thus, for a few brief years the historical record suggests that calls for unionization and a return to georgic-, artisanal-, high-wage labour were commonplace, although ultimately this didn’t stop the creation of a large-scale, corporate cheese industry (otherwise known as the rise of Kraft).  Put somewhat crudely:  history is about far more than just human pursuits.  It’s also about our interconnections with non-human nature.

When I’m not fighting capitalism, drinking beer, or having self-indulgent existential crises, this is what I do.


Filed under Academia, History, On Agriculture & the Environment

3 responses to “So what you’re saying is, you study the history of…cheese…?

  1. Thank you! How did you stumble onto it, if you don’t mind me asking?

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