Monthly Archives: May 2014

Snapshots

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I’ve been reading a lot on dairy policy these days. So I was nerdily thrilled while on my way out last night to get this spreadsheet of dairy farm numbers since 1965 from my friend Tim at the great Missouri Rural Crisis Center. It came with upsetting news, though: updated number of farm closures. 47,000 dairy farms shuttered since 2000.

 

 

 

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Brooklyn-grown strawberries! In my community garden plot.

 

 

 

 

 

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And this. 28% in three days! I’m thrilled, humbled, touched — by the excitement for Real Milk Stories, by the support, by all the shares… What a ride, and it’s just the beginning!

Extra special thanks to Christina Schiavoni, Jerusha Klemperer, Sarah Wodin-Schwartz, Sarah Mitchell and Ron Koomas, Debbie Grunbaum, Aaron Reser, Jonah Burke, Diana Manning, Jan Poppendieck, Christina Bronsing-Lazalde, Doron Comerchero, Sarah Bishop-Stone, Kathy Dickeman, Molly Culver, George Naylor, Tanya Kerssen, Diana Beck, Tim Gibbons, and five anonymous contributors for your incredible support.

You are all spectacular.

 

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Support Real Milk Stories!

I wrote in my last post about hearing farmers’ stories from dairy country in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Today I’ve launched Real Milk Stories, a campaign to support me to travel to Wisconsin this summer to research some of those stories and write about them for a wide audience.

My friend Joel, president of Family Farm Defenders, recently sold his cows and took a job at a fruit processing plant. I’ll be spending time with him and neighboring farmers, investigating the pressures that have made so many thousands of farmers sell their cows after generations of farming. My writing will shed light on what farm and trade policy looks like at the human level, in the fields and around the kitchen table – and why it’s important to all of us who live far from the farm.

Like community supported agriculture, Real Milk Stories is community supported storytelling. My campaign will raise seed funding from friends, family, colleagues, readers for my  weeks in Wisconsin for research and interviews, so that I can help these farmers tell their critical and too often untold stories.

Please support me and Real Milk Stories! Contribute and spread the word!

Crisis in Dairy Country

I was on a call last week with the board and allies of Wisconsin-based Family Farm Defenders, a twenty-year-old progressive dairy farmer group.  More than half the participants were dairy farmers, or used to be. It was a regular monthly board call to talk about business items, but conversation turned quickly to farmers’ stories. Wisconsin farm silo imageThe reality of the ongoing dairy crisis — more of a hemorrhage by now; I’m not sure “crisis” is still appropriate after 25 years — is devastating. The stories, each one different and each one the same, lose none of their impact after hearing so many of them over five years of working with independent farmers — on the contrary, every year feels worse: “How is this still happening??” We know all about the “dairy crisis” by now: the numbers are there, we know that 42,500 dairy farms have closed in the last decade and that rural America is crumbling; there have been two farm bills in that time — and a noble but entirely failed investigation into consolidation in the food and ag industry, stymied by meat packers and dairy processors — and yet nothing has changed to improve the situation of the small and midsize dairy farmer.

And in dairy country across the US, those farmers are struggling every day.

On the call, a farmer in Pennsylvania told us that her family sold their cows after 47 years of dairy farming. “We got tired of throwing our money down a big dark hole,” she said. The family is now planting corn; there is usually a good market for grain from her Amish neighbors, buying for their livestock. This year, though, she’s concerned that so many of them are getting out of dairy too that she’ll have no market for her new crop. “It’s like a rural slum in some areas,” she said.

A Pennsylvania neighbor of hers was on the call too; she’s still holding on, barely. Milk prices for farmers have gone up, but the gains are eroded by high grain costs. Her last milk check was nearly a third less than her cost of production. Milk prices are slowly creeping higher, she said, but, she said, “We have so many dark holes dug by years of insolvency that it will take a long time to get out.”  Our communities,” she added,  “are broken.”

My friend Joel is the president of Family Farm Defenders and facilitated the call. He didn’t share that night, but we know his story: his family has been farming in his southwest Wisconsin county for 140 years; last fall, he sold his cows and got a job in a cranberry processing plant. “You shouldn’t lock a farmer in a concrete box all day,” he told me the first time we talked about the job. After spending most of his life on his fields and in his barn, with nothing but the sound of cows and the clicking of milk lines, he said the noise of the frozen cranberries pouring through the metal tubes is deafening.

The reasons behind the dairy catastrophe are many — and at first glance, a partial list is wonkish and something of a snooze: a complicated system of pricing and governmental price supports; consolidation in the industry; corporate-like coops that act more like corporations; lack of Justice Department action to enforce fairness in the market, and more. (I have come to terms with the sad reality that most people don’t get as jazzed about antitrust enforcement as I do…)

But for as arcane as the causes are, farmers’ stories of the impacts are that much more compelling. In the next few months, I aim to introduce some of these farmers here — and break down just why, at a time when so many people around the country want to get to know their farmer, dairy farmers are only barely surviving.

United We Eat

I recently rediscovered this essay I wrote in 2011, and on rereading three years later, realized it’s something of a manifesto, laying out my general philosophy and background. Published at Civil Eats, March 30, 2011.

A couple of weeks ago, Washington Post political blogger Ezra Klein and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack had a debate in the Washington Post about rural subsidies; the substance of which was then analyzed and thoroughly skewered in a couple of excellent posts by Brian Depew of the Center for Rural Affairs and Tom Philpott at Grist. The whole affair got me thinking about another urban/rural discussion I read at the end of last year, this one focused on food—and about how counterproductive all of our country/city dividing lines are.

In December, the Atlantic published “The 10 Biggest Food Stories of 2010,” a list that ranged from restaurant trends to food truck and butchery trends, with a smattering of food policy in between. In response, the Daily Yonder (motto: “Keep It Rural.”) ran “The (Real) Important Food Stories of 2010,” pointing out that the Atlantic’s list included “no mention of either the people or the places that produce food,” and that it was “heavy on New York City.” (Both true.)

The Yonder’s list gave a much more substantive picture of food issues in 2010: the Department of Justice/USDA investigation of corporate consolidation in food and agriculture; the USDA’s proposed fair farm rules, seed and dairy crises, and the skyrocketing price of rural land—all issues that affect not only the Daily Yonder’s rural readers, but all of us who eat. I was all set to recommend the article to all my colleagues, and then I got to the last line. “As you can see,” the writers concluded, “not a one of these stories begins in Brooklyn.” Now, wait just a minute there.

I’ve lived in Brooklyn for seven years, working on food justice issues for most of that time, so I took the conclusion personally. But there’s a larger issue. Brooklyn has a vibrant, diverse food scene that ranges from decades-old community gardens in Bedford-Stuyvesant to, yes, a Williamsburg “butchering icon.” Small snapshots of Brooklyn food have been much hyped lately in both local and national media, but they don’t tell the whole story—and they seem mostly to alienate much of the rest of the country (as well as more than a few Brooklynites). The Daily Yonder was right: the Atlantic list was out of touch. But digging on Brooklyn just exacerbates the problem. Both publications—and all of us who are working for a better, healthier, and more just food system—need to start thinking about food as a way to come together rather than something to divide us. If we keep seeing ourselves as divided between rural and urban, we won’t change anything. Continue reading United We Eat