All posts by Siena

South on 39/51

After being in Wisconsin for almost two weeks (plus a beautiful weekend in Minneapolis), I’m heading to the southern Midwest (SoMiWe, it would be called if it were an NYC neighborhood) for a week: Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa. After a few lovely hours with a rabbit farmer south of Madison this afternoon, I’m spending tonight at the Super 8 in Mendota, Illinois, in the middle of basically nowhere and oceans of corn. Naturally, I’m fascinated.
Mendota, ILI was expecting strip malls and chain stores when I got off the highway, but instead there are crickets out the window, over the sound of the interstate a half mile off. It’s a pretty nice town of about 7,400, with an actual, if slightly shabby, downtown, though everything was closed on Monday night, and some beautiful houses on the side streets. I’ve passed through other towns of this size and smaller not looking this good, but I imagine there’s decent employment here, given the Archer Daniels Midland plant (“supermarket to the world,” ADM used to call itself, not liking to talk about how it was  convicted of price-fixing, to say nothing of how its commodities trading almost certainly contributed to the 2009 food price crisis) and enormous Del Monte facility, which sponsors the annual Mendota Sweet Corn Festival, and maybe processes a lot of its canned sweet corn right here. There is also a whole mess of railroad operations in the middle of town, including apparently three Amtrak stops a day (!), and connections to the two plants. Driving around here, you almost feel like railroads matter — like it’s the ’50s (from my dad’s stories of a Central Illinois childhood punctuated by steam engines) or some alternate reality that still includes huge agribusiness but has at least developed a sensible transportation system.

The hotel here is surrounded on two sides by McDonalds, Taco Bell/KFC, a small truck stop and weigh station, and so many trucks. One parking lot up the street a bit was full of empty animal-transport trucks, like for chickens or hogs; I’m so curious where they came from, where they dropped the animals, and where they’re headed.

The other two sides are bordered by corn, of course. I got dinner at Ziggie’s Family Room diner, and after accidentally getting my order to go (standard vegetarian road food: grilled cheese and a milk shake; this was a solid version, if no doubt also made almost entirely of corn products), I finished my shake out by the edge of the field. I had brief visions of old ball players emerging from the rows, but no such luck. With my food systems-focused brain and driving past millions of acres of corn, I interpret, “If you build it, they will come,” as being applicable more to ag policy than baseball dreams anyway.

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Hotel backyard.

Back in my room after dinner, I watched the sun finish setting beyond the fields and the Mendota water tower and listened to the swallows. I started out today having breakfast with Jim, a brilliant and soft-spoken Wisconsin dairy farmer and writer, and my host for much of this trip. Over cereal with garden strawberries and his milk, we talked about skyrocketing land prices, pesticides, and soil quality. Some of the rich river bottom soils out here are so good, he said, “I bet you could take a trained monkey and get a pretty good corn crop out of ’em.” And so good that they’re still holding up after having chemicals poured on them for decades — at least for now, at least sort of. I’ve had moments in the Midwest in the last two weeks of almost forgetting that there’s so much environmental disaster out here. There are birds and racoons and trees (sometimes) and just so many shades of green that it’s hard to remember that there’s also so much poison and monoculture killing any diverse life. Here in Mendota, the soil’s still allowing this patch of northern Illinois to maintain a semblance of quiet chirping country nighttime, but thinking about ADM up the road, it’s also hard not to wonder for how long.

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Welcome to Wisconsin

welcome to MadisonI’m taking advantage of the Madison airport’s free wifi (and great coffee, thanks, Ancora!) while waiting for the car rental place to open (long story) — turns out to be a wise move, as there was just an announcement there’s a severe thunderstorm warning for another half hour. In thinking about driving through Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa in a couple of weeks, it’s occurred to me that I should read up on proper tornado response, because they have that kind of thing there. I’m not yet in the serious tornado states yet, but I’ll sit out the severe thunderstorm in the airport.

About to hit the road to, first, the Baraboo Farm and Fleet for rain/mud boots–the one significant thing I didn’t manage to cross of my list before leaving–and then to Joel’s farm, Greeno Acres, 90 minutes northwest of here in Kendall. His road, he reminded me the other day, is “three farms out of town — count three barns and make a right.”

I’ll leave you with some shots of Wisconsin tourist merch…

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I decided not to get one of these, but maybe I’ll feel differently on my way out in a month.
What does this even mean??
What does this even mean??

 

Real Milk Stories: final week!

One week to go in the Real Milk Stories campaign! I’m headed to Wisconsin on Wednesday – entirely made possible by so much support from people like you! – to spend three weeks with former dairy farmer Joel and other dairy farmers, hearing what they’re experiencing and digging into why—and why it matters to your summer ice cream.

I’m excited to continue this project past Wisconsin, and all additional funds I raise will let me do that. We’re at almost $4000; let’s get to that new $5000 goal–or beyond!

Please spread the word in this final week—share on social media and with your networks. AND, make sure to follow Real Milk Stories on Facebook and right here for pictures and updates from the road in the next few weeks! And if you’ve got friends who’ve been meaning to contribute, remind them not to miss their chance!

Soylent is…

The new “food substitute” Soylent has been around the news of late — somewhat mysteriously, as maybe best expressed by a good friend who loves food and cares about where it comes from, who emailed me, “I was starting to think I was losing my mind, not understanding why anyone is paying this soylent goop ANY MIND.” Indeed.

I had pointed her to The Soylent Revolution Will Not Be Pleasurable, the New York Times‘ appropriately skeptical and wry take. The New Yorker was much more in-depth and perhaps more credulous in Could Soylent Replace Food?, and I thought there were some significant gaps in the piece. I’m pleased that the magazine saw merit in the argument I sent, and published my letter this week. (I also loved the letter than followed mine–follow the link to read it–and tracked down its author today to thank him for making the other main point I wanted to make.)

 

The-new-yorker-logoPublished in The New Yorker, issue of June 23, 2014

Greener Soylent
Lizzie Widdicombe rightly points to agriculture as a leading cause of climate-warming emissions, and Rob Rhinehart, the creator of the food substitute Soylent, calls nonindustrialized farms “very inefficient factories” (“The End of Food,” May 12th). But, until Rhinehart engineers Soylent from algae, his product will depend on chemical- and fossil-fuel-reliant grains grown in monocropped fields and refined in energy-intensive processing plants—an inefficient nutrient-delivery system, from an emissions perspective, if ever there was one. Meanwhile, studies show diversified small-scale agriculture to be one of the best ways to both mitigate and adapt to a warming climate. Healthy soils built through crop rotation and organic fertilizers sequester carbon and fare dramatically better in both droughts and floods. Food production is part of the problem of global warming, but it will become part of the solution as we learn to cook and eat a wider variety of foods, instead of turning to a food substitute whose components rely entirely on climatically inefficient industrial farming.

 

How Congress Is Moving to Crush Protections for Small Meat and Poultry Producers (And Why You Should Care)

civil_eats_logo.jpg.662x0_q100_crop-scalePublished at Civil Eats, June 11, 2014 

As comedian John Oliver said last week in his much-watched primer on net neutrality, “If you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring.” Big Ag has known this strategy for years and perhaps no one does it better than the meatpackers and poultry companies—companies like Tyson, Smithfield, and trade organizations like the American Meat Institute and the National Chicken Council.

They’ve got a head start because the struggle over their domination of the marketplace has taken place over the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Grain Inspectors, Packers, and Stockyards Administration, known as GIPSA. Under the cover of a bureaucratic sounding name and an obscure government agency, meat companies have quietly flexed considerable lobbying muscle to kill one of the most important policy reforms for livestock and poultry farmers and ranchers—and therefore one of the most important policy reforms for those of us who care how our meat is raised.

The GIPSA rules—let’s call them “fair farm rules” for short—were proposed back in 2010 and designed to address the growing power of just a few corporations in the increasingly consolidated meat industry. Nationally, the top four companies in each industry slaughter four out of every five beef cattle, two out of three hogs and three out of five chickens. At the local or regional level, one company often controls an even larger percentage of the market.

Tim Gibbons, of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, says that consolidation has meant “the meatpackers report huge profits, while farmers’ share of the retail dollar has gone down dramatically—and consumers still see food prices rising at the grocery store.” In Missouri, Gibbons adds, thousands of independent small and mid-size family hog farmers have gone out of business because they don’t have access to a fair market. “Because of massive corporate control of the market, we’ve lost 91 percent of hog producers in Missouri since 1985. That’s over 20,000 farmers and many, many jobs in our rural communities.”

It’s not much better on the consumer side. As the Washington Post points out, “Americans have never had so few options in deciding what company makes their meat.” Even as a growing number of local and niche markets make it easier for some consumers to trace the source of their meat, the trend in the rest of the marketplace is towards rampant consolidation. Just this week, Tyson Foods, the second largest meat producer in the world, sealed a bid to take over processed food giant Hillshire Farms, seller of Jimmy Dean and Sara Lee. When just a few companies control most of the market—and can use their power to keep out or buy up competitors—consumer choice is something of an illusion, and questions about food safety, antibiotics or other additives, animal welfare, and even taste can be tough to answer.

…read the rest at Civil Eats…

Real Milk Stories: Stretch Goal!

Incredibly, Real Milk Stories met its original goal less than two weeks into the month-long campaign! I’m thrilled, floored, and incredibly grateful. And based on the outpouring of support and enthusiasm, I’ve set a stretch goal — let’s see if we can get to $5000!

I absolutely didn’t expect this level of response. I started the campaign to cover basic costs of reporting my friend Joel’s story of selling his cows and the ongoing dairy crisis in Wisconsin. What I’ve learned is that really a lot of people want to dig into the dairy crisis—or, want me to dig into it and report on what I find. Hundreds of people have shared the campaign and the page has been viewed a thousand times, from around the world. Along with my raising my seed funding, I feel like I’ve been given a mandate. Not only from my farmer friends, but from all of you who drink milk and eat ice cream and want to know more about where it’s coming from.

My original goal didn’t cover follow-up research and travel (including closer to home to upstate New York or Pennsylvania), transcription, in-depth writing, or any number of other expenses. All additional funds I raise will allow me to do the follow up and additional reporting that’s needed to tell more Real Milk Stories.

Thanks especially to donors Theresa Pascoe, Brian Hornby, Alyssa Adkins, Michele Simon, Cristina Sandolo, Jon Klar, Alison Cohen, Kristin Reynolds, Liz Joyce, Maggie Cheney, David Knutson, Anim Steel, Nancy Heiberg, Robert Mitchell, Mark Winne, Michael Paone, Haven Bourque, Chris Jacobs, Kathy Ozer, Ruth Katz, Stevie Schafenacker, David Hanson, and Karen Pittelman.

And you too can become a contributor! Real Milk Stories here, and on Facebook.

Real Milk Stories: Update

The response to Real Milk Stories has been beyond anything I could’ve hoped for: HALFWAY to the goal in FIVE DAYS, and today, one week in, under $800 to go!! And the flood of excited, supportive comments I’ve gotten about the project makes it clear that it fills a niche and a need more than I even imagined. It’s been an exceptional week.

THANK YOU to everyone who’s been of it — for great feedback, many shares on social media, and contributions. I asked for community supported, and I’ve gotten it in spades. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it all.

Extra special thanks to contributors Bonnie Wodin, Raj Patel, Anney Barrett, Brad Wilson, Emily Nichols, Kat Kollitides, Kerstin Sabene, Abby Elbow, Luther Picket, Jon Kennett, Margaret & Triphon Kollitides, Cynthia Price, Lisa Griffith, Koren Manning, Robert Perry, Kristin Schwab, Michael Yates Crowley, Brooke Ellen Smith, Niaz Dorry, Raj Kattamasu, Sheri Stein, David Vigil, Gene Bishop & Andy Stone, Carol Sartz & Art Schwenger, and four anonymous contributors. You are all fantastic.

Also: you can now like Real Milk Stories on Facebook, and check back here for regular updates. And please keep spreading the word!

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Real Milk Stories campaign 3days image.jpg

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.

 

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.