Tag Archives: Real Milk Stories

Making Change in the Heartland

A short series written for WhyHunger about activist Midwestern farmers. The research for this material was funded by the generous donors to the Real Milk Stories Indiegogo campaign.

Denise O'Brien photo picture
Denise O’Brien of Rolling Acres Farm, Atlantic, Iowa.

Farmers are “in” right now. With today’s trend towards local food and sustainable agriculture, farmers are making the news, appearing on lists of most influential people and changemakers. The farmers we hear most about seem to be in or near cities, often new to the field, raising vegetables, selling at farmers markets. We’ve read the articles about rooftop farmers in Brooklyn and vegetable farmers growing heirloom varieties for Berkeley restaurants. They all deserve the recognition; because farming is hard work any way you do it.

But there are a lot of farmers we do not often hear about. Most farmers are not growing vegetables for direct markets, and most of the food Americans eat doesn’t come from farmers markets. Corn and soybean acreage is 36 times that of vegetables, while the value of the top five commodities (corn, soybeans, animal products) is 200 times that of direct sale items. Most farmers, therefore, live far from cities, raise corn and soybeans and livestock, and sell into commodity markets, not farmers markets. And (surprise!) many of them are trying to change the system they’re in—by using fewer chemicals, or planting cover crops, or making the three-year transition to growing organically or looking for a local market for their product. Even bigger surprise: some of these rural commodity farmers are outspoken activists, organizing against policies and practices that hurt the land and their communities.

It’s one thing to advocate for a sustainable food system from Brooklyn or Berkeley, but quite another in a place where your neighbors may think you’re crazy for not using genetically modified seed or for restoring a few acres of native prairie; where any change you make could cost your livelihood or your relationships; where the herbicide salesman is your nephew and everywhere you turn you are reminded that you are “feeding the world.” But organizing and changemaking are also more urgent in the heartland, when the farms being sold off belonged to your friends, or you have to drive another hour for groceries because all the stores downtown closed, or your kids are getting sick from pesticide drift. To make change in the belly of the beast—in the places most of our food comes from and where agribusiness has a strong hold—takes conviction, hope and a willingness to risk being an outsider.

The US has a strong history of agrarian-led advocacy. There have been movements for what we now call sustainable agriculture for centuries; most led not by people in urban centers, but by rural farmers. In the 1890s, farmers across the country realized that the struggles they faced were more a result of economic and social policies than personal failings, and built a broad coalition and a strong movement, Populism and the People’s Party, to change the system.

Nearly a century later, skyrocketing debt payments and a drop in exports led to the 1980s farm crisis. Hundreds of thousands of farms went into foreclosure; with fewer farmers, rural businesses failed, downtowns vacated and rural communities withered. Throughout the crisis, farmers fought back, protesting at state houses and in Washington, fighting through the courts and in the court of popular opinion, using tractorcades and white crosses marking the loss of farms to call the nation’s attention to the countryside. A Supreme Court decision eventually stopped the foreclosures, but the crisis in farm country did not end, it changed to a slow burn.

In the last thirty years, farms have gotten increasingly larger, equipment and inputs more expensive, and dramatic consolidation has shrunk farmers’ market options. The prices farmers receive for their goods dropped precipitously following the removal of all price stabilizations in the 1996 farm bill, and a patchwork of subsidies and insurance has not made up the difference. Throughout the 1990s, the fight became about confined animal operations, or factory farms. Citizen action in states like Minnesota and Missouri kept these states from being completely overrun by factory farms then and continues to be critical in demanding state enforcement of factory farm rules. Grassroots organizations such as Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Missouri Rural Crisis Center, (Minnesota) Land Stewardship Project, and the Western Organization of Resource Councils have rallied their farmer and rural members (along with urbanites) for decades on these and other fights, and continue to do so today. Through it all, there have also been the quiet farmers—those who may not have actively protested, but instead resisted by changing their own farming or land stewardship practices and influencing their neighbors to do the same.

The profiles in this series tell the stories of how three modern rural Midwestern farmers have carried on this legacy and are working to make change in their communities.

Denise O’Brien became an organic farmer in Iowa on her husband’s fourth generation family farm, and was soon a leader in the fight against the foreclosures of the farm crisis, focusing especially on the struggles of rural women. She has worked at many levels—grassroots advocacy, non-profits, national, international, in the soil—with common threads of feminism and caring for the land and her community running throughout.

Roger Allison raises livestock on a traditional small family farm in Missouri, and has been in the trenches fighting for small farmers for forty years. The organization he founded, Missouri Rural Crisis Center, continues to be one of the strongest grassroots voices in rural America.

Molly Breslin and her father John have been less active politically, but have created a cultural shift in their Illinois farming community as they have transitioned their family land from conventional corn and soybeans to organic heirloom grains and beans.

Leaders like these are working rural land and speaking out in small towns all across the country. Their stories have much to teach all of us working for a healthier and more just food system, whether we live in a city, in the country or somewhere in between. To learn where we have been, we must reconnect with the radical elements of this nation’s agricultural history; in shaping the future, we must listen to those carrying on that legacy.

Reprinted from WhyHunger

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

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!