Dairy Farming is Dying. After 40 Years I’m Done.

By: Jim Goodman, organic dairy farmer near Wonewoc, WI and FFD board member

Originally published in the Washington Post, Dec. 21, 2018

After 40 years of dairy farming, I sold my herd of cows this summer. The herd had been in my family since 1904; I know all 45 cows by name. I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to take over our farm — who would? Dairy farming is little more than hard work and possible economic suicide.

A grass-based organic dairy farm bought my cows. I couldn’t watch them go. In June, I milked them for the last time, left the barn and let the truckers load them. A cop-out on my part? Perhaps, but being able to remember them as I last saw them, in my barn, chewing their cuds and waiting for pasture, is all I have left.

My retirement was mostly voluntary. Premature, but there is some solace in having a choice. Unlike many dairy farmers, I didn’t retire bankrupt. But for my wife and me, having to sell our herd was a sign — of the economic death not just of rural America but also of a way of life. It is nothing short of heartbreaking to walk through our barn and know that those stalls will remain empty. Knowing that our losses reflect the greater damage inflicted on entire regions is worse.

When I started farming in 1979, the milk from 45 cows could pay the bills, cover new machinery and buildings, and allow us to live a decent life and start a family. My father had farmed through the Great Depression, and his advice — “don’t borrow any more than you have to” — stuck with me and probably saved the farm many times over.

We survived the 1980s, when debt loads became impossible for many farmers and merely incredibly onerous for the lucky ones. Interest rates went up, export markets plummeted after a wheat embargo against the Soviet Union, oil prices soared, inflation skyrocketed and land prices began to collapse. More than 250,000 farms died that decade, and more than 900 farmers committed suicide in the upper Midwest alone.

Farmers felt the impact most directly, but there were few in rural communities who were untouched. All the businesses that depended on farm dollars watched as their incomes dried up and the tax base shrank. Farm foreclosures meant fewer families and fewer kids, so schools were forced to close . The Main Street cafes and coffee shops — where farmers talked prices, the weather and politics — shut down as well.

As devastating as the 1980s were for farmers, today’s crisis is worse. Ineffective government subsidies and insurance programs are worthless in the face of plummeting prices and oversupply (and tariffs certainly aren’t helping). The current glut of organic milk has caused a 30 percent decrease in the price I was paid for my milk over the past two years. The new farm bill, signed by President Trump on Thursday, provides modest relief for larger dairy farmers (it expands some subsidies, and farmers will be able to pay lower premiums to participate in a federal program that offers compensation when milk prices drop below a certain level), but farmers don’t want subsidies; all we ever asked for were fair prices. So for many, this is little more than another PR stunt, and the loss of family farms will continue. This year, Wisconsin, where I live, had lost 382 dairy farms by August; last year, the number at the same point was 283. The despair is palpable; suicide is a fact of life, though many farm suicides are listed as accidents.

A farmer I knew for many years came home from town, folded his good clothes for the last time and killed himself. I saw no warning, though maybe others did.

When family farms go under, the people leave and the buildings are often abandoned, but the land remains, often sold to the nearest land baron. Hillsides and meadows that were once grasslands for pasturing cattle become acre upon acre of corn-soybean agriculture. Farming becomes a business where it used to be a way of life. With acreages so large, owners use pesticides and chemical fertilizers to ensure that the soil can hold an unsustainable rotation of plants upright, rather than caring for the soil as a living biotic community.

Those dairy farms that remain milk hundreds or thousands of cows, keeping them in huge barns and on concrete lots. The animals seldom, if ever, get the chance to set their hooves on what little grass is there. Pigs are raised indoors for their entire lives, never feeling the sun or rain or what it’s like to roll in mud.

All the machinery has become bigger, noisier, and some days it runs around the clock. Manure from the mega-farms is hauled for miles in huge tanker trucks or pumped through irrigation lines onto crop fields. The smell, the flies and the airborne pathogens that go with it have effectively done away with much of the peaceful countryside I used to know.

What kind of determination does it take for someone young and hopeful to begin a life of farming in times like these? Getting credit as a small farmer is more difficult today. As prices continue to fall, increasing production and farm size is often the only way to survive. But there is just too much — too much milk, too much grain, too much livestock — thanks to tightening export markets and declining domestic demand for dairy products. The situation is great for the processors who buy from the farmers, but it will never give the farmers a fair price.

With fewer farms, there are fewer foreclosures than in the 1980s. But watching your neighbor’s farm and possessions being auctioned off is no more pleasant today than it was 30 years ago. Seeing a farm family look on as their life’s work is sold off piece by piece; the cattle run through a corral, parading for the highest bid; tools, household goods and toys piled as “boxes of junk” and sold for a few dollars while the kids hide in the haymow crying — auctions are still too painful for me.

As I end my career as a farmer, I feel fortunate it lasted as long as it did. Some choices made long ago did keep me ahead of the curve, at least for a while. I always told people that 45 cows were enough for me, and being able to give them names rather than numbers and appreciate each one’s unique nature was important. I remember Adel, who always found her way across the pasture for a good head scratch, and Lara, whose sandpaper tongue always found my face as I milked her.

Cows like these didn’t fit into the “get big or get out ” theory of farming that took over during the 1980s, so over the years, we needed to get better ideas or get out. By switching to organic production and direct marketing, we managed to make a decent living. We also found that this method of farming required good environmental stewardship and direct involvement with our rural community. And, for almost 20 years, it worked.

But organic dairying has become a victim of its own success. It was profitable and thus fell victim to the “get big” model. Now, our business is dominated by large organic operations that are more factory than farm. It seems obvious that they simply cannot be following the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s strict organic production standards (like pasturing cattle), rules that we smaller farmers see as common sense.

Although small organic farms pioneered the concept, organic certification has become something not meant for us — and a label that mega-farms co-opted and used to break us. When six dairy farms in Texas feed their thousands of cows a diet of organic grain and stored forage, with no discernible access to a blade of grass, they end up producing more milk than all 453 organic dairy farms in Wisconsin combined. Then they ship it north, undercutting our price. We can’t make ends meet and are forced out of the business. We played by the rules, but we no longer have a level playing field.

Despite this, I hung on, but I couldn’t continue milking cows indefinitely. Perhaps it’s for the best. A few years before we sold our herd, we had to install huge fans in our barn — the summers were getting too hot for the cows to be out during the heat of the day. Climate change would have made our future in farming that much harder. We could have adapted, I think, but we ran out of time.

They say a farmer gets 40 chances. For 40 years, each spring brings another shot at getting it right, at succeeding or failing or something in between. If that were ever true, it isn’t now. That’s why, after my 40 chances, I’m done.

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It’s time to investigate corporate concentration in agriculture –

By: Anthony Pahnke Vice President of Family Farm Defenders and Assistant Professor of International Relations at San Francisco State University

Published in the CapTimes (Madison, WI) Thurs. Dec. 6th, 2018

The price tags at the grocery store, particularly for food items, hide a lot. Over the past couple decades, they have hidden from consumers the increasing concentration in nearly every facet of the food industry. It’s the least our current government can do, especially as President Trump claims to want to fix trade, to investigate and perhaps punish food-industry monopolists who negatively affect farmers who receive unfair prices for what they sell and consumers who pay too much for what they buy.

Farmers and consumers don’t have to go to China to get “ripped off.” No, unfair trade deals regularly occur within the United States.

Consider the dairy industry. For instance, in 2007 Dean Foods settled out of court with a group of dairy farmers who argues that he agribusiness processor sought to eliminate competition in the Southeast. In 2011, Dean was ordered by the Department of Justice to divest of a plant and other assets associated with its acquisition of the Golden Guernsey processing plant in Waukesha. The claim was that Dean’s share of the school milk market had become too large.

Meanwhile, the largest dairy cooperative in terms of sales, Dairy Farmers of America, has settled out of court with farmers and consumers on numerous occasions. DFA’s history of monopolistic behavior is long, including an agreement to to pay $50 million in a 2009 lawsuit for alleged price-fixing in the Northeast; a 2013 agreement to pay $158.6 million to settle a class action lawsuit for the same issue in a 14-state region stretching from the Midwest to the South; and, also in 2013, an agreement to pay $46 million for manipulating prices at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the financial market company that specializes in derivatives and options trading.

More recently, in 2016, Land O’Lakes acquiesced after five years of litigation to pay part of a $50 million lawsuit that also involved Dairy Farmers of America, Dairylea, and Agri-Mark for their collective attempt to control milk prices.

Why would a cooperative hurt its members? The answer: profits. How do some cooperatives and processors make money? Through gaining market share, which can grow by exploiting the difference between what is bought from farmers and then sold to retailers.

How could this happen in the dairy industry? Just look at many of these big corporate cooperatives, and you will find that they are not run by farmers. Yes, farmers are on the boards of both Land O’Lakes and DFA. But who are the CEOs? Who are the managers in charge of research, mergers and strategy? These people are not farmers, but individuals who are lawyers and corporate executives with decades of experience, not milking cows, but working with pharmaceutical companies like Novartis and food and drink companies such as Nestle.

Do consumers gain from the expansion of corporate control of the food chain? No. In 2012 Food and Water Watch issued a study noting how concentration in the pork, dairy, poultry and vegetable industries not only drives prices down for farmers, but also forces consumers to pay more than what they should for what they find on supermarket shelves. According to the National Farmers Union, farmers receive just $0.14 of every food dollar, with the vast majority of sales heading to marketing firms, retailers and processors.

Concentration in agriculture – not just in dairy, but also in seeds, poultry and beef – prompted a series of workshops in 2010 between the Department of Justice and the United States Department of Agriculture to discuss the nature of competition – or rather, the lack thereof – in agriculture. From Wisconsin and Colorado, to Alabama and Washington, D.C., government officials heard stories and collected testimony from farmers and consumers on the lack of market transparency, anticompetitive mergers, and bid-rigging (when buyers of agricultural commodities agree to limit competition by agreeing on prices). The report issued after the workshops helped clarify central elements in antitrust law, yet failed to provide a strategy for moving forward.

Now, during a time of record farm bankruptcies, is the time for the government to launch a serious, concerted investigation on food monopolies. Farmers and consumers are losing trade deal – not with the Chinese, but with the agribusiness industries that have become too powerful and too large.

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Family Farm Defenders Just “Say Cheese”Holiday Gift Boxes Are Back!

Family Farm Defenders is proud to once again offer many giftbox options you can send to your family and friends over the holiday season. We are excited to offer award-winning Cedar Grove Cheeses along with other delicious products – artisanal Potters crackers, Cherokee Farm bison sausage, organic Just Coffee, Honor the Earth wild rice, Honey Acres mustard, Tietz Family heirloom popcorn, and Driftless Organic sunflower oil – all of which are “fairly traded” and guarantee their smallscale producers a living wage. By choosing Family Farm Defenders Holiday Gift Boxes, you can help insure family farmers receive a parity price for their hardwork. So, this holiday season, why not just “say cheese” and help support Family Farm Defenders at the same time!

FFD-1 “Cream Puff” Special:

Three pounds of “creamy” Cedar Grove cheeses that will melt in your mouth: Farmers, Monterey Jack and Butterkäse. We’ve also included some Tietz Family heirloom popcorn, as well as Driftless Organic sunflower oil. Yummy! $50 total – includes shipping and handling.

FFD-2 “Spicy Cheese” Special:

Three pounds of “spicy” Cedar Grove cheeses that will tingle your tongue: tomato basil; pepper jack; and garlic dill. We’ve also included some Honey Acres hot mustard, as well as Potters artisanal crackers. Delicious! $50 total – includes shipping and handling.

FFD-3 Something Wild

Three pounds of pepper jack, swiss, and smoked cheddar from Cedar Grove Cheese, along with Honor the Earth wild rice, Cherokee Farms Bison Cranberry Summer Sausage and Potter’s artisanal crackers. A real crowd pleaser! $75 total – includes shipping and handling.

FFD-4 Breakfast Brunch

We’ve put lots of good stuff in this box to start off your day – three pounds of mild, medium, and sharp cheddar from Cedar Grove Cheese, Cherokee Farms bison cranberry summer sausage, organic French Roast Just Coffee, and some Potter’s artisanal crackers. MMM good! $75 total – includes shipping and handling.

Make Your Very Own Box!

Just give us a call (#608-260-0900) or email: familyfarmdefenders@yahoo.com if you would to customize your own box by mixing and matching whatever combination of items you wish. We are more than happy to accommodate your holiday gift giving!

You can download an order form here:  FFD2018HolidayGiftBoxOrderForm

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2018 Bellingham Declaration – US Food Sovereignty Alliance IV National Gathering Oct. 12th

The US Food Sovereignty Alliance (USFSA) held its IV National Assembly from October 12th thru 14th in Bellingham, Washington with the participation of 117 members, allies, and individuals from 71 organizations and 7 countries.  The theme “Defending Mother Earth for an Agroecological Life:  No Walls, No Capitalism” was enacted through art, drama, music, dance, organizing, debate, analysis, healthy locally-sourced food, and spirited “mística” ceremonies.

Anchored by the farmworker-led organization Community to Community Development (C2C), the assembly overflowed with a joyous, intelligent, and diverse rainbow of origins, identities, and organizers of all ages from various sectors of the food system, including farmworkers, food chain workers, fishers, family farmers, urban agriculturalists, food providers, and social justice advocates fighting for their livelihoods, freedom, and dignity through food sovereignty, and an end to patriarchal, capitalist, and colonial ways of thinking and acting.  Building on regional assemblies in the Northeast, the South, the Midwest and the West, the IV National Assembly vibrated with an expanding and deepening energy!

Challenged by the current political and ecological moment—characterized by the rise of right-wing, racist populism allied with neoliberal, corporate economics, coupled with massive impoverishment and oppression of peoples, and the threat of climate catastrophe—our motivation intensified.  Those assembled discussed and the Alliance’s national coordination proclaims the following solidarity positions of the USFSA:

* In solidarity with La Via Campesina, we call on the United States and other members states to support the Declaration of Peasants Rights being pushed forward at the U.N.  The struggle for Food Sovereignty depends on the protection of the rights of peasants and small- and medium-sized family farmers.

* We oppose the expansion of the H2A visa guest worker program, particularly when used as a means of displacing farmworkers organizing themselves into unions.  H2A workers tied to a single employer have not been able to unionize themselves, and are often subject to wage theft, extortion by labor contractors and foremen, and other abuses.  We denounce in the strongest terms efforts to expand and weaken existing safeguards and housing provisions in guest worker programs by establishing a proposed H2C visa, which would spread and intensify the defects of H2A to food processing industries.  We also support the boycott of Reynolds American Tobacco VUSE e-cigarettes until that corporation signs an agreement to guarantee the right to organize without retaliation to all farmworkers in the tobacco fields, whether H2A or undocumented.

* We denounce the actions of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in implementing the racist policies of mass detention and deportation, and stand in solidarity with immigrant and refugee peoples currently residing and working in the U.S.

* We add our collective voice to the Call to Protect Food Systems from Genetic Extinction Technology and call for a global moratorium on any release of engineered gene drives, which could contaminate ecological systems, species, and food webs with genetic traits designed to create species extinction.

We denounce proposals in the Farm Bill that would increase work requirements for SNAP eligibility, end the Double Up Bucks farmers market program, defund critical conservation programs, and reduce support for beginning and socially challenged farmer programs.

* We reject the King amendment in the House Farm Bill, which would give agribusinesses greater control and restrict state and local governments from regulating agricultural products, and could nullify the Food Sovereignty Ordinances passed in Maine, as well as laws that curb pesticide use, regulate farmworker safety, prevent cruel livestock practices, and label GMO foods.

* We call for an expansion of agroecological practices and the protection of our agroecological biodiversity in food, fiber, forest and aquatic systems across the planet, as one of the essential solutions to the climate catastrophes humanity faces.  We know that small farmers, family fishers and foresters all cool the planet.  Agroecology cools the planet!

* Lastly, the USFSA stands in solidarity with our global allies, particularly members of La Via Campesina, suffering the overthrow or threat of overthrow of popular, democratic governments.  Whether in Honduras, Paraguay, Colombia, Brazil, Nicaragua, Venezuela or elsewhere, these “soft coups” are a threat to democratic processes and to food sovereignty everywhere.

The IV Assembly debated and affirmed the formation of the following national Collectives:  Political Education, Agroecology: Land and Water, Narrative Strategy, International Relationships, and Youth.   These collectives together with the regional bodies will carry forward the work of USFSA, coordinated by representatives from grassroots organizations from the regions, with the help of grassroots support organizers.

With our collective strength, we shout “No!” to injustices in the food system everywhere and “Yes!” to the people rising up to radically transform unjust systems and practices, for the betterment and survival of humanity and defense of Mother Earth.   And to the inspiring sister movements across the planet working for food sovereignty, we sing out a resounding ¡VIVA!  WE STAND WITH YOU!  WE ARE PART OF YOU! 

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Farmers are Hurting, but Don’t Blame Mother Nature

Current farm policy sacrifices stewardship on the altar of profitability.

By: Jim Goodman and Anthony Pahnke (FFD board members)

The Progressive, September 25, 2018

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