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Connecting the Dots

March 31, 2011

This is a re-post from the blog of Chronicle Books, the publisher of Farm Together Now:

Connecting the Dots from Wisconsin, Milk Prices and Farm Together Now
Daniel Tucker

(Wisconsin Tractorcade Photo by Lauren Cumbia)

Last week I went to Wisconsin to show my support to the workers and residents who are trying to keep their right to unionize and dispute the influence of corporate money in influencing elections. I also went to check out Tractorade organized by Family Farm Defenders, an organization featured in the book I recently co-authored: Farm Together Now: A Portrait of People, Places and Ideas for a New Food Movement. Seeing the participation of Wisconsin farmers in the rally in Madison symbolized to me the kind of intersections of concerns that I encountered back in the summer of 2009 when Amy, Anne and I traveled the country working on our book. Interviewing people from Santa Cruz to Atlanta for Farm Together Now confirmed for me that the “food movement” so many of us are talking about is nothing if it doesn’t connect the dots to other parts of life. Food is a lens through which we can talk to all sorts of people about the economy, personal health, workers rights and sustainable care for the earth’s resources.

In Wisconsin I saw Joel Greeno, one of the farmers featured in our book. As usual Joel was coordinating a meeting or discussing what happened at the day’s action on his phone. When we first met in 2009, Joel was protesting the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the influence that their financial market has on food prices around the world – especially dairy farmers like him and his Family Farm Defender friends. They were making connections between their small town in Wisconsin, food riots in Middle East and Africa, the financial crisis, and food prices at the grocery store. There is no profession that can help us make the links in our human ecology clearer than the farmer.

Presented here is an excerpt of the interview that I did with Joel for Farm Together Now as a way to honor the fight they find themselves in today. Please check out Family Farm Defenders report on Tractorade and support your local farmer as they connect the dots.

Greeno Acres
Kendall, Wisconsin

Organizing body: 1
Scale: 160 acres of pasture
Type: for profit
Key crops: raw milk
In operation: since 1993

Third-generation Wisconsin dairy farmer Joel Greeno has been farming for more than fifteen years and is the current president of the American Raw Milk Producers Pricing Association (ARMPPA), an organization of dairy farmers dedicated to establishing a raw milk price that returns to dairy producers their cost of production plus a profit.

Greeno is also the vice president of Family Farm Defenders, the founder of the Scenic Central Milk Producers Cooperative, and serves on the executive committee of the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC) as a representative of ARMPPA. NFFC is the U.S. branch of La Via Campesina, the largest farmer organization in the world. These folks make translocal connections between their Wisconsin life and peasant farmers all over the world, often traveling to farmer summits in Europe and Latin America.

Greeno participates in protests and advocacy for farmers’ rights while maintaining a head of forty dairy cows. On top of it all, he steals time to participate in tractor pulls with his friends on the weekends.

Interview with Joel Greeno

Did you grow up on a dairy farm?
Joel Greeno, founder: Oh, yeah. I’ve been milking cows since I was ten years old. But ever since I could walk I was in the barn, doing chores of some kind, or feeding cows or calves. During harvest season, I was bailing hay and unloading hay and mowing hay. I spent all summer putting it up and all winter feeding it up. I bought this place in 1990 and then brought cattle here in ’93. Been farming here ever since.

Could you say a little bit about the land and the context here?
There are a lot of traditional family farms here, and a lot of these farmers pasture one single lot that’s used continuously throughout the summer. But I do rotational grazing, whereby you rotate the cow every few days throughout individual managed paddocks. This way, there isn’t as much fuel going through tractors and equipment, and I cut down on fossil fuel too by not using commercial fertilizers. I’m probably looked at as the oddball because of that.

What motivated you to attend your first meeting around farmer activist work?
In October 1996, “Black Friday” happened: Farmers’ milk prices dropped six dollars a hundredweight over a two-month period—almost a 30 percent drop at the time. It left all farmers in an income crunch, struggling to pay bills. People’s parents were getting put out of business. I began to wonder, “Why?”

In February ’97, I was invited to a meeting of the American Raw Milk Producers Pricing Association. I met John Kinsman, Francis Goodman, and others; joined the organization; and eighteen months later I became president.

What led you to establish the Scenic Central Milk Producers Cooperative?
I recruited a group of farmers who’d agreed to be the interim directors of the co-op, and they filed the articles of incorporation. We were naive to think we could have a co-op up and running in a month or two—we ended up fighting state of Wisconsin red tape for ten months to obtain all of our permits and inspections.

In ten years’ time, we were able to grow from the smallest co-op in the United States to the fortieth largest in the country. We’re very successful in what we do: marketing farmers’ milk, paying top prices, providing excellent services, providing retirement plans in the form of Roth IRAs, Christmas bonuses . . . things to benefit farmers.

What inspired you to join so many organizations and coalitions?
Meeting John Kinsman and also becoming a member of the American Raw Milk Producers (ARMPPA)—and eventually becoming the vice president. Through that organization and Family Farm Defenders, we look at the whole picture; we know we’re not going to fix the milk situation by just dealing with milk. Everything is interwoven, and in order to save dairy farmers, we have to look at all farmers and take on the actions to protect all farmers, whether they are milking cows, organic or conventional, or raising corn and beans.

That’s the nice part of the National Family Farm Coalition: You have a wide range of almost forty farm organizations coming together under a common banner, sharing their problems, and supporting each other. Through the NFFC, we found that contract poultry growers were some of the earliest hit by corporate agriculture, in that you owned a farm but basically owned nothing else. The big corporations would come and say, “We’ll build you facilities, we’ll provide you with feed, we’ll provide you with chickens, you raise those chickens, and then you sell those chickens to us, and this is how much you will make.” But they don’t tell you that if one bird dies, you have to pay for it. Then it went to hogs, then cattle, and dairy was last.

How do commodity brokers and financial spectators affect the price that you get for milk?
There is near direct correlation between what farmers get paid for raw milk and the forty-pound cheddar price on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, where agricultural commodities are bought, traded, and sold. That cheese market is not supposed to have any impact on my milk market. There is lots of talk that “it’s supply and demand,” but if you take a milk supply line and put it on a graph, and put the dairy farmers’ pay price on that same graph, you have a slow, steady, 1.4 average increase per year in milk production, and farmers’ pay price looks like a heart monitor. There is no correlation.

You basically have a triangle of three that control every aspect of the dairy industry: Kraft Foods, which controls 40 percent of the cheese market; Dean Foods, which controls 40 percent of the fluid market; and Grassland Dairy Products in butter. Each has their turf, and nobody interferes on their turf.

What impact has international networking had on you?
National Family Farm Coalition is affiliated with the international network of La Via Campesina. It makes me feel a little stronger knowing that I have people in other countries who support me, who are fighting the same fight, and, in a lot of cases, we are fighting a common enemy: multinational, transnational companies that are using each country’s unique situation to basically control markets worldwide. We are exposing that by all working altogether.

Those of us who organize here have been extremely impressed with the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), the landless peasant workers movement in Brazil, and with just how committed they are to the movement. They face being killed, at gunpoint, and still continue the movement even under the worst odds, the worst conditions. They make you hope to someday have that level of commitment. MST has done so much more with less. We need to step it up here. There’s some of us who joke that organizing farmers is kind of like herding cats or trying to keep frogs in a wheelbarrow: You put three in and two escape.

In what ways would you like to see progressive land reform happen in the United States?
Well, it’s always been a good thing that farmers have owned land, but today, most of the land isn’t owned by the people farming it. It’s rented land bought out by companies and real estate brokers and developers. That kind of removes the personal touch, meaning you don’t have the respect for that land as if it were your own. And it tends to lead to management decisions that aren’t in the best interest of food concerns or quality of food—you get into the issues of genetically modified crops, soybeans, and even into the issue of patenting life. Does Monsanto have the right to say, “We now own corn”? Is that right?

How can different sectors of agriculture, and specifically dairy, strike a balance between large- and small-scale operations that work?
Dairy Farmers of America is so big and powerful that it’s able to control markets, cheat markets, and even break the law. You get to be so big that you’re not really held accountable. Our plan with ARMPPA is to have a series of small-run co-ops that work for a select group of farmers and work together through marketing agencies in common (MACs, see page 186). We try to complement and protect one another, not be the big bully on the block. We do everything by cooperation and in the best interest of the farmer and the consumer. We keep things balanced to avoid creating an environment where you benefit by an upswing or a downswing.

Where would you like to see farmers in five years?
I’d like to see more family farms on the land. I’d like to see farmers working together better. Wisconsin used to be covered with successful, small, family cheese operations. We don’t need extreme consolidation in the marketplace; we don’t need plant closures; we don’t need central, larger facilities, because more, smaller facilities will employ more people over a greater area.

Corporate agriculture is not in it for quality. They’re not looking out for the consumer or the farmer; they’re just in it to make money, pure and simple.

People need to recognize the fact that there are only four sources of the world’s raw material: agriculture, forestry, aquaculture, and mining. Agriculture is 70 percent of all raw material. Farmers are absolutely vital, because it’s kind of hard to eat oil or trees; fish is okay, but there is only so much. No matter what, everybody’s got to eat every day or our days are numbered. That’s it in a nutshell.

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