John Kinsman of Family Farm Defenders
Last fall I interviewed John Kinsman of the Family Farm Defenders in a live talk-show type format at the Jane Addams Hull House Museum (check out the video here). The interview is posted below and the booklet made of that interview along with other articles by and about John that I produced for FFD to use as a fundraiser is available here for download: kinsman booklet-final-singlepage-web. Thanks to Irina Contreras for the transcription.
John Kinsman Interview Conducted live by Daniel Tucker at the
Jane Addams Hull House Museum (Chicago, IL)
September 27th, 2011
Daniel Tucker (DT): Your parents farmed during the Great Depression. You have said it was easier for farmers then than it is for farmers now. Why is that?
John Kinsman (JK): At that time, we were diversified farmers. We had cows, pigs and chickens. We raised wheat, oats and barley. And when we didn’t have enough money to buy wonderful white bread, sliced white bread, my god we had to eat wheat bread, we took it to the mill and ground it, hated it and now we love it. And we are looking for it all over. So that is part of how we lived but it was not a problem. And it was a leisurely life, believe it or not. We never worked on Sunday. Nobody in the family had to work out [off farm] to support the farm. A farm now is almost a hobby for some people. The man and the woman have to get a job to support their hobby. My parents were able to go to the world’s fair Chicago in 1933 and this is during the Depression. And I remember my grandmother came and took care of us. I forgot how old I was but not old enough to run the farm. And they did that, my grandparents went to California. And I have a picture of that, my grandma with goggles on, she and Grandpa went on a flight in an open cockpit plane in California and so on. Well, anyway it was a more leisurely time. We ate berries everyday so we picked berries. Wild berries and a few tame ones. I remember the gooseberries especially because they were prickly. And my mother canned them. And now we know that berries are very healthy. But, we had berries for almost twice a day and we ate them fresh or canned. And so, it was a good life in spite of the so-called Depression.
DT: You’ve said that you agree with a recent UN report saying “supporting low carbon and resource preserving small holder farms” is the only kind of agriculture that will cool the planet – in reference to global warming. You have farmed organically since the 60’s but you didn’t always. Can you talk about your transition to organic farming and what you have learned from this approach to agriculture?
JK: Certainly. The UW Madison, the College of Agriculture was the best friend of my father and myself. And as time went on, it was like things were changing. We were getting into technology that we had questions about but we thought we had to do it. You know the story of the frog? You put the frog in water and you turn up the heat a little bit and a little bit more and pretty soon the frog is boiled and it doesn’t even jump out. And this happened to us. And I started using herbicides thinking “well, this will save me a lot of time”. And I ended up in the University Hospital with some serious burns. They would never say what it was because of the research going on. But the doctors said, “What’s your name? What’s your occupation?” “Farmer.” “When was the last time you used herbicides or pesticides?” And the same with the med students who examined me. Same thing, exactly. So I knew what it was and yet there wasn’t ever anything in the records that said what it was.
DT: And these were herbicides that they had given you? Is that right?
JK: This was what they promoted at the University and then we started looking…and I became organic overnight. That was almost 50 years ago. And I was in that direction but we were led away from it by the research. We didn’t know that these chemical companies were funding the research and the rest so we did a FOIA search one time and found out a lot of things . . .
DT: So can you say a little bit more, just give us a sense of what your farm is like and what your farming practices are like?
JK: My passion is tree planting and farming. Because I am a sustainable tree farmer and my family have planted over a 100,000 trees, but we have no place to plant anymore because every inch that there could be planted a tree is planted already. So, it’s just a joy to see what that does to the environment and becomes the most valuable part of what could have been cleared and so on. That’s part of it. What was the rest of the question?
DT: And tell us a little bit about your dairy operation.
JK: Okay. We have 36 cows; maintain that number and it’s an intensive rotational grazing. My cows get fresh pasture, green grass and clover every 12 hours. And if they don’t get it, they complain. So, but they spread the manure, they spread the fertilizer and they carry the milk in and they carry the fertilizer out. So we have a very low carbon footprint. Many farmers, especially the factory farms think I am not a farmer. In fact, the UW College of Agriculture doesn’t consider me a farmer because I am not running the tractor 12/14 hours a day. But, my cows are doing their work. And that’s where the cheese you will have today and so on. It came from my cows.
DT: I want to step back a little bit in history and talk about some of your civil rights and anti-racist activism throughout the US and in Wisconsin, in particular. Project Self Help and Awareness or PSA is a 40-year-old organization that you became involved in very early on and played a lead role in. You coordinated other white Wisconsin families to host a visiting… hundreds of visiting Black children and teenagers from Mississippi for 3 weeks every summer. And this in an ongoing program. Can you tell us a little about the motivation behind these exchanges, this exchange program and how it related to the Civil Rights Movement?
JK: It was actually 45 years ago. And, a Black woman, Eula Washington who hosted this man, Malcolm Gissen, who was a University student and was one of the freedom riders, and she said “now we can’t end this here. We have to continue in some way because this is the first time my children have ever had a good relationship with white people”. And so, they then patched this plan that was excellent and after about…we were in the 2nd year, and after that it became so difficult, he turned it all over to me. And so it was very difficult. We did 12 round trips with an old school bus that we refurbished to bring these children matched with coordinators in Wisconsin matched with coordinators in Mississippi to give them an experience that would raise their self-esteem. That was the whole part of it was to make them feel good about themselves and to not be a hand out. It was solidarity. It was a way to make them feel that they were equal; they could do anything they wanted. And the poverty was so great the first time I was there. I stayed in a home in Carroll County in the hills. Part of the house had a dirt floor. There weren’t no…no electricity. And this was typical of many of the rural people. And so I learned a lot. I cried a lot too. But you don’t make friends by crying so…they would say why are you laughing? You wanna see me cry? So, it was tremendous. So, these 12 round trips would bring these children up we started taking adults down and college students to do Headstart work and just to immerse themselves. That’s the only way. You can’t explain it of how great it is. I could see the courage and joy that the most poverty stricken state in the union and some of the most poverty stricken counties and some of them still are to see all of these people and celebrate and make you feel good.
DT: You told me a story about how this was kinda transformative for you and an exchange you had with a woman named Rosie, Rosie May Hosey I think her name is. What did Rosie say to you?
JK: Rosie was one of the people that her children came to Wisconsin. She lived a very tough life. Just an example, one of my neighbors hosted her children and so she went and stayed with Rosie for two days. And for breakfast, Rosie borrowed a hot plate from a neighbor and warmed up some fat back. And then for the noon lunch, they went to a local Juniors convenience store and divided a bag of Cheetos. Anyways, Rosie was always a happy person. And just a great person to be with. Wisconsin Public Television interviewed Rosie and I saw the documentary film. And in it, he asked Rosie questions.
“Who are the white people that you got to know?”
She went on and named a few.
“And then there was John Kinsman, naw but he is one of us”.
I will never forget that. That was one of the greatest compliments I have ever had.
DT: Yea, that’s great. When we talked on the phone, you were telling me a little about your ancestry and saying that your ancestors were settlers. And that that was something you were critical about. And since you have done work in Wisconsin to defend Native land and farm sovereignty. Can you give us an example of these experiences?
JK: My great grandparents came by covered wagon and oxen from the East. And they settled. But when I think about it now, there were people there. They were settlers and that’s not the way it is supposed to be. And, they took the land. The Native people, now and all over the world are…Landgrabbing is going on. And that was landgrabbing also but it was not named that. And of course, there were savages. In my grandmother’s diary, she and her younger sister who was Jeanette. She was 16 and my grandmother had just married, she was probably 20 or 21. They were going from one area to another and a band of Indians had moved in. And they went down to talk to them twice. They had no fear of these savages, so called. It was interesting. But, they were still settlers.
DT: And what were some of the exchanges or activism you had around Native land in Wisconsin?
JK: Well, we The Crandon Mine was a big mine about ten years ago proposed by Exxon in Native land in northern Wisconsin. And it would have destroyed their wild rice beds, headwaters of a beautiful river that went through the reservation. It was very destructive so we did a, a sort of a hearing. And I represented farmers of North America. The rest of them didn’t know it but eh…we had Native people, indigenous people from South America where they had a history of mines and all the way into the Southwest. This was on a reservation in northern Wisconsin and all the way to Canada, up to Alaska. Everytime, it was a path of destruction. They did not hire local people. They brought in people. They did not clean up. They just destroyed the community. There was prostitution. There were drugs. There was everything going on after they left. And there is another one we are fighting right now at the headwaters of another river, the Bad River that is on the Bad River Reservation. So, it’s never-ending.
I am going to repeat this. The price of justice is eternal vigilance. And justice is just us. And so it’s something we have to think about. And there will never be peace unless there is justice. So Winona La Duke…Do you know the name? Winona ran for vice president under Ralph Nader at one time. She is a very good friend of the John Peck and myself and the Family Farm Defenders and she invited us to have our annual meeting on the White Oak reservation and it was tremendous. Tremendous to just be able to sit down with the people and help, exchange and do solidarity and do the battles with people.
DT: And there is something else I am wondering . . .You mentioned Family Farm Defenders. I wanna jump off from Wisconsin and talk more about global work that you have done. In 1994, you were part of a group that started Family Farm Defenders. And through that group and the National Family Farm Coalition which is an umbrella coalition, you built international solidarity through another larger international network called Via Campesina, the international network of peasant farmers. And you have started to call yourself a “peasant farmer” and refer to yourself in those terms that Via Campesina has proposed. So I want to ask you about one of the groups that you have interacted with through these travels and that’s the Landless Workers Movement or the MST in Brazil. You have been to Brazil several times, met these organizers in other countries throughout the world. Can you tell me a little bit about your experiences with MST and how they influenced you?
JK: They are a group of people that in Brazil that went through bloodshed to occupy un-used land that big landowners in Brazil took over and most of what was stolen from indigenous people, through landgrabbing. And it lay idle. And they had so many privileges that they did not produce anything. So these people simply took over and settled on their own land actually. They were so well organized in what they did over the time that they found they were recognized by the government after they went through a year and a half of living in a plastic camp with only dirt for floor.
They’re impressive…The water was hauled in…that was another thing that always sticks in my mind. It was hot. It was under the trees and a man came out and set a chair under the tree and brought me a glass of lukewarm water. It was like giving a million dollars because that was all he had to offer. But, it was so grand to see that. And then we went to where they had built up the communities. Beautiful community centers. Everyone had a plot of land. There was a nice house. They had animals. It was diversified. And they are doing so well that now it’s moving, I think 300,000 people have been re-settled onto their land and are productive, producing food that the country needed. And now they are going into Africa with the same model.
Via Campesina members have visited us many times [in Wisconsin]. And so we have organized tours of our farms and local entrepreneurs and things that work and some things that don’t work. They have been a big inspiration but I have to say that it started with the Bovine Growth Hormone. How many are aware of the Bovine Growth Hormone? The first genetically engineered product to enter the food chain. Well, it came to us 30, no 27 years ago in the University of Wisconsin had a gathering of scientists and telling us that farmers are not smart enough to understand it. That’s a mistake. Some of em’ aren’t but most of em’ are.
So we could not get attention from the press, because one half of all the dairy products sold even in the University of Wisconsin cafeteria, even in their hospital came from that experimental herd. And the people did not know it. And we could not get press. And so, I had been to all these protests in civil rights era in Mississippi and so I made this crude sign that said “Are you aware that you are all guinea pigs or a product?” And I had handouts that were pretty crude at first and stood in front of the Memorial Union, the biggest concentration of students and faculty and staff. And immediately, we had international attention. There were cameras all over because of this information and the fact that we were standing up to it.
And so within six months, I was invited on a ten month, ten day tour of Europe and speak on this because at the same time the people, the farmers, they had decided not to allow it in Europe. And they said it was so exciting [for them] to see the farmers marching on the university. I said, “Here I am”. All these students and all these other people and this big crowd [gathered on the tour]. And so, sometime if you don’t even know what you are doing, it works. And so, that’s how that got going. And National Family Farm Coalition did not accept it till Family Farm Defenders and myself had to practically drag them kicking and screaming to accept that you need to fight these things and look at what they are doing and who is paying for it? All the money and so that is the way it went.
DT: And just to clear up the names one more time for everyone, Via Campesina is the name of the international network. And that’s how John ended up in Brazil and Europe through this international network of peasant farmers. And the National Family Farm Coalition is the US representatives or chapter of Via Campesina. And they are based in DC. And that is something that John Kinsman has been deeply involved with, networking on a national level. And Family Farm Defenders is the group that John works most consistently with on a regular basis and they are based in Madison, Wisconsin.
And so through National Family Farm Coalition and Family Farm Defenders, you have done a lot. So you have done a lot of building with people on a national scale. A lot of the direct organizing and solidarity you have done has been on the scale of the US. You have sent farm equipment to farmers in the south after Hurricane Katrina. Most recently, you have been working on sending hay to farmers who have been experiencing drought in Oklahoma and Texas. And so I just want you to say a little bit about your decision to do this kind of direct service and direct action on the national scale. And any thoughts you have about food policy and what we can do here in the United States, on the turf that we exist on?
JK: Family Farm Defenders became international like I say overnight because people, we had a message that was international because we could see the connections always. I have been to every continent except Antarctica. And these people paid my way and often, John Peck’s way to go these international meetings. I was part of Via Campesina when it was being formed. I have worked with these people for 26, 27 years.
As far as locally just as an example. . .so I started, well myself and my daughter and a few others working locally around food. That was a common denominator: everybody ate food. Otherwise, it just didn’t work, it seemed like. And so we got to four local churches that were in a cluster. They had a “peace and justice committees” and the biggest thing they could do was a bake sale. They didn’t know what else to do. So, we just went on with that. And I was able to show them the “seven principals of food sovereignty”, which included “justice for workers”, which “organics” does not include. We have formed the fair trade neighborhood…so after these meetings with our local people, the Amish people were a tremendous part of it. And others, we would come home from the meeting and our heads were moving so fast at night, and we can’t sleep at night. But, this is really working. We are doing a lot of local foods; we did a community meal, last Sunday, in the community. It’s the biggest crowds we ever get. Monthly meals that we do maybe three or four times a year. All local.
DT: And recently you had a chance to go to Iowa and you bumped into um, our buddy President Obama and had a chance to talk to him. What happened in Iowa?
JK: This was the “rural economic summit and listening session” about two months ago. And we were [only] able to get another farmer Joel Greeno and I tickets because there were less than 100 people and half the staff of Obama. And somehow, I had a seat in the front, in the middle and Obama’s right there. I don’t know how I got that seat but we had fine seats…maybe he thought I should listen. It was good. They did campaign like we expected, a little bit and then they divided us into workshops sort of and different staff people like secretary of agriculture, secretary of transportation. I was in the one with Ray Lahood, Secretary of Transportation.
DT: So what did you say to Ray Lahood?
JK: So, I got his attention and I said, “I lived through the Great Depression. That was not as bad as this is.” And I told him some of the things I am telling you. And I told him I had lived through a number of these economic problems, downturns and emergencies. And I said they are all politically motivated. It’s big companies buying the government. . . I also [criticized] the FTA, the Free Trade Agreement you know they are trying to [start] in Korea, Panama and Bolivia and now Columbia. I was invited to South Korea three months ago. And so I could say [to Ray Lahood that] ‘I was in South Korea two months ago talking to these people. It’s going to put 40% of their farms off the land. Don’t you think it’s better that we work to cooperate instead of trying to compete? We’re competing with the whole world. How can we compete with China and India? And I know people from India. . . [like]Vandana Shiva, you know her? She says “we were self sufficient, and our population was stable before colonization”. And she said these free trade agreements are another form of colonization’.
So I asked the whole group, “isn’t it more important to make friends than to try and compete for the lowest”? And that’s what they do. It’s a race to the bottom in prices, wages and environmental degradation. And so, with a big silence. [But] I can take as much time as I want to cuz I have lived through all the things I was talking about. And there was more of course. And so they didn’t know quite how to stop me. It changed the way this whole conversation went. A woman, a lesser staff person, a Black person said, “my father’s farm is being is in danger of being lost”. [There was] Silence.
And then the Future Farmers of America were invited, the officers of three or four states because that looked good, to have FFA. And so, I was sitting next to one and I talked to him while we ate and then [someone called on him to speak] and he said, “I want to farm but I can’t because the prices are so low and the conditions are or the expenses are so high”. And he said, “Not one person in my FFA chapter is going to farm”. Of course they didn’t want to hear that. Then the guy next to me spoke out. He says, “My passion is farming. I want to farm. But, I can’t.” Not only I can’t but I am going to have to move out of the community. And they didn’t want to hear that either. So, there was a lot of good testimony.
Meanwhile, my friend Joel was in another extension where Obama came in and he gave him the whole thing. . . Joel just gave him everything. And Obama stayed there too long. Joel wouldn’t let him go. And the secretary of agriculture [Tom Vilsack] was there and Joel said, “Do you know me?” He said, “I sure do”. And he took a long detour around me that day too. We confirmed that.
DT: What you said about emphasizing cooperation over competition is pretty essential especially as you are describing the entire disillusion of the farms across the US and the farms across the world. I wonder what note you would like to end on?
JK: So what I am saying is what counts is local foods…if we all demand to know where our food comes from, if you can’t find your farmer that’s producing and know them personally…at least question where your food comes from. And we want to change policies. One woman is on our executive board, an urban woman [from Milwaukee] and they did. She asked about where does her milk or cheese come from [and if the] cows were injected with Bovine Growth Hormone. Well, the grocers don’t know. She says well, I’m sorry we will just have to go somewhere else and buy our groceries. No, no, no, come back. And so, they came back in a couple of weeks and they changed their policy. It took two people to ask that.
I will just repeat the price of justice is internal vigilance and there will be no peace without justice. And John Peck and I have both received awards because of what we are doing and we never talked about peace but it is this kind of thing that will bring peace. You are all part of it. And you can all make a difference. It only takes one or two to rattle the whole cage. Thank you.