by Marion Nestle
Aug 8 2012

Question for today: how should we support mid-size dairy farms?

My “thought for a summer weekend” post elicited interesting comments.

Let’s start with the one from FarmerJane, a mid-size dairy farmer who is a frequent contributor.

She asks: How can farmers and consumers find ways to dialog and share information?

She says (and I’m doing some heavy editing here, with her permission):

Thoughts about ag are dominated by a few powerful big media writers.  When we farmers try to speak, we find ourselves excoriated….Rural America does not seem to have any sort of spokesperson who has access to national media.  The issues are framed by a handful of urban food-elite writing whose thoughts then trickle down to how rural farmers are perceived…I think the inclusion of farmers in food dialog would bring a multidisciplinary approach to the issue of food:  environment, ag economics, animal welfare, food systems to name a few. But what are the ways this could happen?

I feel that we, the average farmer of the middle are being marginalized.

I asked: What would you like to see done for farmers like you, neither CAFO, nor small.  She had several suggestions, which I summarize here mostly in my words (hers are in quotes):

Fix milk marketing orders and “end-product” pricing.  Right now, prices are paid to farmers according to the use of the milk.  From high prices to low: Class I (fluid milk), Class II (yogurt), Class III (cheese), Class IV(butter/powder).  If the push is to turn milk into yogurt, cheese, or butter, dairy farmers don’t get paid as much.

Encourage local production.  “The eastern half of the country is actually in “milk deficit” of about 3.2 billion pounds per month, while the western half is pushing the milk out like there is no tomorrow…Farmers in the western part of the country are calling for supply management to rein in some of this rapid growth, while we here in the east are generally opposed to it.”

Make pricing more transparent.  “Farmers don’t know instantly what dairy prices are (hopefully this will change as farmers have pushed hard on this issue to come out of the Stone Age).”

Cap supports on CAFOs.  “Some of the major NY CAFO’s got millions in terms of ‘corn subsidies’ in addition to dairy payments.”

Support mid-size dairy herds: The trigger point at which a farm becomes a CAFO in NY is only 200 cows.  Extension estimates that meeting CAFO requirements at this limit keeps farmers at 199 cows because the compliance cost is something like $162,000.

Reregionalize dairy processing: “meaning more processors in NY who can compete for the farmers’ milk….The more competition for milk the better, especially from a number of smaller processors that farmers and smaller coops can negotiate with.”

Deal with anti-competitive forces. Large dairies are engaged in market collusion and this hurts smaller dairies.  “ Massive retail level buyer consolidation is another issue… Walmart has the power to drive down farmer prices in all dairy categories… The more we can do to break the Walmart grip, the better off we all will be.”

Look at the trends.  “ I know that NY has gone from 30,000,000 acres of farmland when we were kids, to just 7,000,000 today.  There are some 3,000,000 acres of abandoned grazing farmlands Upstate, with empty barns as far as one can see in some areas.  And, I see an increasing number of huge CAFO’s with all-immigrant work forces who send every penny home, cows that never go outdoors, and emptied out Main Streets up here….I wonder how it could possibly make sense not to encourage farms of all kinds, especially making use of the grasslands that are close to NYC.”

Her overall question: “How does one move these questions into the public realm for intelligent discussion?

Senator Gillibrand has made it her business to understand dairy policies as they affect New York State.  For anyone who has ever tried to understand milk marketing orders, that’s an achievement (see below).

Responses?  Any good ideas for FarmerJane?

  • Peanut gallery

    How about programs to help dairy farmers diversify into other products? For example, if we’re going to come closer to meeting Dietary Guidelines, we need a lot more vegetables grown in this nation, don’t we? And arguably we need less dairy overall.

    Programs like these seem to have helped tobacco farmers find new opportunities.

  • I agree completely with all of these criticisms and offered solutions. Here in the UK, small to medium dairy farms are facing bankruptcy thanks to the way prices are being fixed by some of the supermarkets and middlemen. See my video report here:

  • Lostartist

    If the farmers where to cooperate as a unity, with its own brand. It would be easier to connect with the people. Good quality milk is not easy access. But you have the quality to push for another type of category. Premium milk should be its own category. Ecologic has gotten the common view as “too expensive”, while premium tells you exactly what you get. Where the focus is on non human growth hormone and better life quality for animals.

    You should actually check out the system in Norway. Here they have “bondelaget” a unity of the farmers that makes it possible to get compesation for bad harvest and better prices for the milk. We never see a decline in the price, but it rices with the GDP

  • Jasper Teal

    I feel bad for Farmer Jane that she’s mired in a highly regulated and constrained trade. But I doubt her current approach will gain her much interest or sympathy from consumers. First of all, there’s the all the vague language about “urban elites”, “marginilization”, and “multidisciplinary approaches”. And then her actual suggestions are obscure tweakings of byzantine agricultural regulations, regarding farm sizes, 4 classes of milk product, and complicated subsidy systems.

    To be blunt: who cares? Why should I interest myself in shifting the balance of pork from one region or type of farmer to another? Please just get the government out of centrally controlling agriculture, just have it enforce basic trade and safety rules, and then let farmers of all types and sizes just make and sell their product!

  • Anna

    As someone who works in the dairy industry I have four comments –
    1 – if you want to break the hold the large entities have, my opinion is that you have to be willing to walk away from the major cooperative organizations out there that run the show but they’re also going to make some aspects of your life a whole lot easier. Cooperatives are a great way to enhance your marketing abilities and also increase the reporting flexibitlity that you have within the Market Orders – and all farms have the options of forming cooperatives outside of those large players. There are opportunities for small farms to come out better when they form cooperatives and market their milk together. As for breaking Wal-Mart’s grip – people vote with their dollars. People have to stop shopping there if their buying power is going to be limited in any way.
    2 – I agree that milk pricing can be horribly hard to understand but there are terrific resources out there to help with forecasting. One of the things that we see frequently is that many dairy farmers don’t know how to read their checks. You need to be able to check your butterfat percentage and go online and make sure that the pricing factor figured on your check is the true number. People need to be accountable for making sure they’re getting paid what they think they are. Check that the prices on your checks at the end of the month are the announced prices. When evaluating new agreements know that, in some cases, your hauling cost comes out of that great looking premium you were just offered. When comparing premiums you really need to look and see if someone is taking out hauling costs, figuring in capital retention, having you cover your lab costs, already deducting your government mandated $.15/cwt advertising and promition when they quote your price over the blend, etc. We see a lot of quality bonuses that make someone feel like they’re getting a steller payment when their deductions offset a large portion (or all) of that.
    3 – I keep hearing people say that we need to push away from end product pricing and, while I won’t disagree, I have to ask – what are the other options? The pricing system is set up the way it is so that, whether your milk goes into fluid product or is processed into cheese, that you get paid as much as the dairy down the road as a base. Alterations make that rather more difficult to manage. It’s difficult to keep a dairy farm running if a farm’s milk is going to a cheese plant and they’re getting paid considerably less because they didn’t happen to get a contract with the bottling plant in the next county. But if those farms close, you may be fine for the spring but when you get to the fall and the push is on for school milk, you simply don’t have enough supply. This dairy industry is dealing with a product with very limited storage/shelf-life and volumes that fluctuate throughout the year. I’m not saying the resulting ills are “necessary” but they’re certainly there for a reason. You’re going to get that lower cost when the push is to milk or yogurt but that’s what gaurantees the supply of bottled milk when the raw supply is low – it’s also why blend prices and PPD’s exist to make sure that the farms all have a similar base price.
    4 – adding competition can be great but it seems to me that the benefit would be limited – the system is built to support Class I (fluid milk) needs and insure an adequate supply year round. People within a market area aren’t going to drink more milk no matter how many bottling plants you have – it will only reduce the volume each plant needs to process to meet the usage (ie how much milk people drink) in an area. A bottling plant can’t promise a better premium to a farm if it can’t get that price at the supermarket.

  • After being involved in dairy issues for about 25 years, my thoughts..
    First, pricing. Farmers should know the price they are paid when their milk leaves the farm. Learning what you will get paid for something delivered 30 days ago makes absolutely no sense and it should end. I cannot think of another economic unit that is paid that way.
    Second, end the different classes of milk — milk is milk when it leaves the farm, that is what farmers should get paid for. If the milk is used for cheese or ice cream or other value-added products, that should be a premium, not a cheaper class.
    Third, anti-trust laws are not enforced. The CME (Chicago Mercentile Exchange) is thinly traded and not transparent. A handful of companies (Kraft) and coops (DFI) are controlling the price to the detriment of all farmers.
    Fourth, the government’s marketing order system should be revised. It was suppose to happen over a decade ago and never has. There should be no more than 6 regions — NE, SE, SW, MW, Western, CA. It should focus on delivering a fair price, based on the cost of production. The wild swings in price, the high cost of feed have all wreaked havoc on the dairy industry and caused many producers to leave the industry. The price needs to be based on what it costs to produce, not based on some nebulous “commodity” pricing.
    If you want to limit the size of farms, there should be a general cap of approximately $75,000 on any government payments. Most small farmers will easily fit under this cap.

  • IRememberWhen

    I agree with Jasper Teal. I’m one of the despised “urban elite” who earns the scorn of FarmerJane. Sorry, FarmerJane, we “elite” are the ones buying local, buying humane-certified, buying cowshares.

    You’re complaining about us, but we’re the only ones who care. You disdain me, and I don’t know why. Why FarmerJane do you appear to loathe the only people who are actually your allies?

    Everyone else just wants the cheapest price for the ultra-pasteurized white sugar water at Walmart. Go talk about your boring regulation reform with them – they’ll just tell you to hand back your subsidy check and get off “government welfare.”

    Why don’t any of your solutions involve real change like more local, more humane, more sustainable, more healthy? You know, stuff we “elite” consumer care about?

  • It would be great to get back to the original question about farmers and consumers coming together. Some review of “How to Give a presentation like Steve Jobs” would help. The specifics go far beyond what consumer side people can deal with. I’ll give it a try.

    First, dairy is the most acute justice issue in the farm bill, so this is desperate. On the other side, for a variety of reasons, I think, food movement folks weren’t able to do much advocacy on this, the most acute farm bill farm/food justice issue. I have a blog I’ll post later on my view of this, “8 Myths Block Dairy Farm Justice” (click my name for zspace).

    So then, Jasper Teal represents how it’s hard for the food movement to support this food justice (“who cares”). He reacts to the desperation and concern Farmer Jane voiced about the food movement not supporting food justice, farm justice. The conflict is understandable, but should have been prevented. On this general point Farmer Jane is right on target, but her concerns are largely unknown, and easily generate opposition from those very ones who share her values (farm/food justice).

    Jasper may not “care” enough to learn and revise his views, but let me suggest a key myth (or 2) undergirding this conflict, farm subsidies and the general government role. Overall, the food movement seems to think that the biggest specific policy FOR justice involves reducing subsidies for big farms (ie. the 70 food “experts” sign-on that Marion Nestle signed) or all subsidies/gov. (ie. Jasper, all farm commodity policy is bad). This general view is essentially the opposite of the truth on both accounts, and then blocks support for dairy, (“who cares”) which has received subsidies. The buyers, who benefit from the “Hidden Farm Bill Pie” (search that & “Dairy Crisis Slides” to see data charts, including charts proving the key dairy crisis issues.

    In fact, both positions (Marion & Jasper) are unknowingly against farm/food justice and favor agribusiness exploitation, thus leading to some mega FarmerJane frustration with that whole crowd. Missing is the “Hidden Farm Bill” that took $4 trillion (2010 $) from commodity farms (inc. dairy), and gave it, not to big farms, but to the agribusiness buyers. And did it secretly, with no government subsidy checks. And then those checks, which compensate farmers for the $4 trillion in reductions, only compensate them for about 1/8 of the reductions below previous standards. We’ve found, then, that the only share of the food dollar that dairy farmers have is the share by which they are forced to subsidize agribusiness, and through them, consumers. And it’s much bigger than subsidies. Ditto for other commodity farmers at various times.

    What’s hidden is that farm commodities don’t self correct in free markets, they’ve usually been low, below costs (when there were no nonsubsidy price floors, the needed policies). (See Daryll E. Ray, “It’s Price Responsiveness. IT’S PRICE RESPONSIVENESS!”.) That’s why Jasper is wrong in general about farm programs that foster justice, and why he should care. Also needed are adequate antitrust measures (Anna) plus good trade policies (ie. dairy imports that drive down prices).

    Food writers have failed to tell this story. This blog gives farmers a chance to give input and have it discussed.

    The National Family Farm Coalition has a specific dairy bill (SB 1640) that’s supported in the east. It offers the best solution to the most acute current US farm/food justice issue, but has been largely been unknown in the food movement. This specific bill is much more important for the food movement to know than are generalizations that have no specific advocacy sign-ons attached.

    It takes work to fix this, and caring. The key needed twitter lines (to mobilize the food movement (to support this “Hidden” food justice,) need to be written. I’m working on it.

  • HighlySkeptical

    @Brad Wilson

    “It would be great to get back to the original question about farmers and consumers coming together.”

    Sure it would, except as we see from FarmerJane, she doesn’t seem very interested in consumers – more interested in tweaking the government regulations to inflate her subsidy check.

    If FarmerJane want to be more successful, why doesn’t she opt out of the government system and offer cowshares as mentioned above? Why doesn’t she turn her output into a premium product with more value and build a distinctive brand?

    The farm business is changing, just as the record business changed. iTunes killed Tower Records – FarmerJane needs to keep up with the new model or suffer a similar fate. It’s not about “economic justice.” It’s about changing business environments.

  • Like Jasper Teal, Highly Skeptical here demonstrates how the food movement holds myths about farm programs (especially subsidies) that then block support for food and farm justice. You’ve heard it 100 times, or 1,000, (from progressives, conservatives, and mainstream media,) I know, but the subsidy/government paradigm that these commenters are so confident about is simply false and the reverse of the truth, as additional data (beyond the Farm Subsidy Database) can easily prove. Unfortunately, in Jasper’s case we heard, “who cares,” why engage in a rational debate of the facts. I can understand that, given the universality of the myths that have led the food movement to unknowingly support agribusiness exploitation, in radical contradiction to their fine underlying values of justice (which the farm justice movement shares). Really though, the food movement is highly academic, and people with that background tend to highly value objective truth, so serious discussion should be able to clear up this problem of an inadequate paradigm. I hope that applies to Highly Skeptical. That’s my view.

    Highly skeptical is wrong that cow shares currently represent a solution for very many dairy farmers. There aren’t nearly enough consumers. It requires new investments in infrastructure, which is not possible, as dairy farmers haven’t been getting paid fairly anywhere, but rather have been massively losing money (subsidizing consumers).

    The major underlying economic fact is clear: the free market (ie. merely getting rid of subsidies and getting government out, neoliberalism/deregulation/conservativism,) doesn’t at all work economically in the dairy industry. Prices don’t fix themselves justly. The data proving that is abundant.

    Second, the subsidies that dairy farmers have received are not at all a net gain to dairy farmers from taxpayers and consumers. It’s the reverse, dairy farmers have massively subsidized consumers, by far more money than the amount of the subsidies paid to them. This is a key falsehood that the food movement still strongly believes, as Jasper and Skeptical illustrate. They believe that farmers (ie. that get the subsidies in the Farm Subsidy Database) are the winners, not agribusiness buyers (who’s massively larger gains are NOT in the database or anywhere else “on the government books.”

    This then leads to the further myth that dairy farmers (or commodity farmers generally,) dominate political decisions. It’s really incredible that this myth can prevail, (as it surely does among conservatives, progressives and mainstream media,) in the face of such massive hard evidence proving it wrong. Unfortunately this mass of evidence is essentially “hidden,” and not accessible to food movement leaders or members (but see it abundantly visualized at “Hidden Farm Bill Pie” and “Dairy Crisis Slides”).

    The two sides are far apart. My criticism of the food movement is that it has massively supported corporate welfare for agribusiness (technically, actually, in farm bill advocacy,) even as it has massively opposed such exploitative corporate welfare (in generalizations, “farm bill principles,” etc. in books, films, blogs).

    Thomas Kuhn argued that “normal scientists” cannot overcome paradigms with massive anomalies, (and that’s what I’m charging the food movement with here,) while “revolutionary scientists” can. Are there any food movement revolutionaries reading this? If you’re a peon in the food movement, but have this capability, then you must become a leader. We must stop the food movement from siding with agribusiness (on this 1 issue of the Commodity Programs,) before the 2017 farm bill arrives.

  • FarmerJane

    Hi, all.
    @IRememberWhen Please re-read my words. My comments referenced elite urban writers who shape the thoughts of millions. I admire urban people who are trying to think about where their food comes from an act upon it. In particular, the NYC farmers markets are a great thing for farmers who can get there and who have something to sell. For us,though, the regular farmers Upstate, we can’t get a word into the NYTimes or media like the Today Show. Mark Bittman routinely pushes anti-livestock farmer columns. When I try to talk with some NYC food movement people, they quote Mr. Bittman to me, they also quote Michael Pollan, Anna Lappe to name a few. The spin is usually that the dairy farms are low value and we SHOULD see less of them. It seems so many have opinions made up without ever having spoken with the various stakeholders in rural NY and the Northeast. Frankly, so many of us are so exhausted from trying to survive drought conditions, that we just don’t have the energy to respond to this constant “calling out.” I also find the “Farmer Litmus Tests” to be tough to deal with.
    @HighlySkeptical and @IRememberWhen Re-regionalization could encompass some of the suggestions you have mentioned. For dairy, it is a tough path to try. Several of us are trying to help a young buttermaker set up a plant…minimum of $150,000 required. The ventures are very expensive and very time consuming, beyond the reach of people who are working flat out to survive at this point.
    @PeanutGallery Yes, farmers are trying to do some other projects, diversify. Cornell has recommended that the 3,000,000 acres of abandoned farms Upstate be used to produce regional meat and livestock, these lands are not so suitable for veg crops, but perfect for grazing as hill country farms and grasslands. However, NY is moving at a snails pace to help regional slaughterhouses and distribution networks grow. Again, consumers need to talk with the commodity farmers to see what is needed from our practical perspectives.
    In NY, we are putting about $2 billion dollars into rural economies from sale of milk at farmgate. But, FarmBill2012 is virtually over and most food movement groups had little to say in reference to the state’s largest ag sector.
    I asked Dr. Nestle how communications could be improved so that people would know what we the regular farmers are dealing with. I’ve seen a few examples that I thought were good and I am hoping that readers of this blog might have seen others. Here’s what I have seen and like:
    Eatocracy: Kat Kinsman of CNN has set up a website at CNN where she sometimes invites average farmers in to do a column and then consumers can read, learn, discuss, communicate. This is cutting edge major urban media covering food/ag in a new way.
    Music: @Russell mentioned how mid-sized UK dairy farmers are also struggling to survive. I love the volunteer musicians who developed a dairy farmers protest theme song. Its now on iTunes and they have even developed a ring tone from it. Here in the US, I’ve seen a few musicians donate their songs or time to us, the regular farmers. FarmAid is one example. Recently, NYC artist, Rachel Epp, donated her music for a video showing the farms of my area. You can see it “Beautiul Like This” on Rachel Epp’s Facebook page.
    Video: I know most farmers don’t have a lot of time to make videos, but some young farmers in Kansas put together a video of their farm that’s gone viral. Its called “I’m Farming and I Grow it” at 6.5 million hits. Another example: Lisa DeGuia of Food Curated took it upon herself to drive stright to Upstate NY after Hurricaine Irene and film a dairy family who had watched their cows swept away in the flood. Lisa later won awards for her work, it was fantastic and it showed us, the regular people, with a face.
    Data crunchers: I am loving Food Tech Connect where a group of savvy young data crunchers try to put together visualizations of various components of the food system, including ag. I’m hoping at some point they could do one for us, dairy farmers, showing the milk prices that we actually receive in NY or the extent of farm abandonment up here.
    Dairy farmers should be spending more time in NYC, and less time at the COunty Fair. Recently, Edible Manhattan did a special dairy issue. We dairy farmers were able to get the New York State Dairy Princess to be a guest at the issue celebration who travelled from Western NY to Manhattan and met up with food celebrities. Last month, our county dairy farmers sent our county dairy princess to travel to Central Park. This spring, a local FFA chapter here travelled to a public school in NYC and showed the kids a mobile maple syrup display. All of the above were well-received.
    What I would like to hear from Dr. Nestle’s readers are examples you might have seen. The above are just a few that I have personally seen. I’m sure there must be a talent pool of observers out there in Food Politics Land! Please let me know. I would rather see us communicate than be at eachother’s throats.
    PS @LostArtist I will check out the concepts you mentioned.

  • Cathy Richards

    Thanks Farmer Jane (and Marion!) for bringing attention to the plight of medium sized farms. They work so hard for us, and face so many struggles. CAFOs get support to implement HACCP (food safety) and small/medium farms hardly get any making it virtually impossible for small/medium farms to sell to any publicly funded institution (schools, hospitals, etc).
    Small farms have the local movement. Big CAFOs have the government. Medium farms have….nothing. The more light we shine on these inequities, the better.

  • Re IRememberWhen Sorry I previously missed that. It’s a great example from one side illustrating how we have conflict. First, FarmerJane is calling for dialogue and reconciliation from potential allies, so she’s not loathing.

    On the other hand, the clear and dramatic answer to why farmers have conflict with people like IREmemberWhen is that they misunderstand the subsidy issue and therefore advocate for agribusiness exploiters, the buyers, the hidden beneficiaries of the farm bill, and against farmers, the sellers, the victims of the farmbill (including diversified farmers like those who are so prominent in dairy).

    I don’t see any indicatation that IRememberWhen Jasper, Highly Skeptical, Mark Bittman, Anna Lappe, Michael Pollan, Daniel Imhoff, etc. have even heard of this issue of unknowing food movement support for agribusiness. It’s a dilemma to try to have dialogue when people don’t even know how to be on the side of justice, when it is such a huge learning curve. So Marion should help us get to the bottom of that, with the full data, such as I’m providing. Given that the dairy crisis is the most acute food justice issue for the 2008 and 2012 farm bills, it’s enormously frustrating to see the food movement’s prominence as it advocates against it’s own values, (ie. for cheap corn and cheap dairy, which are essentially the same thing).

    In general, my new blog, “Eight Myths Block Dairy Farm Justice” presents a response to a wide range of the pieces in the false food movement paradigm that have, in my view, been behind the food movements unknowing support for agribusiness exploiters (ie. Cargill, ADM, Tyson, Smithfield). IRememberWhen comments about why we don’t talk more about healthy local food deserves a good answer. In my case I usually only focus on where the food movement goes hugely against it’s own fine values, and I don’t see that at all with local food (they’re congruent). Beyond that, for most of farm justice (for most farmers) local food is not yet at all a viable option, as there isn’t enough of a market locally (ie. here in Iowa, out west, across most of the south, all around the world in agricultural regions) to achieve justice for very many farmers. On the other hand, fixing the hidden farm bill gets right at the justice issue for most farmers, and here we are with a huge consumer side food movement doing farm bill advocacy for the first time in 60 years. On the other hand, the justice issues of market management (the farm and food price issue, the hidden farm bill which the food movement ignores,) have a bigger impact on many food movement issues than any specific policy position that the food movement has so far taken.

    In general and in lists of principles, of course, the food movement is usually with farmers. It’s only on a factual, actual policy and programs basis that they side with the mega agribusiness buyers (specifically, they call for reducing/ending/capping/greening subsidies, as if that’s the issue, and therefore hold zero price floor positions on the farm bill, like Cargill, ADM, Tyson, etc. resulting in no support for food and farm justice). One huge barrier to dialogue and reconciliation is that comments must be short, and here we are blindsiding food movement people with a whole new paradigm they haven’t heard of before, and to do that briefly, one must be negative, as in my focus on how the food movement is a zero price floor (pro agribusiness) movement, as in the proposal earlier this summer from Anna Lappe, Daniel Imhoff, and EWG’s Kari Hamerschlag (“Experts Tell Congress: Support Healthy Food System, Not Big Ag”).

    This all seems like a small, technical issue, but in fact it has wide ramifications, as the hidden, unknown farm bill (“Hidden Farm Bill Pie”) is, by far, the biggest issue in the farm bill. I’ve been collecting online links (ie click my name) and writing blogs and hundreds of blog comments on this for five years, and crunching masses of additional data, but the food movement is huge, they naturally resist critics, and I’ve seen little responsiveness to our presentations of masses of additional data to put the subsidy issue into a proper context. If anyone knows of anywhere that the food movement has even discussed this (other than Food and Water Watch, which has long understood it,) please let me know.

    I realize that hardly any of this is likely even understood, so why would anyone care to comment in reply. But if you at least realize that you have no idea of the biggest food and farm justice issues, those that were the dominant issues in the movement in past decades (1950s-60s, 1970s tractorcade to washington, 1980s farm crisis on into the 1990s) then you’ve taken the first great step. (On this history, click my name and then go to my blogs at La Vida Locavore, and my videos, “Farm Bill & Food Bill”, at YouTube.) So this is my view of the relationship between the food movement of today and the (hugely pre-internet & now online) farm justice movement of the past 6 decades).

  • JR

    I find the premise of this essay to be backwards. It matters not to me what size the dairy is. What matters is what it produces, and how it produces it. I am a committed supporter of dairies that raise their cows on pasture, and which avoid all anti-biotics, growth hormones, corn and soy feed, and other non-natural inputs. I will pay extra for dairy products raised in this way. If these are 10 cow or 250 cow operations matters little to me. JR

  • DrNoreenDVM

    All antibiotics? Working as a large animal vet, I would like to say that treating a sick cow with medicine that will alleviate her suffering is something that I am trained to do. Perhaps you do not realize the organic rule that if a cow is treated even once, she must then be removed from the herd. This usually means slaughtered. I visited one organic farm where they said they would “not mess around with antibiotics” and proceeded to plug bullets in the heads of two sick Jersey cows that might have been saved with antibiotic intervention. Please let me know if you agree with this and if this is what you would do if you were in the shoes of the farmer.
    Northeast dairy farmers, for the most part do not use growth hormones. Please review statistics on their actual usage. Most of my clients indicated to me many years ago that they did not want growth hormones.
    Corn is widely grown in the Northeast, not on the scale of the Midwest, but one sees cornfields on many farms. I’ve got direct knowledge from old-timers telling me of corn raising going back to the turn of the century, but I’d have to check prior to that. Local corn fields in NY just might save some of the NY dairy farms from collapse this winter if they can make it through the winter without buying in commercial grains which are skyrocketing in price. Northeast winters are harsh and cows are indoors, going out only for exercise. Professional nutritionists study and try to “balance” cows food intake to match resources available. This varies by region. Perhaps a cow fed exclusively on grass can do well in California or regions of year round grass, but not here in NY. I’m all for grass and promote grazing and rotational grazing wherever possible. Let us hope that dairy farmers and their cows somehow survive the winter ahead.

  • DrNoreenDVM

    I also wanted to add that from what I see across Upstate NY as a vet, farmers are taking darn good care of their cows. I travel the beat of farmers from 30 cows on up to 200 or so in my area. Even in the midst of extreme tragedy up here, the farmers have put their cows first. Case in point: a few weeks ago, a local dairy farmer committed suicide. He burned down his barns, torched the house and killed himself by charging his truck into parked farm equipment. Even in the midst of this desperation, he methodically took 300 cows to safety and got every last animal out of the barns as his last act before burning the entire farm down. What does this say to you?
    Two weeks ago, a beautiful old 125 year old traditional barn burned. The farm couple rushed into the burning barn and pulled out as many cows as they could lead out. The farmers openly wept as a few cows could not be saved.
    Consumers who intimate that the farmers are not caring for their animals should come upstate and meet the people. Each and every cow means something to these people. I am also weary of farmer bashing even as we have ranchers and farmers across the nation wondering how they will feed animals before they starve. I can’t even tell you the suffering I see in some of the farm communities as a country vet.
    Veterinarian colleagues in other parts of the country are stepping up to speak up for the farmers. Since the mainstream media has so few ag reporters, the high stakes antitrust litigation in the southeast has been virtually uncovered. Southeast dairy farmers sued Dean Foods in an antitrust action. Dean has just settled for $145,000,000 payout to these farmers so that it would not have to go to trial. Southern veterinarians took the stand to describe what they have seen in the rural South: a vet who was on a farm call as the farmer killed himself, rural America sucked dry by large corporations who buy the milk and more. We need credible agricultural reporting in the mainstream media so that, you, the food interested consumer will know what is happening in rural america.

  • @JR Producing this food you need is a two way street, meaning more than you paying “extra” for it. In addition to the values of stewardship and health that you describe, justice is essential, and in fact, justice farm policy is a bigger factor than sustainability policy in order to achieve your goals. You need to understand this package of issues as well, and the food movement rarely does.

    I’m sure you realize that the kind of food you seek has become less and less available over the years, with fewer and fewer people having access to it. A major cause of that is the farm bill, but more specifically, the farm bill has failed, arguably, because of the lack of a significant consumer side advocacy movement over most of the past 5 decades, or more recently, the lack of a movement which understands farm justice, and it’s relation to food justice in the farm bill.

    Values are choices, and they compete with other values. What’s needed are effective ways of reconciling multiple values. Especially in the case of dairy, but also with regard to corn, soybeans and other commodity crops, the food movement has not managed to put together a package of specific policies that adequately includes farmers needs, especially the need for justice. The purpose of Marion’s blog here, and FarmerJane’s contribution to it, is to stimulate discussion of that.

    Among crops, corn is “the biggest loser” in the farm bill since just prices were first reduced starting in 1953, followed by soybeans and wheat. Of course that’s paupership the opposite of corn’s “King” status, as assigned by the food movement.

    Likewise dairy is a huge loser, and is the most acute loser at present, as crop prices have risen. Dairy is being severely crushed from multiple sides. 1. The reduction (1953-1995) and elimination (1996-2012) of feed grain price floors and supply management massively but subsidized corn fed milk (ie. mega CAFOs) at the expense of grassfed. It’s very hard for grassfed systems to be viable under this system of cheap feed prices. Prices have fallen massively but gradually over 6 decades until we had the lowest prices in history from 1997-2005.

    2. At the same time, feed grain price ceilings and reserve supplies to protect consumers and livestock interests from occasional periods of high prices were eliminated. That’s a second farm bill justice factor crushing dairy.

    3. Additionally, dairy prices, (like commodity crops) do not self correct under deregulated or free market neoliberalism (laissez faire conservatism), but dairy policy has gone the same route as for grain. You may not be aware that, when you say you’ll pay “extra” you may be merely talking about paying above costs. In fact, the farm bill has forced dairy farmers to massively subsidize the mega corporate buyers, (with below cost milk,) like Dean Foods, and through them, you consumers.

    There have been several comments here ridiculing dairy farmers for receiving subsidies, but in fact, it’s the consumers who have been subsidized by dairy farmers, (with below cost milk) as net results (reductions plus subsidies) clearly show (see data at “Slides: Dairy Crisis, Dairy Justice” by clicking my name). Very clearly, as with the commodity crops, the dairy farmers have been the ones doing the subsidizing.

    The food movement has made significant advances on these justice issues, beyond what the farm justice movement of 1955-1995 was able to achieve, in documenting the negative impacts of these unjust prices (ie. diabetes, obesity epidemic). When “the women of farm justice” warned in 1985 of the “food crisis” “coming your way whether you want to know about it or not,” they didn’t know these specifics (see YouTube: “Food Movement 1985: Were You There? We Were”).

    Much can be fixed (many values can be reconciled) by returning to adequate standards of fair trade, living wage prices. Unfortunately, the food movement typically suggests that subsidies cause these problems, and returning to free market neoliberalism (subsidy reduction or elimination) fixes them. In fact, however, that’s not at all true, as I prove 4 ways in “Michael Pollan Rebuttal.” Conservative laissez faire deregulation has caused these problems. It isn’t the cure. Mere subsidy reforms, (as we’ve seen this summer from 70 major food movement leaders, as I cited above in another comment,) fully preserve the massive hidden (not government subsidies) benefits for agribusiness buyers (exporters, food and feed mills and processors, [ie. ethanol, HFCS, transfats], CAFOs. Mere subsidy reforms only attack the victims (commodity farmers), not the perpetrators who spend $100,000,000 annually in lobbying and influence.

  • Michael Bulger


    I read your “8 Myths…”. Can you clarify your response to the first “myth”?

    You write, “Most subsidy recipients in the top 10% are family farmers or those similar in size and structure to family farms.” What do you consider a family farm? In your opinion, what is the typical size?

    I’m curious because a “family farm” is defined by the USDA to mean any farm owned by the operator and his/her relatives. So, officially, the term family farm conveys no distinctive size.

    Based on the data, the top 10% of subsidies recipients would appear to be unusually large when their income is compared to the vast majority of family farms. (The USDA defines small, medium, and large farms based on their income). So, while a portion of the top recipients might be defined as family farmers based on the ownership structure of their business, they do not appear to have a similar size compared to the majority of family farms.

    I would be eager to hear any clarification you might be able to offer me.

  • @ Michel Bulger Thanks for the response and link to USDA writing on the topic, though I disagree with it. I usually usually use the term “family sized farm,” for shorthand, but the farm justice movement, (aka family farm movement,) usually uses a definition such as the following, (mostly from Iowa CCI): 1. Family-sized farm.
    2. Family either lives on or near the farm.
    3. Family does the work on the farm.
    4. Family generally owns the livestock, buildings, and land.
    5. Family makes the management decisions.
    6. Family patronizes local businesses when possible.
    7. Family concerned about land stewardship and their neighbors quality of life–not just the bottom line.

    This refers to a nuclear family, but there are many larger operations representing extended families (2 or mre nuclear families/extra singles, etc.) Today we also have many half family farms, where the spouse works in town. Academics resist all of this as it becomes hard to “operationalize” the definition for research, but to most people it’s self apparent, as, for example oppressive hog/poultry animal factory contracts, for example come to change how the system works (remove decision making, ownership of the hogs, etc..

    My analysis of the data of the farm subsidy database, (your other Qs) uses a “conservative” definition of “family-sized” meaning a a relatively small size, too small to really live on, to define a bare minimum sized family farm, for example without livestock (with livestock you have “value-added” income and need fewer acres for the same income. Ok, so I chose a 200 acre corn and soybean farm, (100 acres each) as an example, as it’s common in the cornbelt region and simple, but I the same conclusions clearly appears to apply to the whole range of commodity crops.

    The problem is that the Farm Subsidy Database at the Environmental Working Group gives no information on how big the farms really are, what’s big, what’s MEGA, what’s little, what’s miniscule. The analysis of EWG (and really the whole food movement, following their lead,) emphasizes (or implies this) the top 10% of “recipients” as big, industrial, factory farms, and the lower 80% as small family farms. You would be very correct that “based on the data, the top 10% of subsidies recipients would appear to be unusually large” if compared to the bottom 80%, buy you are very wrong in making this claim “when their income is compared to the vast majority of family farms.” This contradiction occurs because most “recipients” are tiny fractions of family sized farms, thus radically skewing the data. I’ve seen nothing written by EWG even addressing this question.

    My analysis applies a “conservative” working definition to the actual data to prove that the appearance is nowhere close to the truth (which is obvious to rural people who look up their own zip codes and see the names of big and tiny recipients). Basically, using data through 2010, I take all subsidies for corn and all for soybeans, and then mathematically distribute them to all acres of corn and soybeans for those years of the database (995-2010) to get subsidies per acre (per year and over 16 years, which is simpler).

    I then found a way, a sort of map, to move through the farm subsidy database (instead of clicking “next page” 17,000 times, etc.) to see what ranking this (200 acres) and other sizes of corn and soybean farms received. Basically 203 acres (101.5 corn, 101.5 soybeans) was found at the top 10% mark (200 acres at 10.1%). Therefore, by this quite scientifically conservative definition, the smallest family-sized farms are found only in the top 10.1% of recipients.

    Then look at the subsidy amounts! At 200 acres it’s $138,259 over 16 years! (or 20 acres at $140,323).

    Applying this standard, how big, then, are the farms in the bottom 90%? By this standard, the bottom 80%, ) the vast majority, (which EWG says averaged $587 in subsidies annually,) averages only 6.8% of the size of a minimum sized family farm under my definition, which translates to only about 16 acres, (8 corn, 8 soybeans). You can then plug that statistic into USDA Economic Research Service “Commodity Costs and Returns” to see what the income would be, and it’s clearly not a way to make a living. (I show that the 200 acre farm often didn’t make the poverty level, and that’s even more true if you go back prior to 1995 to add the years 1981-1994. I’ve also developed ways of making estimates of that). We then see (by this standard) that the farm located at the 50% mark is only 3.3% of the size a very small 200 acre corn and soybean farm, with half of the “recipients even smaller,” and the bottom third is at 1% or less.

    We see then that almost all analysis of the farm subsidy database by the food movement is wrong.

    There’s a lot more, however. You might think that the farm receiving $138,259 from the government would be doing great! You might think farms like that have huge political clout! Both appearances are not at all true, as further analysis proves. Here I’ll be brief, but will answer questions later. Here’s the story: 1. farm prices have not self corrected in free markets, so they have usually fallen below costs when we don’t have market management (nonsubsidy price floors backed by supply reductions as needed to balance supply and demand). We had such programs 1942-1952, with no subsidies, but with price floors set at fair trade, living wage levels for family farms. Congress then reduced (1953-1995) and eliminated (1995-2012) these programs, thus creating cheap corn, cheap soybeans, cheap milk, etc. as farmers massively fought back over 5 decades prior to the rise to prominence of the food movement. Congress added these subsidies, but the reductions in value have been about 7-8 times larger than the subsidies compensating for the reductions. Therefore, a absurd as it may sound, in fact, the $138,259 compensates for reductions in value from the previous standard (of 1942-1952 or of “parity”) that are 7 or more times larger than that amount, (or nearly $1,000,000 of reductions). That’s what the data shows. Overall, corn and soybeans were reduced by more than $2 trillion, with subsidies compensating for only a small fraction of that. This is what I call the Hidden Farm Bill, (market reductions below previous standards) and I’ve shown with data that it’s bigger than the entire farm bill spending pie. Under these programs, Agribusiness got the trillions of dollars in Hidden benefits. The mere subsidy reforms of the Food movement, based upon the false EWG analysis, merely take away the fractional compensations to the victims, and do nothing to make agribusiness pay instead of subsidies, so the food movement massively supports agribusiness, supports “cheap corn” and soybeans, etc., without at all knowing that that is what they are doing.

    My analysis (ie. making the Hidden Farm Bill visible) can be found online in various blogs and data charts, cited below. But note: I’m a volunteer, (though a former policy wonk for Iowa CCI). I’m working desperately to get discussion of this through hundreds of blog comments (over the past 5 years), my Farm Bill Primer of progressive links that understand this, and massive data crunching (bringing into play much larger masses of evidence than that provided by EWG): so my work is poorly edited, unfinished, and I have a long list of blogs that need to be written.

    On the EWG analysis see: “Most EWG Subsidy ‘Recipients’ Are Too Tiny to Be ‘Farmers'” and related to that: “Subsidy Narratives: How Foodies Unknowingly Bash Family Farmers,” plus “Corn Farmers Have Long Subsidized You, Not the Other Way Around.” Related jpg data charts can be found in my zspace photo albums (& linked through related blogs). Search “Hidden Farm Bill Pie”, “Hidden Farm Bill: Debunking 3 Myths”, “Dairy Crisis Slides” etc. See my earlier collection of data charts on these topics in “Farm Bill Slides” and my YouTube video, “Michael Pollan Rebuttal”. Click my name for where I blog, etc.

  • FarmerJane

    The “Farmer Justice” movement has a long and rich history. Personally, I participated in the milk strikes of the 1960’s and 1970’s, going with my father to pour milk in the streets. In the mid 1980’s, in the run up to the 1985 Farm Bill, farmers picketed the State Office buildings here in Upstate NY, asking for help in terms of keeping family farms on the land. This and more. Women farmers formed active groups like Women in Farm Economics, rural alliances, Grange meetings as we watched food processors become more and more concentrated. I remember that as we picketed in the Mohawk Valley in the mid-1980s warning consumers that they would regret massive concentration, passing consumers told us to get out of agriculture then if it was so rough. Most of the people who picketed did just that, lost their farms, gave up, took other jobs to the point where some 3,000,000 acres of NY’s farmlands are now abandoned. In the late 1990’s, dairy farmers tried to form a collective bargaining mechanism that would help to stabilize milk prices. This was called the Northeast Dairy Compact. NYC consumer groups and leaders fought the proposal tooth and nail, hiring PR firms, lawyers and spokespeople, calling it a “milk tax on the poor.” (Google “northeast dairy compact” and “have a cow” if you don’t believe me.)

    One of the most poignant moments to me, in NY’s food history was the first week of December, 2009. Upstate…NY’s milk prices had crashed to half of what it costs to make 100 pounds of milk. Once again women organized rallies. Teams of former dairy princesses worked to charter buses and dairy farmers filled several chartered buses, leaving their farms to drive all night to Washington, DC to literally beg for help. At Upstate agricultural colleges, students picketed carrying signs calling for “Fair Trade Milk.”

    Downstate….the NYC Food and Climate Change Conference was being put together. Not a single farm group invited and no farm groups (to my knowledge) involved in putting together the NYC Food Charter. I phoned the organizers and was told that the most they could do for us would be a few seats in the audience. The program handouts on the internet related to Livestock’s Long Shadow and anti-livestock materials. From what I am told by people who attended, The meatless people gave numerous presentations, and little, if anything, was mentioned about what was going on Upstate with the farmers. I remember looking at the NYC Food Pledge where participants pledged to eat less meat and drink more tap water. It was as if, we, the farmers of the foodshed were invisible. How could that be? Farmers up here who heard about it were shocked. Worlds apart.

    I realized at that moment, that farmer justice for the commodity farmers was not really part of the food movement, unless you are a farmer who can somehow manage to sell directly to the food-interested people. I feel that the chapters and history of “Farmer Justice” have been deleted from the “food movement” handbook.

  • Michael Bulger

    @Brad – So you set the minimum acreage of your definition of a family farm at 200 acres? Did you set a maximum acreage or did you consider anything above 200 acres a family farm?

    @FarmerJane – An important point that should be made is that many NYC food movement folks do have concrete connections to local farmers. In my experience, the groups that you see in the city often include farmers and/or feature farmers as a major plank in their platforms.

    I think a limitation to outside support for the dairy and livestock industry is that many city residents are lactose-intolerant, vegetarians, or have health issues that lead them to limit their intake of animal products. Beyond that, public health experts point out that the average American should be eating more fruits and vegetables, less soda, and less burgers and cheese. So even those of us who do enjoy a glass of milk or the occasional locally-raised burger are a limited market. (We can only eat so much ice cream! 😉 )

    I think a good question would be how do we get more local products into the market to take the place of non-regional products? That was a major goal that came out of the NYC Food and Climate Change Conference. It appears in one form or another in the major NYC food plans. The trick now is to achieve this goal.

    I think that we need to find a way to make dairy farming economically viable without relying on increased consumption. What’s the best path towards that? Brad seems to suggest that supply management is important. Does anyone else agree?

    Should we be facilitating better access to processing and aggregation so that Upstate farmers can compete with the major corporations that are right now squeezing them on farmgate prices?

  • @Michael Bulger I use 200 acres as a somewhat arbitrary minimum size for a corn soybean farm without livestock for the purpose of interpretating the farm subsidy database in somewhat reasonable terms, as an alternative to the extreme misinterpretation of the food movement, as described in my previous comment. It’s far from perfect, but surely at least 20 or 50 times more accurate (or much more) than standard food movement interpretations (which don’t even consider the questions I raise, but merely assume that the “recipients” are farms). I’m filling that huge gap with a crude example. Of course, livestock are huge in any reasonable ideal of a family farm. Most surviving farms have lost livestock , so for the same size in terms of income it takes, perhaps, twice as much land. Thus a more reasonable size (but not a minimum size) for a corn and soybeans farm (having lost it’s livestock to CAFOs) might be 400 acres, for example George Naylor. Likewise, out west in dryer areas, it takes many more acres. A labor intensive high value farm could be much smaller. We can also ask, is it a husband/wife farm, or just a 1 spouse farm size, etc. vs Grandpa/grandma + sons/daughters family(s) + grandkids. The family farm system is incredibly diverse, so specific size/structure definitions can be frustrating, which is one reason why land grant academics resist definitions. I’m speaking out of an Iowa experience. Here we didn’t have giant plantations of the south, nor the big “bonanza” ranches nor the California style corporate farms.

    My cornbelt experience is of what many consider an ideal family farm setting, which, of course has been gutted. Of course it was also devastated (but survived) during the Great Depression. My grandfather saw 7¢ corn and lost his farm, but re-entered farming and helped my dad start under the New Deal programs I advocate.

    During the 1990s the Sustainable Agriculture Movement arose (and I was part of that, and am in organic transition,) but for a variety of reasons it rejected the dominant issues of fighting agribusiness, the farm justice issues I emphasize, so my criticisms also apply to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, (which also doesn’t address export dumping and free trade) (see my “Cap Farm Subsidies at $250,000, or $25,000, or $0?”) They (unknowingly?) support cheap grain for CAFOs, in action if not in words, which isn’t really very “sustainable.” They’ve had a huge influence in this direction, (huge because of their impressive sustainability credentials).

    That then explains, I believe, why contact with niche (organic, vegetable, etc.) farmers at NYC farmers markets (that you correctly point to,) has not really helped the food movement to be aware of farm justice issues, how to really oppose agribusiness, and then the devastation of diversified family dairy farms.

    I disagree that the key question is how to get more farmers to supply local needs. Cedar Rapids is no New York City, but it’s probably more typical. We have had 4 farmers supplying meat in the expanded farmers market, but really probably one full family farm, with some teenage kids and a little hired help could provide all of the supply (I’ve had mostly lamb and grassfed chickens). Many farmer venders cover several cities. From Cedar Rapids, half way to surrounding cities (Iowa City, Davenport, Dubuque, Waterloo, Des Moines) we have about 2,000 family-sized farms (according to the farm subsidy database, as I’ve measured it,) that can be seen as potential local food vendors, (plus tens of thousands of micro farms). Very clearly, the question is how to find any significantly comparable local demand before these family farms are destroyed by agribusiness’ Hidden Farm Bill, and the lack of food movement support against it.

    But also, marketing at farmers markets is incredibly expensive, especially if you must drive, say, 45 minutes each way to a major city, and get there a half hour early, and always stay to the end. I can sell for much much cheaper in bulk to people with big freezers. There’s packing time, storage, marketing work, etc. on top of farming. A while back AATRA found that CSA’s often don’t pay well. Family Farm Defenders found that other kinds of local food weren’t paying parity prices, so they developed a specific way to address that, but that’s not true in most places. We’ve had two major local producers quit here recently after just a few years. One had added cheese processing and won international awards. They got premium prices, but that’s on top of the devastatingly low dairy prices. Another built a meat store, and now can’t sell it.

    The trunk of the “farm bill tree” should not be understood in the common way of the spending pie, but rather as market management. The spending is just to fix the side issues. That’s how big supply management and price floors/ceilings are. Henry Wallace knew that, but I’ve seen no food movement document on the early history of the farm bill that comes close to understanding Wallace or this issue (Google my name and “Henry Wallace” or read “Daryll E. Ray” and “Agricultural Policy for the Twenty-First Century and the Legacy of the Wallaces”, or Henry Wallace, “Achieving a Balanced Agriculture”) These were never temporary needs as food movement advocates almost always claim. See the dairy crisis! You ask if “anyone else agree(s)” that supply management is important! In fact, however, that and price were the major issues during five decades of major activism prior to the new, “young” food movement. I’m hoping to upload the final conclusions of what has been billed as the greatest mobilization of activism on these issues ever: the United Farmer and Rancher Congress of 1986. Tens of thousands of people, mainly farmers participated in hearings and sent delegates in an effort to stop the massive subsidization of agribusiness by cheap corn, cheap milk, cheap soybeans, cheap cotton, cheap wheat, cheap rice, etc. Supply and price were the top issues, and their many broad implications were spelled out in detail.

    Likewise, these farm justice issues, being bigger than the whole farm bill spending pie, (and that’s not counting global impacts,) are the biggest needs for addressing climate change, but was there any discussion of that as the biggest issue at your NYC conference. Can you point me to ANY major urban “food plan” or conference that demonstrates understanding of how the food movement has unknowingly advocated in favor of agribusiness commodity buyers (CAFOs, hfcs, transfats, export dumpers). (I would think that it would be treated as a crisis.)

    I must ultimately defer to nutritionists, but I must paraphrase you to emphasize that most vegetarians “should be eating more” “animal products.” Aren’t a lot of those health issues related to the lack of a wide range of powerful nutrients that can come only from animal products, especially organic grassfed ones, including unpasturized milk. This then means increased consumption. But then this then leads back to the dilemmas (ie. economic and regulatory factors) that I mentioned in my “8 Myths” piece.

    Dairy farmers immediately need the food movement to recognize the crisis in which they, the food movement, have been building support for agribusiness commodity buyers by supporting zero-price-floor, zero-supply-management farm bills (2008 & 2012), and then, on that basis, to open their eyes and then pop, right there is a dairy crisis wholly created by agribusiness/Congress, and right there is the solution, NFFC’s dairy-justice-make-Dean-Foods-Pay bill, SB 1640, the “Federal Milk Marketing Improvement Act.”

  • FarmerJane

    @MichaelBulger So nice to see some interaction here with food thinkers. There are a few things that could help NY’s dairy farmers. First, would be pride in our existence. We are operating on millions of acres of land upstate. New England Farmers Union has been researching the models of dairy production that serve to sequester carbon and preserve biodiversity. Turns out their research is finding that the good old-fashioned cow grazing dairy farm promotes carbon sequestration and depending on the pastures are managed…biodiversity. Audubon NY has been promoting keeping the grassland dairy farms to save the habitat for NY’s grassland birds. We’ve got traditional beautiful farms and barns, various regions of the state…all beautiful and with their own character. Unfortunately, NYC media Mark Bittman, the Today Show, etc. portray us and our product (milk and meat) in a negative light. I noticed a world of difference in France where people in Paris can recite the different dairy regions of the country and take pride in them. Not so here.
    For us in NY, fluid drinking milk is a highly “local” food product. Some 36% of all the milk produced in NY goes straight into fluid milk processing (albeit controlled by a handful of plants) and right into NYC and Boston markets. Milk usually stays within the “milkshed” where it is produced. That is what part of the federal milk marketing orders were designed to do…help sustain a supply of fluid milk to the masses within each milkshed. So, if NYC people thought of milk as a local product, I think it would help us. Much of NY’s milk is still produced off of grasslands and this is one region of the country where a large share (I think some 66%) of milk is still produced by farms 400 cows and under. (Food and Water Watch noted this in one of their publications which was pretty good).
    I think Upstate farmers would do well to put a face on themselves, get to the city, talk about what they have to offer upstate instead of sitting back and taking it while urban media characterizes us as horrible people producing a horrible product. Otherwise, the way things are going, we are headed towards a few major sized farms and dairy products being supplied by Texas, California, AZ and ID who are gaining ground on milk production in the US.
    A Greek Yogurt miracle occurred in NY. Out of nowhere Chobani and Fage developed innovative yogurt and within 5 years have grown to take up a big % of NY milk. Pepsi is also breaking ground on a massive scale plant. Governor Cuomo is moving forward to promote NY as the yogurt state. OK, this makes sense. Yogurt is a high moisture product, producing it here in NY with ease of transportation to the Northeast Corridor makes sense. However, what I would like to see…is the benefits of the plants spread to the farmers themselves. Currently NY farmers still (and have for many years) received nearly the lowest milk price in the east. I have the data going back for several years. There is an issue called “The CHobani Paradox” by economists. This is that Chobani is growing by leaps and bounds but NY farmers are not really increasing production. The root cause is that the way the federal milk marketing order rules work…the more yogurt that is sold…the LESS we are paid. This is where we need food movement people to understand federal ag policy beyond saying that they like to go to the farmers market to buy NY artisan cheese.

    Under the federal order, we have Class I milk (fluid), Class II (yogurt) Class III (cheese) and Class IV milk (butter/powder). The monies the farmers receive ultimately out of the federal order “pool” are based on the % of each product being sold. Class I milk fetches the very highest price, with milk going into yogurt less. Even less is paid for milk that goes into cheese or butter/powder So, as Class I sales decline (people drink less, Bittman bitches more, kids drink more soda, etc) and more milk goes into Class II…the farmers pay price is actually diluted and decreases. So, this is something the farmers have been complaining about and want fixed. There must be some way to deal with this problem!

    I have seen some NYC “local” milk buying initiatives. There is one with government procurement…the NYC school system is tops in this category. It would be nice to see more of the smaller coops somehow able to bottle their milk and get it into such intiatives. My own little coop consisting of mostly grazing farms has wondered about something like this.
    This is where your thought on more in-state processing and aggregation could really help with “re-regionalization”. Several of us dairy farmers are trying to help a young butter maker get off the ground. At every turn, we are running into lack of technical help, regulatory problems, etc. How can it be so hard to get a little buttermaker launched? It would be nice if NY Economic Development programs offered a helping hand for these kinds of projects that involve food!

    We need for the food movement people to be aware of “farmer needs”. Scale needs to be recognized. It is large scale involving several thousand farms on millions of acres. and about 600,000 cows who live in NY. (I need to double check that figure on exact number of cows). We are talking massive amounts of milk and money. Some $2 billion is pumped into rural NY just from the milk sales at farmgate. Chobani alone has created several hundred dairy jobs from lab technicians to truck drivers off of the milk production of NY. Pepsi is looking for more milk, cheap and close to urban centers in building their plant here.

    The farmers need to be empowered to get a better share out of the food supply chain. No food movement people showed to testify at the Obama antitrtust hearings…just farmers. The food movement people don’t seem to know about the knock-down high stakes dairy antitrust litigation that has been going on where incredibly courageous farmers have stood up as plaintiffs in class cations against Dean Foods. (Southeast litigation just resulted in huge payout to dairy farmers there). Yet, in the Northeast, the cases proceeded with almost total disinterest on the part of the food movement. NY’s attorney general had no interest…In contrast, VT’s attorney general was following closely and trying to protect VT dairy farmers in the final settlement. Why can’t NY be more like New England?
    Michael, I am glad that you replied. There is a lot to all of this. More farmers will leave the land in NY unless we see some element of “farmer justice” incorporated into the food movement of NY. How can it possibly make sense for NYC to sit back and watch its regional farms empty out?