The Crisis In Organic Farming

Posted April 6, 2022 by meisen
Categories: Local Food, Organic Farming/Local Food, The Progressive, Uncategorized

Tags:

I’ve been writing lately on farming for The Progressive magazine. This story appeared in the December 2021/January 2022 issue. (Yep. I’m late in posting it.) It details how the organic industry is overpowering the organic movement, which I argue is bad news for duped consumers and hardpressed family farmers.

The irony is that core problem traces back to the creation of the National Organic Program (under the U.S. Ag department) in 1990. A 12-year battle ensued over what exact criteria had to be satisfied for a farm to be federally certified as organic.

I write:

“Those certification standards—barring the use of pesticides, antibiotics, and other synthetic inputs; requiring pasturing for farm animals; establishing a three-year protocol for converting conventional farmland to organic status; and a lot more—were nothing less than transformative.

“What had been a growing but idiosyncratic and fragmented movement—at least twenty-two states had their own rules for organic labeling—became a single national market with standardized rules. This led foreign farm operations to seek USDA certification so they could sell their goods stateside.

“Organic food sales exploded. By 2011, sales hit $25.1 billion, and by 2020, sales had more than doubled to $56.5 billion. In 2021, the USDA counted more than 28,000 certified organic businesses in the United States. Another 17,000 foreign operations were certified as USDA organic.

“But far from it being the glory days of the organic food movement, this is a time of maximum danger. A perfect storm of problems is challenging organic’s primacy in producing healthy food. And organic food, once a culty and idealistic passion for both farmers and consumers, is increasingly just another cog in the agribusiness behemoth.” 

To read more, please go here.

Remembering Al

Posted December 10, 2021 by meisen
Categories: Divertissement

Tags: , , , , ,


Al Reichenberger and I were dog-walking buddies. He favored Labradors. I’m a German Wirehaired  Pointer guy. We’d let our dogs frolic off leash and smell the smells of our eastside parks while we discussed matters small and large.

            A friendship was built on these casual conversations and small intimacies. I’m honored that Al’s family asked me to write his obituary.

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Al Reichenberger, a complex man who lived a rich and adventurous life, will be celebrated by his friends and family on Jan. 9, 2022, from 3 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., at the Eno Vino Downtown restaurant. Reichenberger died from cancer on Oct. 19, 2021, at the age of 80.

His likes will probably not be seen again in Madison.

Reichenberger was a raconteur and storyteller, a world traveler, a fiercely loyal family man, an avid pilot, a lover of both fine German cars and Labrador dogs, and the guy you always wanted to be talking with at the party.

But for most Madisonians, Al Reichenberger is remembered as co-owner of The Dangle Lounge, 119 East Main St., with his younger brother, Thomas, and for their many legal battles with City Hall over just how much skin could be safely revealed in a Midwestern burlesque house.

Reichenberger spent 25-plus years in the “gentlemen’s club” business before he sold his share to Tom in 1994 and executed a life transition that was unexpected if not astonishing. While wife, Jayne Neuendorf, continued her career at Merrill Lynch, Al settled into being a house-dad for their two sons, Wolfgang and Gunnar.

For a guy raised in the Old World strictures of Deutsch Milwaukee, “house dad” was not an expected life choice, but Al Reichenberger always cut his own path. His parents, Max and Frances Reichenberger, were German immigrants who moved to Milwaukee in the 1920s. His dad was a furrier who began traveling to Germany for various business ventures after World War II.

Al wound up living with German relatives for five or so years, to the point he lost some English fluency. Back in the States, he attended parochial school until his youthful candor became an irreconcilable issue for the school authorities.

Reichenberger was a proud graduate of Rufus King High School in Milwaukee. He joined the U.S. Air Force at 17, served in a bomber refueling station in North Falls, Mont. He later told his boys, tongue in cheek, he was part of our frontline defense protecting Americans from a Canadian invasion.

Politically, Reichenberger was always quite conservative, but he had a strong libertarian streak and did not like to be told what to do, which explains why a military career did not interest him. He told friends that the Central Intelligence Agency had hinted at recruiting him for surreptitious work in East Germany, but Al already had his eye on civilian life. He attended UW-Milwaukee where he earned degrees in business and history and then worked for North Central Air. He came to Madison in 1968 when brother, Tom, opened a bar just off the Capitol Square and needed a partner.

Ah, the Dangle Lounge!

So many stories, many of them even true, have been told about its colorful chapters in Madison history. City officials, urged on by an angry fundamentalist preacher and his flock, tried to close down nude dancing establishments in Madison. The legal fireworks became a show in themselves over the years, as the brothers retained some of the edgiest lawyers around: Percy Julian Jr., Jeff Scott Olson, Sarah Crandall and David Loeffler.

In February 1969, Mayor Otto Festge issued so-called “entertainment guidelines” for strippers and go-go girls, as historian Stuart Levitan details in his book “Madison In The Sixties.” The Festge edict went into a highly detailed, almost salacious, description of “the sensual elements” of a woman’s body that could not be displayed on stage.

Two weeks later, Levitan recounts Reichenberger led “a protest march of go-go girls in bikinis and winter coats around the Square,” as he denounced Festge’s rules “as pretty ridiculous.”

A few years later, the city pulled The Dangle’s liquor license, and the Reichenbergers relaunched the club as The Jazz Workshop, which brought in jazzman Ben Sidran and other musicians. Sidran was playing one night when the great James Brown drummer Clyde Stubblefield, new to Madison, walked in, and they hit it off.

“It was definitely a scene,” says Sidran. “The Dangle-Jazz Workshop was sort of a thumb in the eye of the city fathers, and that of course made it attractive to a lot of us.”

Indeed, Capitol denizens, irreverent lawyers, hustlers, crooks, lost souls, visiting yokels, and lots of excitable men all populated The Dangle.

Isthmus, Madison’s venerable alternative newspaper, was conceived there when bartender Vince O’Hern, a journalism school graduate and Peace Corps veteran, began plotting the new paper with former Capital Times columnist Fred Milverstedt, a Dangle regular.

Eddie Ben Elson, the free spirit, provocateur and lawyer, even announced his candidacy for Dane County District Attorney naked on The Dangle stage. His campaign slogan: “Obey only good laws.”

The Dangle legal skirmishing went on for years and only ended when the Reichenbergers agreed to vacate the downtown property and consolidate their operations at Visions, 3554 E. Washington Ave. Olson, the attorney, points out the city attorney’s office forgot that the deal was supposed to end after five years, which set the stage for Visions to operate for decades longer.

Reichenberger’s great passion was traveling for skiing and adventure. To Switzerland, Austria, Spain, Italy and Germany. “The dollar was so strong it was cheaper to fly to Innsbruck, Austria, and ski there than go to Aspen, Colorado,” says Casey O’Keefe, who first met Reichenberger on a crowded Van Galder bus to O’Hare for a ski trip.

All the better both men were car aficionados. Early on Al had Jaguar XK120s and then Porsches and BMWs, says O’Keefe. On a trip to Stuttgart, Reichenberger bluffed their way into a Porsche factory tour and wound up test-driving a Porsche at “full throttle open” on the Autobahn.

“I know, because I had to do the math in kilometers. It was 148 mph,” O’Keefe says, and then follows up with a hair-raising tale of their impromptu bobsled run in Salzburg.

“Al liked adventure,” O’Keefe attests. Wolfgang and Gunnar make the same point. Their dad was always pushing the limits. He took up snowboarding at the age of 52. At 65 he learned to barefoot water ski.

To look back at Al’s life is to see that he lived the famous American imperative as laid out by Henry David Thoreau in Walden: He “wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

Al did just that.

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The Jan. 9 celebration of Alfonse Reichenberger’s well-lived life will take place 3 p.m.-8 p.m. at ENO VINO DOWNTOWN, 1 N. Webster St. That’s one block from the Capitol on the 10th floor of the AC Hotel.

Besides Jayne and their sons, Wolfgang and Gunnar, Al is survived by his brother Thomas’ three children, Thomas Jr., Elena and Zachary. Tom Reichenberger died on March 13, 2019, at the age of 75.

Friends who wish to memorialize Al’s passing are asked to contribute to the Agrace Foundation, which cared for Al in his final days. He succumbed to squamous cell and multiple myeloma cancers.

The Travails of State Street

Posted June 27, 2021 by meisen
Categories: Development, In Business

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This three-part series detailing the Sturm und Drang that consumed most of the small businesses of State Street became my major writing project for winter 2020-21. In Business was nice enough to publish it online. You can access the stories here.

https://www.ibmadison.com/state-street-special-report-part-1/

https://www.ibmadison.com/state-street-special-report-part-2/

https://www.ibmadison.com/why-we-like-state-street-why-we-fear-it-at-times/

Nope, Not Like Microsoft

Posted March 16, 2021 by meisen
Categories: Uncategorized

I found this interesting in researching the Epic story: That people get it wrong when they talk about Epic as Madison’s Microsoft in terms of its economic impact. As substantial as it is (think of all the upscale rental housing built downtown for well-paid Epic employees), Epic has come nowhere near to minting the number of local millionaires that Microsoft has in Seattle.

Why? Because Microsoft is publicly traded and Epic isn’t. Read this sidebar for the explanation

The Epic Epoch, Cont’d

Posted March 10, 2021 by meisen
Categories: Development, Madison Magazine, Tech

Ya got me. I haven’t updated my story archive in the longest time. But a Wisconsin State Journal story detailing Epic employee unrest related to equity and diversity got me off my keister.

For the October 2020 issue of Madison Magazine, I examined the staff unrest at the Verona-based Electronic Health Record behemoth and considered what the future might hold for Dane County’s largest private employer. You can read the story here. Here’ what I concluded:

I did not speak to a single health care source who felt Epic’s EHR dominance was in danger now or in the immediate future or even 10 years from now.

Epic’s bond with its clients is just too strong. And even if there are unhappy campers, dumping Epic would mean repudiating a huge investment. The Kaiser Permanente consortium spent a reported $4 billion implementing Epic’s software. The Mayo Clinic got in for $1.5 billion. The Duke University Health System for $700 million. Eight- and nine-figure acquisition fees are common for Epic clients.

How do you walk away from that? Especially when no other EHR vendor offers a major hospital “50 different modules for 50 different departments” as good as Epic’s, as Bluetree’s Schwach told me.

Well, it could happen if you follow John Neis’ worried thinking: Failure is an option.

Neis, who has been doing early-stage health care investing since the mid-1980s, quietly argues that Epic is not invulnerable. He says the core problem remains: EHRs are an imperfect solution. Doctors find them “soul crushing.” This dysfunction haunts health care.

“The cost of leaving Epic for something else is enormous,” Neis acknowledges. But “switching does happen.” And sometimes outright revolutions happen in technology, too. Seared in Neis’ memory is a long-ago conversation in Rochester, New York, with a clueless Kodak executive who confidently told him that digital photography would never replace film.

Neis argues that a tech company with unlimited resources could blow up the existing EHR model and build a far better one. He feels “the Three As” — Amazon, Apple and Alphabet’s Google, all well practiced in disrupting entrenched industries — are the most likely Epic challengers.

Could they afford to spend a billion or two devising a “leapfrog” EHR that both pleases doctors and improves their diagnostic skills with data-crunched insights? We both laugh at the absurdity of the question; $2 billion is coffee money for the tech giants.

“The challengers would need to spend serious money,” he says. “It can’t be just for some incremental improvement. It has to be a huge leap forward in both data analysis to help guide the physician to the right decisions and secondly to greatly improve the software’s interface with the physician.”

At this point, Neis offers — practically in a stage whisper over the phone — an unexpected fourth candidate for disrupting the existing EHR hegemony: the Epic team itself. No one is better situated to lead the transformation, he says. They know the customer better than anybody. They understand what the problems are. They get how complex the solution needs to be. And because Epic is private, it doesn’t have to worry about Wall Street freaking out over a bad quarter or two.

Neis’ advice: “Epic should figure out the transformation before someone else does.”

Will the post-Faulkner Epic be agile enough to reimagine its business?

That’s the cosmic question. Northwestern’s Jennifer Pendergast, who directs the John L. Ward Center for Family Enterprises at Kellogg School of Management, knows little about Epic’s operation but is very familiar with strong-willed founders like Faulkner.

“Are they kidding themselves to think they can control the future from the grave? Yes. Often to great detriment,” she says. “The goal is to be flexible, resilient, to be able to pivot given the current environment. What you want is an organization that has the capacity to think and adjust on its own.”

As for an organization that is tightly fit to its market, Pendergast says it “will be really successful until the business environment changes. And then you’ve got a problem.”

Tommy’s Time…Again

Posted June 22, 2020 by meisen
Categories: Education, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus

Tags: ,

Four years ago I wrote a cover story for Isthmus detailing how former four-term Gov. Tommy Thompson’s strong support of the UW System grew out of his own experience as a small-town  kid whose life had been transformed by attending UW-Madison.

Now that Thompson has been named the interim UW System president, the story has new resonance. Here’s a chunk of what I wrote in 2016:

Down On The Farm

Posted June 10, 2020 by meisen
Categories: Local Food, Organic Farming/Local Food, The Milkweed

Tags: , , , ,

I’ve always admired the farm journalist Pete Hardin. (See my profile here.) He’s sort of the I.F. Stone of the barnyard. A detailed-oriented reporter with a controlled sense of outrage.

I felt honored when he asked me to write a couple of short news pieces for the May issue of The Milkweed, his iconoclastic monthly dairy report. One was an update of  my Wisconsin Examiner story on the travails and recent success of the Organic Valley farmers’ co-operative. The other was an “inside baseball” piece on how the co-op did business with the faultering Dean Foods’ milk operation.

Pete isn’t big on posting ungated Milkweed stories online. So, if you’re interested, check out the PDF.

Organic Valley Surges After More Red Ink

Posted April 28, 2020 by meisen
Categories: Organic Farming/Local Food, Wisconsin Examiner

Tags: , , , , ,

I continue to follow the ups and downs in the organic food movement for the Wisconsin Examiner. This update on the Organic Valley farmers co-op came after the coronavirus pandemic prompted the dairy farmers to schedule an unusual “virtual” annual meeting.

Here’s how the story starts:

 Here’s more evidence of the hard times — but also of new hope — in farm country.

Organic Valley, the nationally known organic farmers co-op headquartered in LaFarge, lost money for the third straight year in 2019, but observers say its economic performance has improved and more importantly organic milk sales are unexpectedly zooming in 2020.

“Organic milk is just flying off the grocery shelves,”  says Joel McNair, who publishes a Wisconsin-based farm magazine called GrazeHe says the co-op is “experiencing if not record sales, near-record sales” based on the comments he hears from Organic Valley farmers.

An unexpected rise in sales in January 2020 turned into a flood in February and March when the coronavirus swept across the country, according to observers. As Americans retreated to the safety of their homes, they began stocking their refrigerators with organic milk.

“People are eating more at home, and that is driving more in-store retail organic dairy purchases,” confirms Elizabeth McMullen, Organic Valley’s public relations coordinator, in a written statement.

She describes the growth in retail sales as “unprecedented”.

Note the 2019 financial results were not yet audited.

To read more, please go here.

How Best To Protect Organic Integrity?

Posted March 10, 2020 by meisen
Categories: Local Food, Organic Farming/Local Food, Wisconsin Examiner

Tags: , , , , , ,

Big question. No clear answer.

And that’s a huge problem with the ongoing crisis in organic farming.

How best to protect organic integrity — fight to enforce the original (and now degraded) federal  standards or push for new voluntary standards as a supplementary label?

Opinions are divided.

This is part II of my Wisconsin Examiner series.

Mark Kastel, a passionate organic farming watchdog, lays out the crisis that is chipping away at the moral high ground occupied by organic food.

Consumers pay a premium price for federally certified organic farm goods, he says, not just for the selfish reason of protecting their own health from chemical additives, but also because “they believe they’re doing something good for society.”

Mark A. Kastel OrganicEye (via Kastel)
Mark A. Kastel
OrganicEye (via Kastel)

“They believe they’re supporting a more environmentally responsible way of farming. A more humane animal husbandry,” he says. “And they believe economic justice for the farmers and for the farm workers is built right into that higher price.”

All that is jeopardized, Kastel warns, when consumers learn things, like, a single milk-processing plant in Colorado, supplied by 5,000- to 15,000- cow factory farms, is shipping certified organic milk all across the country. That milk is faux organiche argues, and “undercuts real organic farms” in Wisconsin by cheating on the federal organic rules.

“When consumers find out that these cows have short, stressful lives just like cows in factory farms — that doesn’t sound like they’re paying for more humane animal husbandry,” he says. “And when they find out the people milking these cows are mostly hard-working, exploited immigrants living in trailers, they don’t feel good about that either.”

The crux of the problem as Kastel and other critics see it: “The factory-farm milk from the 15,000 cow dairy shares the same green and white organic label as milk coming from a 50-cow family farm in Wisconsin.”

To read more, please go here.

Organic Farming Beset With Problems

Posted February 25, 2020 by meisen
Categories: Organic Farming/Local Food, Wisconsin Examiner

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

I spent considerable time in 2019 looking into the crisis in organic farming. What I found was disturbing: A profitable niche agricultural industry producing high-quality dairy products had seen its standards undermined, its output cheapened and commodified, and many of its farmers squeezed to the point of ruin.

The Wisconsin Examiner ran the two stories.

I wrote in part 1:

The crisis in organic dairy comes at a moment of paradox. The federally governed organic program and its “USDA ORGANIC” label have flat-out triumphed in the marketplace. (USDA is the U.S. Department of Agriculture.)

You find the green-and-white organic label on milk cartons, vegetables, fruit and packaged products. You find it in big box stores like Woodman’s, Kroger, and Wal-Mart, membership warehouses like Costco, and, of course, righteous grocery co-ops like Willy Street in Madison and Middleton, Outpost in the Milwaukee area, and all the grocery co-operatives brightening Viroqua, Ashland and other smaller Wisconsin towns.

Nationwide, organic food sales hit a record $47.9 billion in 2018, up almost 6% from the year before, according to the Organic Trade Association. In Wisconsin, the powerhouse Organic Valley farmers’ co-op, headquartered in little LaFarge (pop. 763), saw its national sales top $1 billion for the third straight year in 2018.

But dig deeper and you find turmoil far and wide.

It’s not just the imbalance between the supply and demand for organic milk or an apparent double standard on enforcing organic rules either.

Everything from shifting consumer preferences to plant-based substitutes for dairy and beef, to the rise of soil-less hydroponic farming competing with organic dirt farmers, to the importation of fraudulent organic grain driving down the prices paid legit organic growers for their corn and soybeans have all soured organic’s financial sweet spot.

“(Up until) five or six years ago, it really looked like organic was going to be the salvation of farming,” says Dave Chapman, a Vermont farmer who runs the Real Organic Project advocacy group.

“Great! We had a label that recognizes that,” says Chapman. “The tragedy is that industrial food producers took over the label. They had the influence to twist the rules to their advantage.”

 

To read more, please go here.


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