Tommy’s Time…Again

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

A Fan’s Notes: Concerts 2019

Posted January 28, 2020 by meisen
Categories: Music, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus

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This is the 14th year I’ve written an annual roundup of my favorite concerts for the online edition of the Madison weekly Isthmus. I’m guessing I’ve seen close to 900 shows over the years. Yeah, I do love live music.

My 2019 faves lean to jazz and Americana. They range from rising jazz stars Makaya McCraven and Isaiah Collier to icons John Prine, Kris Kristofferson and Alejandro Escovedo.

Here’s a sample of how I saw things:

Forgotten history no more

Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi, Stoughton Opera House, Nov. 3, 2019

I was never a fan of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and its take on old-time string-band music. I dislike revivalism. I don’t want to hear how the music was played in the old days. I flee from Dixieland bands. I shudder at musicians wearing period clothes while recreating Finnish logging songs from northern Wisconsin. I want to hear fresh takes on old music, or the real McCoys making it.

But now I’ve changed my tune, to a degree. Increasingly I think recovering historical memory is essential for identifying the good and bad of our shared cultural legacy. Rhiannon Giddens, the ex-Chocolate Drops singer and banjo player, is not just blessed with a gorgeously rich voice, but she’s engaged in a necessary campaign to reconnect the rich history of country music with its purposely obscured African American roots.

And, yeah, that means giving an honest nod to demeaning minstrelsy and how white musicians in blackface began to bring African American music into the broader Southern vernacular, while mostly forgotten black musicians were simultaneously remaking the Scots-Irish tunes for their own purposes,

All this sounds much more pedantic than Giddens’ performance. Good music is good music. Giddens is great because she can break your heart singing Patsy Cline as well as Nina Simone ballads, not to mention the sad old Scots-Irish laments that became foundational to the “high lonesome” sound of country music

Hey, it probably helps that Giddens, this quintessential American musician, lives in Ireland.

You must remember this

Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Symphony Center (Chicago), Feb. 23, 2019

I heard lots of symphonic music in Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago. None better in 2019 than the august Riccardo Muti at the helm of the world class Chicago Symphony performing Mozart’s Requiem. Certain pieces just blow me away. I might as well be strapped in my seat for safety reasons. We’re talking sensory overload. A huge chorus. Massive orchestra. Opera soloists (led by soprano Benedetta Torre) who shook the walls. This was the music of transcendence, a meditation on death and God.

But Muti, shaped by his Italian upbringing, had something else in mind for the concert opener: a requiem of another sort marked by raw anger and pain. This was not Mozart’s calming acceptance of fate. Muti wanted to honor the victims of the Le Fosse Ardeatine massacre outside of Rome on the 75th anniversary of the event..

He chose little-known American composer William Schuman’s 9th Symphony. This somber, dissonant and sometimes clamorous piece was inspired by the memory of 335 Italian civilians summarily shot, killed and buried unmarked in an Italian quarry by the retreating German SS in 1944.

At Muti’s direction, Symphony Center’s rotunda was filled with artifacts and photos documenting the Nazi outrage. When I wrote the first draft of this concert review, it dawned upon me how much Muti has in common with Rhiannon Giddens. They are two artists — though different in their talents — who deeply believe music is a vessel of cultural memory.

To read the full story please go here.

My older roundups are here, assuming the links remain true: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 201420132012201120102009200820072006.

Silence at WARF

Posted September 2, 2019 by meisen
Categories: TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus, UW-Madison Research Series

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What’s Wisconsin greatest public asset for doing good in the world? I’ll put a double-sawbuck on UW-Madison. Our world-class university is a standout for teaching, research and innovation. That’s why the performance of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation — the campus’s designated handler of intellectual property since  1925 — is so important to the state.

Getting a clear picture of WARF’s operation isn’t always easy. Here’s how I began a recent Isthmus story:

A preternatural silence has surrounded the departure of one of the highest paid executives on the UW-Madison campus. It’s one more sign of the big changes rocking the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, UW’s independent patenting and licensing operation.

Carrie Thome, WARF’s award-winning chief investment officer who rose to power under WARF’s previous managing director Carl Gulbrandsen, left her post in June after 18 years with the foundation. Her compensation package topped $1.2 million in 2017, the last year such data is publicly available.

Briefly noted in the niche financial media, Thome’s low-key exit has gone unmentioned by Wisconsin news outlets. On July 1, Chief Investment Officer magazine quoted a WARF publicist as saying that Thome’s “transition” was a personnel matter and that WARF would not comment beyond that.

Thome did not return my messages. (Her LinkedIn page describes her as self-employed and a consultant since July.) Erik Iverson, who replaced the retired Gulbrandsen in 2016, was not available for comment. WARF’s board chairman James Berbee did not respond to an interview request.

Thome, who joined WARF in 2001 after a stint with the Wisconsin Investment Board, presided over a huge investment portfolio — $2.78 billion as of 2017. Established in 1925, the WARF endowment supports various UW-Madison and Morgridge Institute for Research programs with sizable yearly grants. According to the 2017 federal disclosure form, the portfolio included $1.72 billion in hedge fund investments, $659.4 million in money market funds, $346.7 million in private-equity limited partnerships, $29.8 million in fixed-income vehicles, and $19.7 million invested in WARF startup companies.

Keep that $19.7 million figure in mind.

To read more, please go here.

The Dairy Crisis, cont’d

Posted July 23, 2019 by meisen
Categories: Development, Wisconsin Examiner

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Sometimes you can’t shovel everything into a story.

I found myself in that position when I profiled investigative  farm journalist Pete Hardin for Isthmus. He’s an invaluable chronicler of the crisis in dairy farming. I just didn’t have the room to discuss his reporting on the cost overruns and construction delays in UW-Madison’s much-needed expansion of its Center for Dairy Research.

But as luck had it, I wrote what amounts to Part II of the Hardin story for the newly launched Wisconsin Examiner,  an online news bureau focused on covering state politics and government. Friends and former colleagues are running it.

I wrote a commentary on how Wisconsin politicians (as well as UW-Madison) have failed dairy farmers.

Imagine if Gov. Evers, Speaker Robin Vos and state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald had gathered at the onset of the January legislative session to say that Job One would be working out a rescue plan for Wisconsin dairy farmers before turning to the new state budget.

Not everything has to be draped in extreme partisanship. Our leaders could have rallied around family farmers. Right?

Chances are the pols would have found a common ground. Goodwill would have followed. The budget deliberations would have been less smash-face. Can’t you imagine a rousing chorus of “Kumbaya” breaking out as Evers signed the budget bill surrounded by the beaming Vos and Fitzgerald?

Okay, I am a fool.

These people have warring agendas and a preference for disingenuous arguments. That’s what they do. A few years ago, Republicans gave manufacturers a huge and costly income tax cut under the cover it would also help farmers. Democrats, meanwhile, are intensely committed to issues that appeal to Milwaukee County and Dane County activists. Yes, expanding Medicaid will help struggling Wisconsin farm families, but citing it as a cornerstone to the Democrats’ farm policy is such a clumsy sleight of hand.

Wisconsin farmers need more than lip service from the pols. They need smart policies broadly supported. Otherwise we ought to change the tagline on our license plates. “America’s Dairyland”? Not anymore.

To read more, please go here.

This Dairy World Watchdog Has A Bite

Posted July 9, 2019 by meisen
Categories: Organic Farming/Local Food, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus

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Hell, I’ll just say it. Pete Hardin is one of the best reporters I’ve met.

You’ve probably never heard of him because he writes about the troubled world of  dairy farming. This is a vitally important economic and cultural topic. But in our cloistered worlds of digital siloes, well,  news stories about the real silos in farm country never quite trend.

In a profile for Isthmus, I make the case that Hardin’s monthly dairy report, The Milkweed, is essential reading:

Year after year, Hardin has been a hard-edged voice challenging exploitative food processors, errant farm cooperatives, bullying seed companies, and self-serving agricultural groups that he feels habitually abuse the farmers who enrich them.

“Most of the organizations that allege to support dairy farmers suffer from mission failure,” Hardin says, sounding very much like a seen-it-all judge gaveling a verdict….

His reporting is intensely fact-based, assiduously sourced to the small-print revelations hiding in annual reports, nonprofit disclosure statements, court cases, and federal and state crop information.

He is a go-to source for other reporters, myself included. His observations on the dairy industry periodically are featured in national reports in The Washington PostThe New York TimesBloomberg Newsand such international outlets as Canadian and Japanese public television. He was also the subject of a 1984 cover story in Isthmus.

Rick Barrett, whose own deeply sourced reporting on the dairy crisis is receiving featured play in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, points out Hardin’s unique position in the dairy world.

“The farmers I meet on a day-to-day basis have a huge amount of respect for him,” Barrett says. “Pete Hardin is an icon in this state. There is no question about it. Even the people who disagree with him, or who don’t like his style of reporting, respect him….”

Hardin’s voice is more important that ever. I was tempted to add “in the dairy world,” but that would sell him short. With the dizzying decline of newspapers as a general news source, The Milkweed is essential reading for anyone — citizen, professor, activist, politician — who wants to understand the under-reported dairy crisis.

To read more, please go here.

Will UW Hear Its Wake-Up Call?

Posted April 26, 2019 by meisen
Categories: Development, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus, UW-Madison Research Series

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In this cover story for Isthmus, I did deeper into why UW-Madison, ranked sixth in the nation for research, scores poorly for business research (50th place) and in particular for hosting  medical-related clinical  trials  (51st place). The story begins:

By now it’s well documented that UW-Madison lags behind most of its peers in turning its esteemed research into marketable goods. The question is what would it take for the university to get on track and become a pacesetter in the lucrative development of pharmaceutical drugs and cutting-edge medical treatment? One answer: a “major culture change spearheaded by top leadership.”

That’s the wake-up call sounded in a provocative study commissioned by UW Health and the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. Conducted by consultant Mary Westrick, who has 35 years of experience in clinical testing, the study lays out a series of stark challenges — both organizational as well as attitudinal — that threaten the campus’ declared goal to be a national leader in translating basic research into cutting-edge medical treatment.

Key to success, Westrick argues, is revamping the campus review of research projects that involve human subjects. UW-Madison’s existing clinical trial system, as Westrick and other critics describe it, is a quagmire of red tape that frustrates many campus researchers, while simultaneously failing to embrace standards that produce quality test outcomes.

UW’s existing clinical trials system places way too much emphasis, Westrick says, “on protecting the university from any risk, liability or adverse publicity.” This comes at a cost, she warns: “The result stifles potentially beneficial — even life-saving — research to patients with no counter-balanced benefit of increased patient protection.”

….Westrick’s negative assessment, while fiercely contested by some UW administrators, is part of a determined movement on campus to embrace the linkage of medical education, patient care and research discoveries to produce breakthrough treatments. The stakes are very high for UW-Madison both in terms of science and commerce.

Rock Mackie, an entrepreneurial-minded emeritus professor of medical physics who is UW Health’s first chief innovation officer, summed up the reformers’ challenge a few weeks ago at a luncheon meeting of Madison-area tech executives:

“How can we unleash the power of the medical university to incubate ideas into companies? To grow both the Wisconsin economy and to improve healthcare?”

To read more, please go here.


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