Archive for the ‘Organic Farming/Local Food’ category

Down On The Farm

June 10, 2020

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

April 28, 2020

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?

March 10, 2020

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

February 25, 2020

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.

This Dairy World Watchdog Has A Bite

July 9, 2019

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.

Organic Valley At The Crossroads

July 28, 2015

The Organic Valley farmers coop has been a huge success. With national sales hitting almost $1 billion, this upstart challenger of conventional agriculture has helped create a massive consumer market for chemical-free farming. Small family farmers in Wisconsin and across the nation have gone organic because of the premium prices their milk, eggs and meat attracts in the organic marketplace. But in researching this story for The Progressive magazine I found the coop in a surprisingly precarious position. I write:

Surging consumer demand for organics has created supply shortages for dairy products, and immense opportunities for profit. That has attracted some of the nation’s largest American food corporations to step up an already sizable investment in organics. These aren’t people motivated by protecting the environment, says David Kaseno of the National Farmers Organization. They are “people who think: ‘Hey we can make a lot of money in organic milk.’”

The $46 billion merger of Kraft Foods Group and the H.J. Heinz Co. in March will prompt its rivals to bulk up by buying fast-growing organic food labels, both The New York Times and Bloomberg News predicted. The food giants already produce a stunning 70 percent of the items stocked in a typical co-op grocery, says Philip Howard,a Michigan State University professor who tracks corporate consolidation in the organic world.

For organic industry observers, this poses stark questions for Organic Valley: Is it smart enough and big enough to compete with the corporate giants? Will it yield to the temptation to compromise organic standards to maintain market share? More to the point, will it hold on to its all-important dairy members, who have been abandoning the co-op for the significantly better pay offered by some Organic Valley competitors?

This is the paradox of Organic Valley: At a moment of great success, it faces something of an existential threat.

To read more, please go here.

I interviewed a ton of people for the story, including Organic Valley CEO George Siemon. Some of this views can be found in the story. I wrote an online sidebar that touches on other matters. I suspect that some people will be surprised at his positive impressions of Walmart. You can read about it here.

I also wrote about the Organic Valley coop for Isthmus. You can find those earlier stories from 2007 and 2008 here and here and here.

John Kinsman, the Family Farm Defender

May 30, 2012

Interviewing John Kinsman, the farmer activist  from Lime Ridge, was easily one of my more enjoyable assignments. The guy is fascinating, uniquely American in his personal history and  in committment to holding our country to its ideals. Here’s how the story in The Progressive magazine begins:

What could be more rare than cactus in a Wisconsin farmer’s wintry backyard? That would be the farmer himself if it’sJohn Kinsman. At age eighty-five, Kinsman has lived a singular life of activism.

This modest farmer from the Dairy State boondocks has traveled the world to stand with small farmers and indigenous people.

“You have to put your whole self into it,” he says of his approach. “You have to live what you’re saying.”

Kinsman has certainly done that. He’s locked arms with Native Americans like Winona LaDuke in their struggle. He founded the activist group Family Farm Defenders in 1994. He marched with his friend the French farm leader Jose Bové of anti-McDonald’s fame in “The Battle of Seattle” in 1999. He’s even sailed with Greenpeace.

How he managed all this while running a dairy farm in central Wisconsin, near tiny Lime Ridge, and raising ten children with his wife, Jean, may be the most improbable thing of all about Kinsman.

On a winter afternoon, Kinsman is just another Wisconsin farmer as he walks his 150 acres. He and Jean bought the worn-out, rock-strewn farm in the early 1950s not far from where his parents farmed. An early run-in with chemical pesticides put Kinsman in the hospital and converted him to organic farming. He points to the results.

Here are the pastures on which he rotationally grazes his milking herd of thirty-six Holsteins, the forested hills where he’s planted, literally, tens of thousands of trees, and the stand of fruit trees and bushes he’s grown around his house. And that patch of cacti—the prickly pear—was no exotic transplant but a stubborn native remnant from a warmer geological age in Wisconsin. Sort of like Kinsman himself.

Kinsman is a fourth-generation Wisconsin family farmer. His grandmother Samantha, who died at the age of ninety-seven in 1944, saw General Ulysses S. Grant when he visited Sandusky, Wisconsin. His dad was a “dyed-in-the-wool Republican who would vote for a dog if he were a Republican,” he says with a laugh. His own political awakening began in World War II, when on an Army train through Mississippi, he was upbraided for waving to the black people along the track.

To read more, please go here: http://www.progressive.org/family_farm_defender.html

I’ll Have What She’s Having

July 24, 2011

Here’s something different–a story about the most delicious peach in the world. It begins:

When approaching a ripe donut peach, one must temper lust with mindful restraint. First, assume a wide stance, slightly flexing your knees to maintain balance. Then gently grasp the saucer-shaped fruit with your thumb and middle finger, careful not to squeeze too tightly. Thrust your head forward, eyes closed, chin out, mouth open and prepare to swoon.

That first bite will release a wave of sugary goodness slobbering down your chin and, you hope, not on your Tommy Bahama camp shirt or Eileen Fisher cami. Spritzing is always a danger. Envious friends and family who have leaned in to take a close look may get a sudden jet of peach juice to the face.

They too may fall to the ground, writhing in pleasure.

“It’s a fruit you would have expected in the Garden of Eden,” says a close friend who shall remain nameless to protect her professional  reputation. “It’s fleshy and practically obscene with sticky sweet, dripping juices. If I were Eve, I would have tempted Adam with a donut peach.”

Psst. I can get you some….

Tempted?  To read more, go here.  Among other things, you’ll learn  that, according to Daoist mythology,  a single bite of a donut peach can bring immortality.

Chew On This

April 27, 2011

Personally, I’m big on local food and try to buy organic products. As a journalist, I find the organic/local food movement a  fascinating topic, but don’t see my role as that of an advocate.  In this column for Isthmus, I detail my reservations about the city building a large public market in downtown Madison.

For sure, the public market is beguiling in the abstract. Imagine a glistening 10- or 11-story office tower rising next to the Great Dane Pub and Brewing Co., where the aging Government East parking ramp now sits. Picture the first floor with 51 vendors situated inside a festive kiosk environment selling everything from chocolate to seafood to wine, with another 30 carts and stalls offering local farm products and goodies. A consultant predicts 808 new jobs.

Sounds marvelous, but there is reason for skepticism.

Real estate developers I’ve talked with see any number of major problems. Among other things, they say the costly, open-space, “clear-span” construction needed for the Public Market would drive up construction expenses to the point where the building’s rental rates would be dangerously expensive for the Madison real estate market. They warn that managing so many small and financially at-risk tenants is difficult, and worry about the impact on existing restaurants and the Wednesday Farmers’ Market.

“The Public Market would be a nice thing for Madison, but my concern is that will end up requiring a very large taxpayer subsidy,” says developer Sue Springman. “If it does, we need to know that going in and not be surprised later.”

In a city stung by the Overture Center miscalculations, Springman’s warning ought to be taken seriously.

To read more,  please click here.

Eating Locally In Eau Claire

December 15, 2010

On occasion, I write about good news. That’s what took me to Eau Claire earlier this year to chronicle the rise of the local-food movement in western Wisconsin for The Progressive magazine.

I was impressed.  Sacred Heart Hospital has pioneered the use  of locally grown food in its dining operation and is recognized as a national leader.

Here’s how the story begins:

HOSPITAL FOOD: THE VERY term conjures up the most bland and unappetizing images. But that’s changing in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, population 65,000. Sacred Heart, the smaller of Eau Claire’s two hospitals, has committed to spending 10 percent of its food budget on tasty local produce and meat.

By big-city standards, this does not amount to much—about $200,000 a year. But cracking the institutional market is one of the trickier challenges facing food system reformers, and this 334-bed hospital in western Wisconsin is showing the way.

By its nature, institutional food service is cost conscious and lends itself to the efficient, standardized approach of mass production. If you have hundreds, if not thousands, to feed daily, purveyors like Sysco, Aramark, and Sodexo are experts at delivering food product in the perfect portion size.

“We were used to placing an order and having everything come in the door exactly how we wanted it,” says Rick Beckler, Sacred Heart’s director of hospitality services. “We didn’t have a clue where it was produced or who grew it. We didn’t know even what continent it came from.”

Sacred Heart’s kitchen now serves greens from Pam Herdrich’s Flower Farm south of Eau Claire, meatloaf made of hamburger from Vic and Mary Price’s Out to Pasture Beef in Fall Creek, chicken from Eileen McCutchen’s Angel Acres in Mason, pork from Jim and Alison Deutsch’s Family Farm near Osseo, and lots of other locally sourced items.

To read more, including the Deutsch family’s  inspiring story, go here. Note that Sacred Heart recently increased its  purchase of local food to 15% of its total food budget.

HOSPITAL FOOD: THE VERY term conjures up the most bland and unappetizing images. But that’s changing in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, population 65,000. Sacred Heart, the smaller of Eau Claire’s two hospitals, has committed to spending 10 percent of its food budget on tasty local produce and meat. By big-city standards, this does not amount to much—about $200,000 a year. But cracking the institutional market is one of the trickier challenges facing food system reformers, and this 334-bed hospital in western Wisconsin is showing the way.

By its nature, institutional food service is cost conscious and lends itself to the efficient, standardized approach of mass production. If you have hundreds, if not thousands, to feed daily, purveyors like Sysco, Aramark, and Sodexo are experts at delivering food product in the perfect portion size.

“We were used to placing an order and having everything come in the door exactly how we wanted it,” says Rick Beckler, Sacred Heart’s director of hospitality services. “We didn’t have a clue where it was produced or who grew it. We didn’t know even what continent it came from.”

<a href=’http://www.progressive.org/adserver/www/delivery/ck.php?n=aca0f3e5&cb=INSERT_RANDOM_NUMBER_HERE’ target=’_blank’><img src=’http://www.progressive.org/adserver/www/delivery/avw.php?zoneid=1&cb=INSERT_RANDOM_NUMBER_HERE&n=aca0f3e5′ border=’0′ alt=” /></a>

Sacred Heart’s kitchen now serves greens from Pam Herdrich’s Flower Farm south of Eau Claire, meatloaf made of hamburger from Vic and Mary Price’s Out to Pasture Beef in Fall Creek, chicken from Eileen McCutchen’s Angel Acres in Mason, pork from Jim and Alison Deutsch’s Family Farm near Osseo, and lots of other locally sourced items.


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