Katie Green, The Plain and Simple Correspondent
Editors Note: Community Columns are meant to provide a space for public figures, members of the public or other public staff to share ideas and opinions. Community Columns are submitted to Valley Sentinel.
My maternal grandmother in Iowa loved her milk cows. Born in 1878, she and millions of others like her in the 19th Century nourished a tender relationship with their farm animals. In the first Federal Census in 1790, 90-some percent of the people enumerated in this country were engaged in farming of one kind of another. By the 1940 census – the last one we can have access to — the statistics were reversed, with 90-something percent of our citizens off the farms and doing something else for a living. I cherish a photo of Grandma perched on her milking stool, cheek against the flank of a cow, filling a bucket to be drunk at the next meal by her many dependents, or to make butter, or use in many other delicious ways. Such as to whip up a batch of her buttermilk “gems”. Yum! My cousin Jerry, who grew up in my grandparents’ house, would only drink the Brown Cow’s milk (a Guernsey, perhaps), not the other milker they kept at that time. I couldn’t tell the difference between the two, myself, but he had developed discriminating tastebuds and insisted on Brown Cow. On the other side of the tree, my father’s family established successful dairies in Dundee, Illinois in the mid-1800s, replicating dairies they had owned in Western Massachusetts before emigrating West.
Considering myself a farmer by inheritance and proclivity, the articles about the plight of farming, particularly dairy farming, in Wisconsin in the last issue of The Sentinel elicited great sympathy in my bosom. I know the heartbreak firsthand from family stories, and saw the Iowa Grandpa hurl an ear of corn against the side of the corncrib in disgust when a load of corn was delivered from the leased home farm to him at the smaller farm near town. “He’s not taking care of the soil!” he lamented, inspecting the stunted cobs.
Several thoughts occurred to me after I read the articles, omissions in the possibilities still open for those who want to remain in agriculture. Co-ops, primarily. One of the farmers interviewed lamented not being able to easily sell directly to customers. Well, my husband and I have belonged to a buying club for some years that purveys unpasteurized dairy products, locally grown meats, honey, sorghum, kimchi, sauerkraut, eggs, and baked goods, among other basics. Everything is inspected, carefully stored and labeled. We all sign a statement regarding possible health risks when we join, and eat these high quality products with trust in our farmers. The Dept. of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection tried to close down our co-op a few years back and a jury trial ensued. Not only did the jury did find our farmer innocent except for one niggling charge, but some of the jury members joined the co-op and the trial publicity brought in other new members. The State still has not regularized such co-ops in law so as to open up other sources of revenue for farmers and is devoutly to be wished.
One spectacular success story is that of Organic Valley, whose birth pangs were in the 1970s. From a small group of farmers disenchanted with the new chemical “innovations” increasingly used here in Wisconsin, Organic Valley now has numerous certified satellite members all over the country, with a long list of potential members waiting to join. Dean Swenson, of rural Spring Green, was one of the originators to return to Old Ways of farming, before the advent of herbicides, pesticides, hormones, etc.. All of the original group had independently decided to turn away from chemical farming as dangerous to the farm hands and ruinous to the general environment, regardless of what the schools of agriculture were teaching. Dean and wife Jan had visited a biodynamic farm in Germany and that hardened his resolve. Dean says that at first he just poured his milk in with “conventional”, since no market for organics had yet been developed, but eventually he linked up with others to establish the company whose products can be found coast to coast.
Several complaints made by farmers in the Sentinel articles have been addressed by Organic Valley. First, the OG farmers themselves set the price of their milk, not some other entity, so the statement that “their hands are tied” is not relevant for OG farmers. And since OG cows are pastured for much of the year, as opposed to standing in a barn, the cost of feed is much less. The company keeps a staff of veterinarians to help their farmers deal with any problems that arise, but by and large pastured cows are healthier (and no doubt happier) than those who gaze longingly at green fields while chained to a stall in a building. Finally, OG has a fund to support young people wanting to get into farming –including linking young, would-be farmers with older ones approaching retirement — to take over their farms in some cases, assistance in purchasing land in other casess, and offering the wisdom of many years of experience. As a result, there is a crop of younger people in the wings eager to take their chances in a chancy but fulfilling way of life.
In any case, I hope that more agriculturists take courage from these examples and others like them springing up around the country. The need for good food isn’t going away anytime soon, and the soulful dedication to the art of growing things and producing products demonstrated by the farmers interviewed in your articles is too valuable to ignore or discourage. We need you.