Tomorrow New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman hosts a filled-to-capacity event at the Cooper Union, with writers Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson, on the future of agriculture. Does that future include farmers from “deep rural” America who produce the nation’s dairy and grain? An Upstate New York farmer and lawyer says it’s time for small commodity farmers to start telling their own stories. Here’s how to do it.
Commodity farmers of deep rural America are rarely mentioned in mainstream media unless there is a crisis. Similarly, food movement writers and literature do not welcome commodity farmers into the fold of “local food.” “Local farmers” are lovingly depicted almost to the point of rock-star status. “Commodity farmers” of deeper rural regions seem to be viewed more with suspicion and in some cases, contempt.
Overseas, commodity farmers have used a variety of methods to gain public consideration of agriculture. French farmers have elevated farmer protests to an art form. Likewise for British dairy farmers who sent some 3,000 dairy farmers into London during a 2012 milk price decline. The farmers took their campaign to the public, calling it “SOS Dairy.” British musicians composed an SOS Dairy theme song calling for “fair trade milk prices.” In the first international sharing of dairy farmer protest music that I know of, the British musicians re-mixed the SOS Dairy song for California dairy farmers who were also staging milk price protests in the streets of Sacramento during 2012. (You can listen to it here.)
In New York, we dairy farmers see ourselves as closer to the fray of urban food policy than farmers of other regions. New York is a highly urban state where Big City politics can have a real impact on rural New York. We still remember the late 1990’s when New York City politicians helped to break up the Northeast Dairy Compact. This was an effort to stabilize milk prices for the dairy farmers Upstate. New York City consumer advocates called this farmer collective bargaining effort a “milk tax on the poor” and the New York Times railed against “farmer cartels.”
The pendulum has swung the other way and New Yorkers are now seeking more food from Upstate New York. Rural New York dairy farmers have been attempting to establish communications with the Big Apple and its urban food movement in a variety of ways. In March of 2013, a group of Upstate dairy farmers tackled the Big Apple when dairy farmers attempted to meet food movement leaders. Our presentation at the 2013 Just Food conference covered dairy farmers of all sizes, with no farmer left behind. We tried to give an accurate picture to New Yorkers of deep rural New York with photographs, statistics and maps. We made many friends, especially media people with whom we have maintained contact.
A dairy farmer publicity “grand slam” took place on November 8, 2013. Eighty-four Vermont and New York dairy farmers filled two red plaid buses, traveling into New York City for the “Cabot Farmers Gratitude Tour.” Dressed alike in red plaid jackets, the Cabot Creamery farmers’ theme was to thank New York City consumers for their support. Farmers were positioned in 75 retail stores where they distributed cheese samples, did in-store demos and posed for “selfies” with consumers. Reports of “farmer hugging” and consumer enthusiasm in meeting actual dairy farmers came back with the farmers. Before leaving town, the Cabot dairy farmers performed “55 Random Acts of Cheddar.” Cheesey greetings were left at 55 fire houses, police departments and not-for-profits, thanking these professionals for their work. The Cabot farmers cooperative did what has never been done: delivered a massive influx of actual dairy farmers into New York City.
In an effort that won them an international trade-association award, the New York State Animal Agriculture Coalition brought the cycle of life to public view at the New York State Fair. The Animal Agriculture Coalition hosted the first ever Dairy Cow Birthing Center at the New York State Fair last fall. Cornell Veterinary College featured a live web so that remote viewers could watch maternal magic via the Internet. Some 10,000 people a day stopped by to watch calves being born as proud veterinary and agriculture students were on hand to assist and explain the birthing process to the public.
The Saratoga, New York, FarmAid concert of 2013 gave us an opportunity to show off images of deep rural farms to 25,000 concert attendees. The talent of Pennsylvania ag photographer Sherry Bunting of Farm Shine Magazine was deployed to provide FarmAid with high resolution photos of regional working farms. FarmAid creative people transformed Sherry’s photos and others into stage backdrops. Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Dave Matthews and other artists performed before scenes of Northeast style farms and grazing herds. A surprise appearance by then 94-year-old folk singer Pete Seeger brought the house down as the crowd sang “This Land Is Your Land” in front of a traditional dairy barn. Dairy farmers with the National Family Farm Coalition set up a display next to the family fishermen of New England. Side by side the farmers and fishermen spoke of the need for fair prices to the people who work the land and the sea.
In October of 2013, our network of dairy farmers stepped outside of our usual dairy focus. As Blizzard Atlas receded from South Dakota and Wyoming ranches, dairy Facebook pages complained that nothing was being said about the ranchers in national media. As ranchers reeled from losses, we dairy farmers mustered every contact we had made in New York City to help get ranchers media coverage. Key food movement leaders were unresponsive to our requests for help in getting media coverage of the ranchers situation. In contrast, young writers at Modern Farmer Magazine and Grist took one look at photos we forwarded to provide the first urban coverage of the ranchers’ disaster.
Sometimes “street fighting” is called for. In August of 2013, an activist group called GMO Inside targeted milk as “GMO-contaminated” if the cows had eaten any GMO grain. Zeroing in on the pride of New York’s Chobani yogurt, this group advanced social media campaigns to stigmatize yogurt made from milk that is not certified organic. Regardless of one’s views on GMO grains, my belief is that is unfair to impugn dairy farmers who barely pay the bills while buying conventional grains as cow feed. When GMO Inside members picketed the Manhattan Chobani Yogurt Bar denouncing “GMO Dairy,” Upstate farm women launched a barrage of polite, but firm, calls to the surprised picketers’ cell phones. From all area codes of rural New York, our message was that we refuse to be devalued and marginalized by this campaign. We attempted to explain realities of feed purchasing in rural New York and invited the shocked picketers to come Upstate to visit. We hope they will.
Modern technology allowed me, a country lawyer, to speak on an animal agriculture panel discussion held by the New York City Bar Association on March 20, 2014. A flier for the event showing a corrugated tin cow barn with a few dozen cows standing in the mud caught my eye. The flier stated that it is a known scientific fact that animal agriculture is detrimental to health and the environment. With the thought burning in my mind that this humble tin barn was some farm family’s life, I contacted the NYC Bar Association representatives to ask if farmer stakeholders were going to be allowed to speak. Event organizers suggested Skype technology for our first ever “dairy farmer” panelist beamed into the NYC Bar Association headquarters. It was rewarding for me to speak as a rural lawyer to New York City attorneys and law students who not only listened but were full of questions.
Earlier this week, dairy farmers of all sizes and styles were welcomed by 300 culinary arts students at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York on March 31, 2014. The Fabulous Beekman Boys, Brent Ridge and Josh Kiolmer-Purcell of Beekman 1802 Monday joined farmers Sam Simon of Hudson Valley Fresh, Stuart Ziehm of Tiashoke Farm and Paul and Phyllis Van Amburgh of Dharma Lea Farm in talking about challenges faced by dairy farmers and the critical importance of farmland to New York. Future chefs were very interested in where milk comes from in New York and ways it is produced.
This has all been a learning process that may help other farmers or rural groups who are seeking greater understanding by urban populations. Going forward, I have several suggestions:
It is difficult to gauge the impact that our farmers have had. Seeing the greater confidence of those farmers who have returned from New York City venues makes me believe that we ourselves are “breaking the sound barrier.” If we, as rural farmers, are going to talk with urban representatives on substantive issues, if we are going to demand fair prices and fair treatment for rural America, we ourselves need to speak up. Craft your own images, rural America … or they will be crafted for you!