Small Dairies and the Big Apple
[imgbelt img=cow.jpg]Dairy farmers in “deep rural” New York got a cool reception when they first tried to connect with the New York City “food movement.” Now, through polite persistence, social media and literally going the extra mile, commodity farmers are making some friends in the nation’s biggest city.
Photo by Michael FemiaStanding in Times Square are Tammy Graves (left), Kayla Windecker, Art Graves, Dale Windecker and Deb Windecker. The group drove five hours to participate in the Just Food conference, giving city food enthusiasts a more realistic view of dairy farming. Despite high-profile campaigns against milk and animal agriculture, these farmers found that some folks in the food movement are interested in learning more about the state’s dairies.
New York agricultural regions are diverse, with millions of acres in rolling grasslands, traditional dairy farms, the productive Finger Lakes areas, the wide open North Country that extends to Canada, and the flatlands of Western New York. The Hudson River Valley and Long Island offer farmlands closer to New York City that produce more “local” foods for New York City consumers than the other regions.
Dairy farming is New York’s largest agricultural sector, with 5,400 farms producing $2.2 billion worth of milk at the farm gate. We are many small farms with an average herd size of 113 cows, smaller than the national average of 187 cows. In comparison, New Mexico, one of the fastest growing dairy states, has an average herd size of roughly 2,300 cows per farm.
For us, as commodity dairy farmers, New York City is our single most important market. New York City uses so much milk that its consumption fluctuations can push the price farmers get for milk up or down. Rural New York provides the city with a nearby source of fluid milk for drinking and a variety of dairy products, including Greek yogurt.
New York farmers have watched with interest as New York City’s “food movement” rises from a city that has for decades seemingly turned its back on the state’s farmers. “Food interested” New York City residents seem most focused on “local” food. “Local farmers” are the farmers who have the product, proximity or wherewithal to sell directly to outlets and consumers within the city through green markets, Community Supported Agriculture and other means. The “local farmers” seem to be more known to food-interested residents of the Big Apple than those of us in deep rural New York.
In contrast, we as commodity dairy farmers and “farmers of the middle” (ones with annual sales from about $100,000 to $250,000) seem to be relatively unknown to both the leadership and average city residents interested in food. In 2009, as the price of milk crashed worldwide, New York food movement groups seemed oblivious to the suffering of dairy farmers Upstate, who were struggling with milk checks that could not even begin to cover production costs.
[imgcontainer left][img:deb2.jpg"/>Deb Windecker, member of the Otsego-Herkimer-Montgomery Counties Holstein Club, at her farm.
“Food and Climate Change” conference speakers portrayed livestock farming as destructive to the environment and called for a more plant-based diet. A “New York City Food Pledge” asked urban residents to drink more water as an environmentally friendly beverage. New Yorkers were exhorted to eat less meat to “save the environment.” Upstate, we dairy farmers thought the millions of acres of farming landscape, our green pastures and family dairy farms were worth fighting for – for our families, for future generations. To survive the milk price crash, farmers racked up debt, took food pantry donations, dropped health insurance. In despair, a few committed suicide.
During the ensuing years, it seemed that we of deep rural New York continued to be strangers to both the food movement leadership and urban writers. In 2012 celebrity chef Mark Bittman used his privileged position as a New York Times writer to excoriate milk, citing his own heartburn and soliciting opinions from the general public as to why milk is “unhealthy.” The New York Times devoted space to a contest asking readers to submit essays answering the question “Is eating meat ethical?” Out in farm-country New York, dairy farmers asked how it could be that food movement writers who speak of foodsheds, “local food” and real food, seemed to speak of us with near contempt.
Our presentation called “Introduction to the New York Milkshed” was chosen by the Just Food organizers, and we got to work developing a visual presentation showing dairy farms of all sizes, from hill-country grazing herds to the large farms of the flatlands. We wanted our presentation to be comprehensive and fair, with no dairy farmer left behind.
On March 29, 2013, we farmers trooped into the Just Food 2013 “Eat Work Grow the Movement” Conference. Seeing us carrying coolers of artisan cheeses, conference attendees were shocked that we had traveled five hours to speak with them. Our farmer group included Holstein breeders Dale and Deb Windecker, an ag communicator Tammy Graves and her agronomist husband, Art Graves, a teenage Dairy Ambassador, Kayla Windecker and me (a country lawyer). Chobani sent a truckload of free Greek yogurt for conference attendees.
Our goal was to give conference goers the vision to see that every farm, whether a commodity farm or a “local” farm, has a story, a history and a dream for the future. We knew that we were telling the story of all farmers who are producing a food commodity, but are ultimately unseen by the consumers. As the young women farmers addressed the audience, I saw in them the faces of hundreds of “farmers of the middle” whom I have met in my travels across the United States working in the “farmer justice” issues of the 1980s.
[imgcontainer left][img:justfoodsmall.jpg"/>Tammy Graves, Deb Windecker and Lorraine Lewandrowski present their session on “the New York Milkshed” to the Just Food conference in March 2013.