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.
To most people, “New York” means New York City. Rural New York is not so well known, even to our fellow New Yorkers. Few know that one quarter of New York’s land base or 7 million acres is devoted to farms.
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.
In the first week of December 2009, hundreds of Northeast dairy farmers chartered buses and rode all night to Washington, D.C., to seek emergency help. That same week, New York City Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and a food group known as Just Food hosted a conference in Manhattan called “Food and Climate Change.” As dairy farmers boarded buses to Washington, I telephoned conference organizers and other urban food groups to see if they would be willing to say something in support of the dairy farmers in crisis to the north of them. The response was mostly that their focus was more on “local” food and “good” food. Most did not know of the desperate plight of dairy farmers Upstate and nationally.
“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.
Some farmers turned to social media in an attempt to bridge the gap between rural and urban New York. Through Twitter, we established contact with many wonderful young urban residents who were interested in learning more about farmers. One Twitter friend encouraged me to post photos, and even made a video from my past photos, with musician Rachel Epp donating her music for the video. At the urging of another Twitter friend, a few women dairy farmers decided that we would “step up to the plate” and travel into New York City to speak. In the fall of 2012, we submitted a proposal to speak at the 2013 Just Food Conference, which was sold out to a capacity of 2,000 people interested in food and agriculture.
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.
We spoke of “beauty down every country road,” rural heritage, farmer and worker diversity, ecosystem services, watersheds and biodiversity and production of billions of dollars worth of milk just to the north of New York City. A flurry of questions poured out of our listeners: “What’s in the milk?” “Does conventional milk contain antibiotics?” “Do you grow GMO crops?” “What kind of pesticides do you use and are they in the milk?”
Answering questions in an open format with our fellow New Yorkers gave us the chance to see exactly what people are concerned about. Some posed questions as farmer “litmus tests.” Others took notes and later followed up with emails to us. A few complained that they were mostly interested in organic, not ‘conventional” farms. We later mingled with the crowds as our young teen dairy farmer served our neighbors’ artisan cheeses to people who were surprised to actually meet a dairy farmer.
I have learned a few things since my initial contact with “food movement” groups in 2009. Today, in 2013, there is a deep interest by many in the food movement about where food comes from. Some of the most interested are young people. We farmers should take note that there is something in these young people driving them to regain contact with the land and food. In speaking with the urban food groups, I have found my best moments not with celebrities, but with ordinary people who are searching for information.
Some of the young people are willing to use their creative energies to know us, the commodity farmers. At Just Food, an attendee asked if it would be possible to charter a bus to the Mohawk Valley to see farms and maybe go to the fair. Young mothers asked if we could come to their children’s schools to speak about where milk comes from. Chefs and cheesemongers offered words of encouragement. A young photographer is traveling the roads of rural New York taking portraits of dairy farmers, hoping to do a gallery show in New York City to show the “faces of dairy farmers.” Erin Fairbanks, a talented young food radio show host, interviewed me on her “Farm Report” aired by Heritage Radio Network in Brooklyn on May 29, 2013.
I urge farmers and ranchers not to rely totally on traditional farm organizations to speak for them. Take a few friends and a day to go into the heart of your nearest Big City to speak to ‘food movement” groups. Be yourself, talk to people with respect, and find out what is on people’s minds. Engage in social media that is fast and easy, like Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook and others. It’s easy and can be done from a cell phone while doing farm work. You may make some unlikely friends and open some new vistas for yourself as well. Report back what you have learned to your fellow farmers. Farmers are equally as interested in hearing what people in “The City” think of them.
Reach out, grain trust. We as farmers have nothing to lose – and everything to gain.