Ulla Kjarval and Adriana Velez

Archive for the ‘Food System’ Category

Save Family Dairy Farmers

In Food Chain, Food System, Policy, Uncategorized on June 28, 2010 at 2:25 pm

dairy antitrustFairmAid and CREDO have joined together to draft a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder to follow through on ongoing investigations of anticompetitive conduct in the dairy industry and to investigate the antitrust allegations outlined in pending lawsuits filed against DFA, Dean Foods, among others. Please read and sign the letter here.

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Letter from farmer Ken Jaffe in response to the threat gas drilling poses to NYC’s food shed.

In Farmer's Concerns, Food Chain, Food System, Policy, Uncategorized on June 21, 2010 at 12:56 pm

Ken Jaffe is a grass-fed beef farmer in Meredith, NY
Hello all,

Tune into “Gasland” on HBO Monday June 21st at 9pm.

Folks in NYC may be feeling secure about gas drilling, and lulled into silence about the threat. After all, NY State has bowed to pressure from the City and decided there will be no drilling for methane gas in the NYC Watershed. You should not feel secure, because gas drilling will poison your food shed.

You should understand that the industrialization and pollution of rural upstate New York will kill the production of organic and sustainable food in this region.  The area of food production is almost all outside the NYC Watershed, and vulnerable. Massive amounts of toxins will be pumped into our aquifers and air. These hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds, known carcinogens and endocrine disrupters, are pumped into the ground in massive quantities in the drilling process, and released into the air from evaporation tanks.

The gas and oil industry is relying on your silence so they will be unopposed. Their current plans are for 8-10 wells per square mile, pumping billions of gallons of toxic water into the ground. They will pollute the air and water of a large region that represents most of NY State food shed, directly threatening the agricultural base that you rely upon for your food. This includes the western Catskills, across the Finger Lakes to western NY. Most of Pennsylvania is also under the gun.

Pollution of water, air and food from the gas drilling industry is exempt from all federal pollution laws, thanks to Dick Cheney’s 2005 Energy Policy Act, and its “Halliburton Exemption”. Incredibly, gas drillers can pollute without regard to the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, or the Clear Air Act.  For instance, it is legal for gas drilling to cause drinking water to contain high levels of carcinogens like benzene that violate the Safe Drinking Water Act  because the Safe Drinking Water Act simply does not apply if gas drilling is the cause. With state of affairs, the public and the environment have been defenseless against gas drillers (who are one and the same as the oil drillers).  They have used the cover of this exemption to ruin the air, water, and landscape of large swaths of several western states, and are now moving east.

I am not prone to overstatement about health issues, but it is hard to express the magnitude of this treat in a short email. On a personal level, if gas drilling occurs in our area, I cannot image Slope Farms surviving. We simply will not be able to produce food that you will want to eat because of the toxins in the water that our cattle drink (and my family  drinks as well), and the massive pollution of our air.  This assessment is shared the many producers of sustainable agricultural products with whom I’ve spoken.

As a result of contamination of drinking water from gas drilling in Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Wyoming, and air in Texas, the US EPA has finally begun to  study the risks. There is proposed legislation at the federal and state level that would more closely regulate gas drilling. There is a proposal in NY State for a moratorium on drilling until the EPA can complete its study of the risks.  But none of this legislation currently  has enough  support to pass. So public awareness and pressure is critical. But it is doubtful that the current form of gas drilling (“hydrofracking”) with its injection of massive quantities of water and toxins in the ground can be done safely, even with regulation.

“Gasland” is a documentary on gas drilling. It will premier on HBO June 21 at 9pm. It is a 2010 Sundance Documentary Prize winner. It will give you new knowledge of this industry and its threats. You should see it. You should tell your friends. This industry is powerful, and has a track record of ruthlessness.  We need an informed public that is vocal to protect our food and water.

Best,

Ken

Ken Jaffe

Slope Farms

Meredith, NY

A Local Farmer’s Perspective On Having a 72,000 Head Cattle CAFO Next Door

In Farmer's Concerns, Food Chain, Food System, Policy, Uncategorized on May 5, 2010 at 2:10 pm

If proposed plant goes through the Port of Oswego would become a hub for corn shipped in from the Mid-West.

Karen Hall and her family are farmers in Upstate, NY and live in the town where a proposed mega cattle finishing facility is planned to be built. The company behind the project have already received town board approval but as Karen Hall, points out in her interview, there are many unfortunate risks that need to be looked into before such a large project is undertaken. To think that such a large amount of cattle (about 72,000) would be so close to a populated area with vital rivers is enough to rethink this new plant. It is always refreshing and important to hear from local residents and farmers.

You are fighting the proposed cattle finishing facility and ethanol plant in your community.  Can you tell me a bit about yourself and why you are fighting this?

My name is Karen Hall.  My family owns a horse breeding operation and we are very concerned about the ramifications of this project for many reasons.  If there are diseased animals (which is inevitable with facilities of this type) all animals within a certain radius will need to be destroyed.  This would obviously devastate our family business.  There are several restaurants and stores in the vicinity that would be negatively affected as well.

Can you tell me about your community and how you think it will be impacted by a facility of this size?

Schroeppel is surrounded by three rivers, many aquifers and it is roughly a half an hour south of Lake Ontario. It has been hoped that fishing and tourism would be a draw for our area. A facility such as this would certainly not be conducive to attracting tourists.  There really is no place this plant could be situated where it will not affect the water supply.  A large portion of residents in this area rely on well water and there are serious concerns that our water supply will be contaminated by the plant.

How do you think this proposed CAFO would impact NYS’s greater agricultural community?

One of the reasons they have chosen this area is to utilize the Port of Oswego to ship supplies in and product out.  They have already indicated that they will have to ship corn and other supplies in, so in reality local farmers will really not benefit greatly from them buying feed and hay, etc. from them.  I truly think on every level possible, smaller, well-run farms that cater to the local economy are much better for the animals, the environment and people who live in the vicinity.  Huge facilities such as this have horrendous conditions for animals and workers, ravage the environment and destroy local infrastructure.   Also, the technology that Bion is proposing to use is not even proven yet.  The residents of Schroeppel and the surrounding areas have no desire to be guinea pigs for this technology and ruin our property values and quality of life in the process.

It seems that Bion Industries wants to cash in on government subsidies and might be seeking infrastructural support from local governments.  Do you have any concerns about this?

Absolutely.  As a matter of fact, in Meade, Nebraska a similar project was built and closed within eight months.  The company got all of the subsidies, the farmers and those who provided services were not paid and the local government was left to figure out what to do with the closed plant.  The amount of traffic that this project would bring would be detrimental to all surrounding areas.  Other smaller projects have been declined because our infrastructure could not support it, so how could it possibly support a project of this size?

St. Lawrence County was successful at stopping a similar project, have they been helpful to you? What have you learned?

They have been very helpful.  They have done amazing research and allowed us to use it on our website.  The main difference though was they were able to present the facts to the Town Board before it was voted on.  Once the Town Board saw how the negatives far out way the positives, they voted to not allow the project.  Here in Schroeppel, the Town Board voted to allow Bion to move forward without extensive public input, so we have a different political battle on our hands.

How are you fighting this plant?

Currently, we are bringing it to the attention of the public.  Due to the way it was handled, people in the area really are not even aware of the project.  We are writing Letters To The Editor, designing posters, flyers and postcards, starting a petition and we have a website that has all of the information and research for the project.  Our goal is for people to educate themselves.  Once they do that, it is very easy to see this is not a benefit to our community.  We are also encouraging people to attend the Town Board meetings so we can have our concerns addressed.  In addition, this plant will certainly will not only affect Schroeppel, so we have contacted surrounding Town Boards so they are aware of the situation as well.

Is there a Facebook page or website where people can visit to learn about your efforts and to express their concerns?

Yes, there is a Facebook Group (Phoenix Talks: Slaughterhouse Project. Get informed, get involved!)
and a My Space page where we post when our meetings will be, etc.  Our website www.phoenixtalks.com really is a clearinghouse for information.  We want people to go there to read about the project and write what they think about it so Bion and the Town Board understand the depth of the concerns of citizens.

Is there any way the citizens of New York State can help and support you in your fight?

Yes, please contact your NYS and federal representatives and tell them to not support subsidies for these projects and to invest in family farms rather than factory farms.

Notes from Anti-trust Hearing In Batavia, NY

In Farmer's Concerns, Food Chain, Food System, Policy, Uncategorized on April 26, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Room Filled with New York Dairy Farmers Listen to Anti-Trust Investigator Christine Varney.

After attending the anti-trust hearing hosted by NY Senator Charles Schumer and Assistant U.S. Attorney General Christine A. Varney in Batavia, NY, I have more questions than answers, but one thing was made clear: New York State dairy farmers have had a very bad year. Consolidation in our milk processing system and in major retail chains has left area farmers with little bargaining power when it comes to pricing their milk.

Senator Charles Schumer Speaks to a Packed Room of New York Dairy Farmers

Our farmers also face growing debt, reduced access to credit and for many, especially small dairies, a bleak future. Senator Schumer stressed how important dairy was to rural New York’s economy and how antitrust investigation must be conducted to see how consolidation disadvantages New York farmers. “We have to stop this and stop this now. We do not want to wake up to a tomorrow with no NY dairy farms. Consumers pay more and farmers get less. Someone is making the money. Lack of transparency and competition in processing hurts farmers AND consumers.” Schumer pointed out that “with such concentrated market conditions, farmers have less options for selling their product and see higher prices on the farm, while consumers aren’t seeing more competitive prices at the store.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney General Christine A. Varney

“We will not let you down,” Assistant U.S. Attorney General Christine A. Varney said : “We know the problem you’re facing.”

Here are some of my condensed notes from the hearing!

Barbara Brown, a county legislator in Oswego County and Dairy Farmer

Interestingly, there seemed to be more talk about dairy cooperatives than there was about consolidation among many of the attending farmers. In western NY there are two large cooperatives, UPSTATE Farms and Dairy Lea, which were both well-represented. Many producers spoke about how vitally important cooperatives were to their farms, and how their bargaining power was instrumental to the-well being of milk operations. Other farmers, especially those with smaller herds, spoke about how the major cooperatives did not help them lower hauling costs or bargain against processors who insist on paying below their input costs. The CEO of Dairy Lea testified and said that cooperatives provided leveraging power to farmers because there was strength in numbers. Others did not paint such a rosy picture. Barb Brown was the most critical voice, saying that Dairy Lea had in fact bankrupted her father and had done little to prevent the decline of the family dairy in New York State. Her words were poignant and sad: “It’s genocide of the American dairy farmer. We are losing a whole way of life.” She also spoke about the severe stress dairy farmers are under and how many are at a mental health breaking point. She stressed how she now prays for a neighbor whom she visited and burst into tears when she walked onto his lawn. Because he is losing money as a dairy farmer he feels like a failure, and cannot understand how he struggles to survive as a farmer on the same farm his father raised seven kids on. She also mentioned how stressed the farm children were(something close to my heart) , because they see how financially strained their parents are and become depressed themselves. Barb also noted how hauling costs can be the same for large dairy farms as they are for a small 100-head dairy, making it impossible for smaller farms to compete.

Farmers gathered from across the state to share their concerns and grievances.

Another farmer reiterated many Senator Schumer’s points, but went further by speaking out against what he perceived as rampant crookedness and manipulation in the dairy industry. He stressed that the numbers speak for themselves: The number of American dairy farmers has dropped from 250,000 to 50,000 since the dawn of the Reagan administration. Another farmer pointed out that this was David vs. Goliath, NY family farmers against huge corporations. “We need the help of government”, he pleaded. Yet another farmer pointed out that they did not want hand-outs, but a fair market.

The milk pricing issue was explained in Adriana’s article Take Back Our Milk: Unraveling the Dairy Crisis, which really illustrates how complex this is from a policy and distribution perspective. Many questions remain for me, but hauling costs seem to be an issue that, if examined, might help us keep our family farms closer and local. We also need more stability in our pricing structure if we want to encourage young people to become dairy farmers. NY farmers also receive the lowest mailbox rate for their milk east of the Mississippi, a statistic which demonstrates how more local milk systems could benefit our farmers.

Take Back Our Milk: Unraveling the Dairy Crisis

In Farmer's Concerns, Farming 101, Food Access, Food Chain, Food System, Policy on March 28, 2010 at 11:14 pm

Photo of Jersey cow by Ulla Kjarval

Over the past several months I’ve been reading stories of dairy farms going under. Out of desperation some farmers are selling their cows for hamburger meat while a few have been driven to suicide. Dairy farmers are suffering the greatest crisis since the Great Depression. And I kept hearing the same message from farmers: the milk pricing system is destroying family dairy farms. Since 2000 the volatility of prices paid to farmers for their milk has been extreme while consumer prices have remained relatively flat.

What’s going on? A complex pricing system and foreign milk imports are artificially forcing milk prices so low that dairy farmers can’t even break even, must less make a living for their families. I spent some time talking with Herkimer County, New York dairy farmer and organizer Deb Windecker to learn more. I’m still putting all the pieces together but one thing seems very clear: the current milk pricing system is hurting our local dairy farmers.

Consolidation

During the Great Depression of the 1930s the dairy farmers were in crisis. As part of the provisions President Roosevelt set up to protect agriculture, farmers were allowed to form cooperatives that gave them collective power but were not considered to be in violation of antitrust laws. Cooperatives once dotted the landscape, serving their local communities. Now these cooperatives are consolidating into larger entities and leaving the interests of family dairy farms behind. One cooperative, Dairy Farmers of America, controls some 70% of the US market. Windecker says that “cooperatives have gotten bigger and have become like corporations. They’ve lost sight of who they’re supposed to represent. Now they favor the processors. They don’t even know who their members are anymore. When members ask questions they start trying to put the smoke out. They don’t represent the farmer member like they’re supposed to.”

Consolidation has hit the processing plants as well. Just a few short years ago, milk would travel to a local plant to be processed into pasteurized milk, butter, and cheese. In the past few years many of these small plants have been bought out by larger dairy companies–and shut down. “Before we knew it, we’d lost our communities,” Windecker says. “The money doesn’t stay in our communities. It goes to the big stores, the big companies, to wall street.” Worse, by law farmers must bear the cost of transportation; as they truck their milk farther and farther away from the farm to these large, centralized processing plants, their cost of operation rises higher and higher.

Windecker says that at least 10% of her family’s dairy business costs go to hauling their milk to a processor in Massachusetts. As long as processors benefit financially by consolidating their plants and do not bear the cost of farmers transporting their milk they have little incentive to respond to farmers’ concerns. And with the cooperatives putting processors first, “farmers aren’t allowed to sit at the table and negotiate.” Meanwhile, farmers continue to lose equity in their farms. With little equity and poor cash flow, banks are cutting lines of credits off from many farmers. There used to be normal attrition of farms going out of business and the next door neighbor would buy the farm and get bigger to allow for additional family members to enter the business. This time around, the next door neighbor will not have equity to take on more debt because everyone is losing money. The farm will be purchased by a real estate developer or a corporation–or it falls into the hands of a bank.

Big Cheese and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange

“A big part of milk pricing actually comes down to cheese,” Windecker tells me. Prior to 1981 prices paid to dairy farmers were based on parity–in other words, milk pricing was based on a composite of other related commodities like cheese–and was structured to respond to inflation in order to protect farmers and consumers alike. In the 1980s this policy changed, based on the notion that the market alone could regulate milk pricing. Now the prices farmers get for the milk are based partly on dairy shares traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (as are many other commodities). As the dairy industry became more and more consolidated it has fallen into the hands of just a few, powerful industry players who make just two or three trades a month. In fact, it’s mostly cheese that is traded. Only about 1% of the US dairy supply is traded on the CME yet it is this trading that sets the price of milk for all dairy farmers.

When you have such an imbalance of power within the industry “this is not a simple matter of supply and demand,” Windecker says.

Additionally, prices are based on cheese inventory. The USDA conducts surveys of cheese inventory at processors. When processors report an oversupply of cheese (this reporting is voluntary), this pushes the price of milk down further, even though liquid milk is considered in a different class than cheese. Windecker feels the processing industry benefits from farmers’ confusion over the pricing system. “It’s almost like they don’t want you to understand it,” she says.

Imported Milk

About that cheese traded on the CME? Much of it is made with imported dairy products, not from US milk. In fact, those individually-wrapped cheese singles are often made with imported “milk protein concentrates,” a substance originally developed for glue and not approved by the FDA as a food ingredient. (Cheese singles produced with milk protein concentrates are labeled “processed cheese product” instead of just “cheese.”) Needless to say, imported milk protein concentrates are much less expensive for large processors to use than US-produced real milk. According to Windecker, importing milk products are driving the price of cheese down, which in turn drives down the price of milk. She feels there is a lack of transparency in the effect imports have on domestic milk prices–and what that says for the future of American family dairy farms. “This is my biggest fear for my children: if we become reliant on other countries for our food we’ve lost our country and our national security.”

Dairy Farmers Need Your Support Now

According to Windecker, you can see the crisis in the faces of dairy farmers. “We’re going on 16, 17 months of being paid as low as 97 cents a gallon for regular, conventional milk. Even the organic market sees the vertical integration. No matter what the farmer does, producing organic is more expensive to produce. We need to bring the processing back closer to the farmers. We need about $1.50 a gallon just to break even, and that’s not even giving yourself a fair wage, it’s just your base costs.” She estimates that up to 20% of the dairy farmers will be out of business by the end of the 2010.

Meanwhile, US Department of Justice antitrust investigator Christine Varney is holding a meeting with Senator Chuck Schumer on March 29 to hear consumer and farmer concerns about milk processors’ consolidation. If you can’t travel to Batavia for the hearing you can write in your comments to dairymeeting_schumer@schumer.senate.gov. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is also working to support dairy farmers. She recently introduced legislation for country of origin labeling for dairy, which needs support from consumers, not just farmers.

“Farmers are so busy. My husband is up by 5 a.m. every morning and doesn’t get home until 7 p.m. every night. We don’t have time to make several trip to Washington and we don’t have the money for lobbyists. Consumers and citizens have a lot of power. That’s what democracy is supposed to be about. I work full time off the farm. My children are 10 and 13. they come home and we work as a family to keep the farm. We want to produce fresh, wholesome food. It’s such a noble feeling to know you’re producing food for the country; however, we deserve to be paid a fair price that covers our production costs.”

Learn more

Processors Report Record Profits–While Watching the Demise of Dairy Farmers! Why Aren’t We Having A “COW”?

New York Food Museum exhibit Over Spilt Milk

Read about and sign Gillibrand’s COOL petition.

Detailed history of dairy farmers and their struggles for a milk price via Journal for MultiMedia History.

Scroll down to read this account of University of Vermont students’ actions to support local dairy farms.

Keep Local Farms is an education and contribution program in New England that connects consumers with local dairy farmers and allows those who are interested in purchasing local foods to support their local farmers.

Alexa Van de Walle describes in her blog, Lighthearted Locavore, a New Seed Advisors Agriculture 2.0 Evening hosted by Janice Yorio featuring a panel of dairy farmers, including certified organic Milk Thistle Farm, a financial adviser and a representative from the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets.