RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Walker Bankrupts Family Farmers

I’m an easily amused person. A little joke here, a nice turn of phrase, a pretty sunset, that’s all it takes. But the last couple of weeks, I’ve been grinning from ear to ear, without any amusement at all. Just because the guys in Wisconsin have finally found a way to take their messages to the public. By tractor.

On March 12, a group called Family Farm Defenders drove 50 tractors into Madison to be greeted by a crowd of 85,000 supporters. The tractorcade drivers, with Allis-Chalmers, John Deeres, Massey Fergusons, old and new, carried American flags, homemade banners and hastily-made placards complaining about the actions of the governor, who was trying to cut benefits to state workers and health insurance for farmers in the effort to — let’s say this right — avoid taxing the fat cats that put him in office.

And, besides balancing the budget, he is dismantling the system that made Wisconsin prosperous — the union-based work force that had a systematic way to sit down and talk with employers when they needed a raise. Collective bargaining.

The reason this tractorcade has filled me with a year’s supply of endorphins is partly that the guys got to show off their most precious possessions. And I’ve seen enough city folks approach a tractor with reverence to know that tractors are real magnets. When we have friends over, the first thing the guys want to do is drive ours, and that is a door opening to education about rural issues.

The second reason I’m grinning is that farmers are usually a complacent bunch. I’ve heard guys who are one credit card payment from bankruptcy say things like, “Well, sometimes things just don’t work out” or “It just wasn’t meant to be.” If there was a game show called “Name That Disconnect” with excuses for catastrophe in categories of denial, bad luck, “kick me again,” and “God’s will,” I’d enter a couple of my neighbors. They won’t ask questions or read the newspapers. Well, maybe the sports section.

But look what’s happening to farmers, especially dairy farmers: Between 1997 and 2007, an estimated 52,000 dairies went out of business. More than one thousand per state. The grocer’s cases are flowing with milk pretenders, from cheese foods like Kraft Mac and Cheese to yogurt drinks. They’re made with MPC’s, or milk protein concentrates, an imported ingredient that’s cheap to ship. Since 1998, imports of MPCs have gone from $800 million to more than $3 billion.

And take CAFOs — Confined Animal Feeding Operations — please. According to the guys that push these things, grass-based dairies are just hobbies run by folks that make their income off the farm, driving trucks and delivering mail and such.

While most producers in 1997 were milking fewer than 200 cows — and 200 are plenty of them — today’s are running industrial dairies with more than 2,000 cows each. Like the poultry and hog CAFOs, these facilities suck up water, produce tons of waste and keep animals in buildings most of the year.

Staying inside all year means that if one animal gets sick they all do. Think elementary school, or big family. Such epidemics-in-waiting means that animals must be treated with daily doses of preventive medicines to stay healthy.

Excess antibiotics go into the environment in animal waste, and float into creeks. When those antibiotics come in contact with bacteria, and some of the bacteria survive, a resistant bacteria is created. Hospitals say that antibiotics don’t work as they once did, because increasing amounts of bacteria are resistant.

Independent family farmers use less water, produce only enough manure to fertilize their own fields, and don’t treat animals continuously with antibiotics.

If we still had the 52,000 small dairies we’ve lost, there would be as much milk, but it would be supporting many more families and rural communities. There would, perhaps, be networks where farmers could buy health insurance. There’d be rural towns with vibrant communities, grocery stores, doctor offices, libraries.

Today’s milk check to farmers is more than last year’s but — guess what — costs have doubled. $4 corn is now $7 corn, and the milk check still just barely covers production costs — grain, hay, transportation and so forth. And while many businesses cut production or store their product when prices go down, dairy farmers must sell when milk is fresh, and they must keep feeding and milking, two times every day, for cows to stay healthy.

In 2009, Kraft Foods reported increased earnings were up 29% and Dean Foods reported at 39% rise in earnings. Kraft markets milk products under its own label and many others, of course and Dean Foods owns or sells at least 14 other brands, including Borden, Land O’Lakes, Horizon Organic and Silk Soymilk.

So, when Gov. Walker — and other governors like him — tries to balance the budget, he shouldn’t be cutting services to workers and rural communities. He should look at the corporations that make the big bucks.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2011

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