Commentary

Our food system needs a major overhaul 

January 4, 2022 6:30 am
Male farmer pouring raw milk into container with dairy cows in background on a dairy farm with cows

Male farmer pouring raw milk into container with dairy cows in background | Getty Images

My youngest son has a nervous tic that causes him to do a quirky series of rapid-fire squints when he’s anxious. It is rather endearing but became concerning last month when paired with daily headaches and eye pain. A trip to the eye doctor revealed strain from farsightedness.

Maybe it is the contemplative mood  that comes with a new year  or just my undying love for drawing analogies, but my son’s ordeal has me thinking about parallels to the headaches we see in agricultural policy.

Recently I watched “America’s Dairyland at a Crossroads,” an investigative documentary on the dairy crisis. Featuring the reporting of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s talented Rick Barrett and produced by Volume One, the film is well worth the hour of viewing time. It captures stories of struggling rural communities, an auctioneer, and a farmer who had to sell his herd and vividly paints a picture of both the joys and sorrows of dairy farming. But as a farm advocate, I was left longing for stronger solutions as a stream of interviews pointed to a need for farmers to “diversify,” “innovate,” “modernize,” and “adapt.”

That oft-repeated rhetoric, which puts the onus on the farmer to fix things in a system that is sorely broken, is terribly  nearsighted. The American agricultural community hangs its hat on such buzzwords — and has for decades. Add “sustainability” and “resiliency” and you’ve got the whole kit and caboodle.

Some farmers are innovating, diversifying, and creating their own niches, and I applaud that. But I wish the industry’s answer to an ongoing crisis wasn’t always for farmers to manage better or work harder.

On Dec.16, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was in Cambridge, Wisconsin touring a farm run by Dane County Farmers Union members Duane and Tina Hinchley and their daughter, Anna. The stop highlighted investments in rural infrastructure and improvements to the Dairy Margin Coverage program. USDA’s sign-up period for the Dairy Margin Coverage (DMC) program and new supplemental coverage began Dec. 13.

During the visit, Vilsack stressed the need for the dairy industry to reach a consensus on potential dairy policy reforms before USDA will consider taking action.

“Rather than the USDA trying to dictate what we think the solution ought to be, and maybe make a mistake where Wisconsin thinks it’s great but Vermont thinks it’s horrible, you all basically must come up with a plan,” Vilsack said.

In his coverage of the visit, John Oncken of Wisconsin State Farmer noted that Vilsack referred to the contrasting views of the Farm Bureau and the Farmers Union, not mentioning several other powerful dairy organizations.

From left, US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Alice in Dairyland Julia Nunes, DATCP Secretary Randy Romanski, Anna Hinchley, Tina Hinchley | Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Farmers Union
From left, US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Alice in Dairyland Julia Nunes, DATCP Secretary Randy Romanski, Anna Hinchley, Tina Hinchley | Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Farmers Union

“The only way this works is for the industry to do the hard job, and trying to figure out if there is a sweet spot in between the universes that are represented here and come to the USDA and say here’s what we’d like to do, and here’s what it’s going to require the government to do,” Vilsack said.

In some ways, Vilsack is right. Farmers and the groups that represent them must organize their collective power if they expect change. That’s why Wisconsin Farmers Union has been working for several years on educating and unifying dairy groups from across the country around potential solutions through Dairy Together. We have listened and learned from farmers across the country and coalesced around an approach that is fair, effective, and politically feasible. A growing coalition of allies have united around the Dairy Revitalization Plan based on research by the UW-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems. We also, after talks with Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation staff and members, were pleased to see that delegates to their recent convention voted to support continued education of producers on the Dairy Revitalization Plan.

Yet Vilsack’s comments also felt like another cry for a kumbaya that may never come. Let’s face it, the American food system needs an overhaul. If we are looking at it with 20/20 vision, we have to see that some big players in the dairy industry are never going to line up to support change when it dips into their bottom line — even if that’s what consumers are asking for and what family farmers need to carry on.

The Dairy Margin Coverage program, which Vilsack was in Wisconsin to promote, has been a valued safety net, and new changes to the feed cost calculation will help producers receive more payments. The program can be a helpful tool in managing low price cycles; however, Wisconsin Farmers Union hopes to see other tools added to farmers’ toolboxes. Most importantly, we need meaningful dairy policy reform in the 2023 Farm Bill.

Though the Dairy Margin Coverage payments will help farmers, they don’t address the systemic issues that are forcing dairy farmers out of business. Time and time again in our efforts with Dairy Together, farmers have stressed that they would much rather receive their paycheck from a fairer and less volatile marketplace than from government handouts.

I’m 14 years into my career in Wisconsin agriculture, with that time split equally between ag journalism and advocacy work. In that relatively short time, Wisconsin has lost 7,824 dairy herds and western Wisconsin continues to lead the nation in farm bankruptcies. I’ve learned that, more often than not, potential solutions get mired in political stalemates, leaving us to the cyclical nature of the struggles in agriculture, stuck on repeat.

A look back at the herculean efforts of farm advocates of yesteryear shows us that the call to action to save family farms isn’t new. Over the summer, I flipped through old copies of Farmers Union newsletters and witnessed, with frustration, how many of the same issues that farmers faced back then remain unresolved. Those trendy words of innovation and diversification appeared within the pages, even decades ago. Such solutions have been fed to farmers like a miracle tonic – but where has this industry cheerleading led us?  

For farmers who want a future for the next generation and consumers who care about where their food comes from, it’s time to sharpen our focus.

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If numerous plans are tossed at the USDA in the next hearing on dairy, it will be easy for big players to again wag their finger at us, saying that farmers are too divided. If you care about the future of dairy, I hope you’ll check out Dairy Together, and be a part of the broader conversation.

But I’m also concerned that while officials wait for the joyous moment of industry unity, we continue to lose farms that we’ll never get back. With no throttle to control oversupply, that “industry” we’re waiting on, is stepping in to take our place with vertical integration that will likely speed up the demise of the family farm.

I’m grateful that Farmers Union is actively driving solutions but also looking at big picture systemic issues like monopolization in agriculture, a lack of market transparency, and practices that put profits over people, the environment, and family farms.

That’s why the National Farmers Union recently launched the Fairness for Farmers campaign. We know that, ultimately, we as a nation need to decide if we want our food to be grown and produced by a strong network of many farmers or an increasingly consolidated system controlled by a few dominant industry players. (For examples of that, look no further than Costco’s $400M investment in a poultry production facility in Nebraska, Walmart’s 250,000-square-foot milk processing facility in Indiana, or the General Mills partnership that controls 34,000 acres of farmland in South Dakota. And don’t get me started on how Bill Gates is now the biggest private owner of U.S. farmland.)

It seems the White House is starting to pay heed to these issues, too. President Biden and Secretary Vilsack kicked off the new year with a Jan. 3 roundtable on “Promoting Competition and Reducing Prices in the Meat Industry,” announcing actions to increase fairness and transparency in the beef industry. Hopefully, those efforts will extend into taking a hard look at astronomical increases in farmers’ input costs, like fertilizer, seed, and chemical, and into other sectors such as dairy. 

Some players won’t like the push for fairness for farmers and consumers. Overhauling the American food system isn’t easy, but we’ll continue to push forward with a clear vision and strong voice for the family farmer. I appreciate Secretary Vilsack turning an eye to the dairy industry and hope we can all work together on more long-term solutions. It’s time to take a look at the future of  farming through a new lens — one that takes into account how we truly want our food and agriculture to look moving forward.

Endvick is the Communications Director for Wisconsin Farmers Union, a membership-based organization that is committed to enhancing the quality of life for family farmers, rural communities, and all people through educational opportunities, cooperative endeavors, and civic engagement. She grew up on a dairy farm in northwestern Wisconsin and now raises beef cattle on her family’s Runamuck Ranch in Chippewa County.

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Danielle Endvick
Danielle Endvick

Danielle Endvick is the communications director for Wisconsin Farmers Union, a grassroots organization committed to enhancing the quality of life for family farmers, rural communities, and all people through educational opportunities, cooperative endeavors, and civic engagement. She grew up on a dairy farm in northwestern Wisconsin and now raises beef cattle on her family’s Runamuck Ranch in Chippewa County.

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