Departing from the Goodman farm in Wonewoc, Wisconsin on Tuesday, July 9th, we headed north through the Wisconsin Driftless region to meet with Joel Greeno of NFFC and Family Farm Defenders in Kendall, Wisconsin. Having the opportunity to sit down with three generations of the Greeno farming family offered an important perspective into a core characteristic of NFFC’s membership – farmer resilience.
Like much of the Midwest, the Driftless region was hit by historic flooding throughout this spring, which kept farmers from being able to get into their fields to plant. The corn in this part of the Midwest was barely a foot tall. Aside from the loss of soil nutrients, which has impacted this year’s corn crop, the rains also inundated many businesses in the local town, which continue to be boarded up. But farmers are resilient folks. Whether it be the rising cost of agricultural inputs, highlighted as a significant challenge by Julian Greeno - Joel’s father - or the continuing low commodity prices farmers are receiving for their harvests, family farmers find innovative ways to get by. Sometimes this means taking an off-farm job to pay the bills, and many times it involves helping out a neighbor in crisis. But farmer resilience, in the face of the economic and political cards being stacked against us, is a core characteristic that drives NFFC’s work forward.
Julian Greeno shared how things have changed over the nearly 60 years that he’s been farming. From the migration of young people from their communities leading to fewer farmers to impacts of climate change, it’s clear the landscape of his community and his vocation has been altered. Still, he comes to Joel’s every day to work on the farm. In fact, after sitting with us for about 20 minutes he took off to tend to the corn with one of his grandsons.
Our conversation with Joel focused on how NFFC’s advocacy can support farmers and rural community resilience by pushing for policy reforms that level the playing field of the agricultural economy and roll back corporate domination of our food system. With decades of experience as a dairy farmer, Joel offered his wisdom in particular on how federal policy can, but is currently failing, to be a mechanism for ensuring dairy farmers receive a fair price for their milk.
Fair prices for farmers, together with the breaking up of agribusiness monopolies, means more diversified rural economies, more farmer investment in sustainable practices, and less reliance on public social safety nets. But the increasing consolidation (such as more vertical integration of dairy supply chains) and concentration (such as fewer and bigger dairy processors) has suppressed dairy farmer milk checks and distanced eaters and the general public from the economic struggles of dairy communities.
These dynamics coupled with the recent and increasing weather-induced natural disasters, has already pushed thousands of family dairies out of business over the past year. Joel again reiterated the clear call that we hear across NFFC’s dairy membership: rural America needs federal policy action to address the dairy crisis. Likely this action requires two inter-related policy pieces: some kind of short-term emergency measures to keep dairy farmers in good health and on their farms, coupled with a longer-term reform of how milk is priced to ensure fair compensation that add up to living wages for dairy farmers, limits oversupply and unnecessary imports, and offers opportunities to incentivize ecological stewardship such as pastured-based production.
As NFFC advances its advocacy campaigns to fight for farmer economic empowerment, with a focus in 2019 on federal reform of dairy policy, we will continue to draw on the expertise of our dairy members like Joel to guide this work forward to strengthen the resilience of NFFC’s members.
We left the Greenos’ farm heading toward southern Minnesota but not before the elder Greeno pulled up out of the cornfields with his truck seeing us off with a final honk and wave.