Aired On:
November 16, 2021

There’s a crisis in the dairy industry  – shrinking family farms, growing corporate consolidation, and low milk prices. And while the new “fair trade dairy” label depicts rolling green hills and picturesque red barns – that imagery is nothing more than a feel-good marketing tactic.

In this episode, we hear how Jim Goodman – one of the hundreds of dairy farmers impacted by the dairy crisis – struggled to keep his family farm afloat and compete with the big dairy companies. Jim talks about how generations of failed farm policy motivated his current work with the National Family Farm Coalition’s “Disparity to Parity” project, an effort dedicated to mandating fair pricing and building “a racially just, economically empowered, and climate-resilient food system.”

Topics covered include:

  • Corporate consolidation in the dairy industry and the explosion of mega-dairies that are squeezing small dairy farmers out of business.
  • The “get big or get out” approach to U.S. farm policy and how it shaped the current state of the dairy industry in the U.S.
  • Organic dairy was originally a solution to match farmers with markets that would pay fairly for milk–what’s changed since the 1990s.
  • Family Farm Defenders’ idea of domestic fair trade encompassing “worker rights, food sovereignty, and global justice.”
  • Behind the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA)’s big promises for dairy farmers.
  • National Family Farm Coalition’s “Disparity to Parity” project and their vision for fair pricing and “a racially just, economically empowered, and climate-resilient food system.”
  • The long history of global opposition to free trade deals and the commodification of food.
  • How the new “fair trade dairy” label is just another marketing scheme.

Resources

Are you participating in the “fair trade dairy” program? Reach out – we’d love to hear your perspective: [email protected] or (800) 631-9980.

National Family Farm Coalition just released a proposal called the Milk from Family Dairies Act. Read more about what they’re calling “a common-sense dairy policy proposal that will benefit family dairy farmers, their communities, workers, the environment, and consumers”: https://nffc.net/nffc-introduces-the-milk-from-family-dairies-act/

Learn more about the coalition working on fair pricing and a new vision for parity in the U.S. farm sector: https://disparitytoparity.org/

Family Farm Defenders, the organization who had “fair trade cheese” several decades ago, is still advocating for small-scale farmers: https://familyfarmers.org/

Full text of the excerpt on fair trade certification is from a post titled “Bringing Fair Trade Home to the U.S.,” written by John Peck: https://familyfarmers.org/?page_id=653

Dana Geffner:
Green pastures, a red barn, cows grazing in a field. That’s likely the image that whatever milk, cheese, yoghurt or ice cream you eat is selling you. But those kinds of farms are an endangered species – living on in ads, not most of the dairy-producing regions of this country. But the very companies driving those small-scale farms out of existence are plenty happy to use their images for marketing. I’m your host, Dana Geffner, Executive Director of Fair World Project.

Over the last few episodes, we’ve heard from Crispin Hernandez of the Workers Center of Central New York and from Marita Canedo of Migrant Justice about the dangerous conditions that dairy farmworkers face. Go back and listen if you haven’t yet because they share what it’s like working on the front lines of the food system – and how they’re working to change old and unjust systems.

And one of the things that they highlight is that bad working conditions for farmworkers aren’t just a problem to be solved by better human resources policies or more rules. No, the problem is much bigger and it starts miles away from the farmyard gate. Decades of low milk prices and the push for more and still more corporate profits are squeezing farmers, and workers too.

In this episode, we’ll get into some of those root causes. Our Political Director, Ryan Zinn, talks to Jim Goodman, who was a dairy farmer for nearly four decades. He’s also a long-time advocate with organizations including the National Family Farm Coalition and Family Farms Defenders. And together, they trace what that push for more and cheaper milk has looked like from the perspective of a small farm in Wisconsin.

Ryan Zinn:
All right, Jim Goodman, welcome to For a Better World.

Why don’t we get started with maybe just a little bit of history about your family farm and your experience over the last couple of decades in dairy farming.

Jim Goodman:
Okay. All of my great-grandparents came from Ireland during the potato famine in the 1840s, and my great-grandfather bought a farm just down through the woods from where we live now. Apparently it was a veteran of the war of 1812 that had been given the land for his service and never lived there. So it was just kind of a small subsistence farm. And my great grandfather worked in a mine close by his son. My grandfather went to Colorado in the 1880s for a few years and made enough money, came back and bought the farm that we have now, which was originally 160 acres. Then he bought another 40, probably in the early 1920s.

Ryan Zinn:
There in less than 60 seconds, we’ve got a snippet of the history of so much of the farmland of this country. People pushed off their land through bad trade policy and colonial extraction – that’s the Irish Potato Famine. That War of 1812 Jim mentions is when the United States had their final showdown with Great Britain. And, with the old colonial power out of the way, the U.S. turned its forces to pushing native nations off their land. This kicked off the generations of oppression and land dispossession that continues to this very day.

Jim Goodman:
So we have 200 acres. He also picked up another what would have been 120 acres during the Depression. He’d loaned the guy who owned it some money and he couldn’t pay it back. So, we had about 300 acres of that, maybe 150 work land. My dad farmed it after his grandfather left the farm… with a couple of my uncles off and on. And then my brother took the farm over would have been in the mid to late 1970s. And then after I finished graduate school, my wife and I came back, that would have been 1979.

Ryan Zinn:
Jim’s farm has been in the family for over a century. And in that time, they’ve done what they could to make a living off the land.

Jim Goodman:
Well, from the time I was a kid we milked about 20 cows, which was pretty standard. And at that time between our farm and the nearest town, which is about five miles, I think there were a dozen farms all about that same size. Now 60 years later, I guess there is one farm left milking cows, and he milks about 150. But it went from being able to raise a family on 20 cows, to now where if you’re not milking at least 150 or more you’re not going to be able to make it.

Ryan Zinn:
It’s an elaborate math problem that Jim’s walking us through. Families were bigger back then. Bigger families meant more mouths to feed, but also more hands to help on the farm.

Jim Goodman:
So it’s really changed a lot in what one would consider a family farm. While the farms are still owned by families, a lot of the labor is hired, the machinery is bigger, the acreages are bigger and it’s gone from a small pasture-based dairy to the typical corn, soybean type rotation.

Ryan Zinn:
All these changes on the farm have been driven by changes off the farm. When Jim was taking over the family farm in the 1970s, the landscape of US agriculture was changing…

Richard Nixon’s Agriculture secretary Earl Butz is famous for a “Get big or get out” sentiment that’s come to define U.S. farm policy. And, if you listened to the last few episodes, you’ll be questioning Butz’ statement that there isn’t much labor that goes into farming these days. But this was the policy coming out of Washington at every level: Farming is BIG business.

Jim Goodman:
By the time the Reagan administration took over, any semblance of fair farm prices was gone, and it was strictly whatever the market will provide you. And that’s when I think the small farms really started going out.

Ryan Zinn:
We’ve heard this theme before, right? Last episode, as Anna talked to Marita from Migrant Justice, a thread that connected her work from Bolivia to the dairy barns of Vermont was this push to let market forces rule. Instead of the government managing water and natural gas in the interest of the people of Bolivia, the push to let the market decide – is really, to let corporate interests rule. Instead of setting some kind of guardrails in place to protect farmers, just let the market decide. It’s the rise of the idea that the government that rules the best, rules the least. And it hit dairy farmers hard.

Jim Goodman:
And that’s when I think the small farms really started going out. Because if you weren’t willing to upgrade the size of your herd, if you didn’t want to, or couldn’t do that, you sold your cows, somebody else bought them and they got bigger and you raised beef cattle or crops or whatever.

Ryan Zinn:
And that’s how small-scale farms merged, got bought out, and thus became fewer and fewer bigger farms. That consolidation wasn’t just happening on the farms themselves. It was happening up the supply chain too.

Jim Goodman:
Well back 40, 50 years ago there were so many small cheese factories around. A lot of them made just ordinary cheddar or Colby. Most of those factories are closed. The last place our milk went was a small cheese factory that only had about 40 farms supplying it. And they made mostly organic cheese, a lot of specialty stuff.

But most of the milk goes to big processors: Dairy Farmers of America, Grassland. There’s still a few sort of smallish cheese factories but there just isn’t the number of marketing options there used to be.

I remember back in the early nineties, one afternoon, I had field men from three different processors in our milk house, all at the same time wanting to buy our milk and that just doesn’t happen anymore. Most farmers feel lucky if they have a stable market.

And obviously the processors prefer bigger farms because it’s easier to pick up a lot of milk at one stop than it is to go up and down the roads for a number of small stops. So it’s not just farms that have been told to get bigger or get out, it’s also the processors and obviously they control the market. The consolidation makes it possible for them to, in fact, kind of pay whatever they want for the milk especially in more remote areas.

Ryan Zinn:
Government policy meant that small-scale farmers felt increasing pressure to compete in the market with their ever-bigger neighbors. Bigger farms meant more economies of scale. Those bigger farms could produce more milk at a lower cost and get more financing to get even bigger.

And those smaller farms just got squeezed out. The number of dairy farms in the U.S. with fewer than 99 cows dropped about 70% between the early 1990’s and when Jim finally sold his farm in 2018. And in that time, farms with more than 999 cows went up by 240%.

That’s a huge change in what a dairy farm looks like, although the marketing remains the same. Remember the Chobani fair trade ad we started off the first episodes talking about? All pastoral scenes, a red barn and just a few cows grazing.

Jim mentioned how the processors consolidated too, how there were fewer people showing up to buy his milk. And as they consolidated, they gained more and more control over the market. In the absence of government controls, they have enough power to set prices and to decide who actually, physically has access to a market.

We’ll come back to the processors in a future episode, but for now, this is the environment that Jim and his family were working in as they tried to make ends meet.

Jim Goodman:
When I started back on the farm, we were milking 35 to 40 cows. And the amount of money we had to spend for our inputs started rising a lot faster than the pay price for milk.

Well, for me, milking more than 40 cows was big, because that was something I could do myself. You didn’t have to have more than one person. We either had to decide, well, we’re going to milk more cows, which a lot of neighbors did, or we’re going to try and figure out some way of extra income that doesn’t involve milking more cows.

Ryan Zinn:
Like so many farmers, Jim and his family tried a lot of different plans: selling steers for beef or selling direct to the people who were eating their animals and milk.

Jim Goodman:
We’d always thought about switching to organic production, but it wasn’t until the early nineties that we really decided this was something we needed to do, not just for the increased pay price but for the benefits it gave to soil health, animal health, our health. It just seemed like a much better way to farm. And that was a real sea change.

Ryan Zinn:
Jim had a degree in agriculture and he’d learned to farm using every new chemical and input. But he and his family realized that while all those inputs were making the cows produce more milk, it wasn’t making his farm more profitable.

Jim Goodman:
So we needed to find a marketing system that respected what we did, because the people who wanted to buy organic milk or cheese or meat or whatever realized that it was worth paying a little more to ensure that they knew what they were buying and to keep a system of farming alive that supported good farming and environmental practices.

So that was really the big change we saw that we just had to keep trying to come up with some new added way of making income just in order to stay on the farm.

Ryan Zinn:
What do you do when you find yourself in a system that values nothing but big dollars? Jim and his family were part of that movement in the 1990’s moving towards organic production as a hope, a way to get out of the market-driven race to the bottom for cheaper and cheaper food. They hoped to find a market of people who were willing to pay a little more for good food and for good farming practices. But…

Jim Goodman:
Well, when we first started, it was economically a pretty good thing. I remember the day we switched to the organic milk truck from the conventional, the milk price was about the same. In a few months, the conventional price had dropped almost in half and we were still at $18. So we thought, well, I guess we made a good move there. And organic prices continued to rise as more people decided they felt safer buying organic products.

Ryan Zinn:
The market for organic products was growing fast. And then with that growing market came more and more people hoping to make money off that growth. But they weren’t in it with a holistic goal of better farm practices. Instead, more people…

Jim Goodman:
…wanted to get into it because they saw it as a way to make more money. And when that happens people try and find ways to get around the rules.

So now we have organic dairy farms. For example, the average person, if you looked at them, you would say, there’s really no difference between them and conventional, confined dairy farms. The organic standards say cattle are supposed to be on pasture, get 33% of their dry matter intake from fresh grass. They have to be fed all organic feed.
I think that the organic standards have rules in the books, but if you don’t enforce them, what good are they?

And really, that was the reason we had to sell our cows because big organic dairies were able to ship milk from Texas to Wisconsin for a lower price than what we were getting. And we just couldn’t compete. Just as small dairy farmers 20 or 30 years ago, couldn’t compete with the big farms. We couldn’t compete with the big factory organic farms just because they weren’t following rules and USDA wasn’t forcing them to.

Ryan Zinn:
While prices were initially higher for organic milk, that relief didn’t last. The same market pressures that pushed Jim and his family out of the conventional market continued to squeeze them in the organic market.

Just so that difference in scale is clear, just six “organic” mega-dairies in Texas produce 1.4 times more organic milk than the 450 plus organic dairy farms in Wisconsin. We’re talking about farms milking upwards of 10,000 cows1. Organic advocates and small-scale dairy farmers have tried a range of legal strategies to close loopholes in organic standards and reign in what they see as a contradiction of the ideals of organic farming. But so far, organic mega-dairies continue to grow.

And small-scale farmers continue to get pushed out of the market.

And I have to say, as someone who has worked on fair trade issues for a while, this sure sounds like some of the dynamics that fair trade initially set out to address. Small-scale farmers struggling with low, volatile prices trying to get market access. Right?

Well, that’s actually something that Jim’s been involved in too.

Jim Goodman:
Well, Family Farm Defenders started a domestic fair trade cheese project many years ago. And basically what it did was it sold cheese online guaranteed that the extra costs that the people paid for it, would go back to the farmers. It wasn’t a huge project. But at the end of every year, the cheese factory would add up how much money he sold on that cheese and distribute it among the farmers that were part of the project. It didn’t add a lot of income, but at least it was an idea.

Ryan Zinn:
Around the time that Family Farm Defenders were selling that domestic fair trade cheese, their director, John Peck penned a piece calling out the challenges within the fair trade system as he saw it at the time. He wrote,

“Unfortunately, much certification in the U.S. has now become a dumbing down exercise for consumers and a costly extortion tactic for producers. Rather than having an informed and meaningful economic relationship as fair trade implies, shoppers have been trained to look for a trademarked logo and put their conscience on autopilot.”

It was over a decade ago when he wrote this, but it’s still relevant, especially to this conversation about fair trade dairy as we now see it. The statement continues,

“Certifiers like Transfair [now Fair Trade USA] … have now fallen captive to their largest customers…In the worst case scenario, certifiers end up running interference as corporate public relations apologists since that is how their bread gets buttered.”

We’ll have the link to the full piece in the transcript – it’s truly an example of how the more things change the more they stay the same.

As Jim observes,

Jim Goodman:
And the domestic idea of domestic fair trade has really not evolved to that extent.

Ryan Zinn:
Back when that cheese project was happening, Family Farm Defenders was talking about domestic fair trade as a place where visions of “worker rights, food sovereignty, and global justice” could and would come together.

That’s not where we are now. Instead of that broader vision for justice, “fair trade” has a much more narrow scope in the current “fair trade dairy” label that Fair Trade USA and Chobani have released.

And if fair trade was initially developed to support small-scale farmers, that’s certainly not who their label serves now.

Jim talks about the struggles of the small-scale farmer with a herd of maybe 40 cows, a herd that they can handle with family labor – that’s not what’s getting called fair trade today. Some of the farms that Fair Trade USA put forward as part of their program milk nearly 2500 cows. Others in Idaho, land of the mega dairies, milk far more. While the press releases announcing the new fair trade dairy standard referred back to the small-scale coffee and cocoa farmers that built fair trade, that’s not who stands to benefit here. Once again, small-scale farmers built a market niche and now it’s being used as marketing for the big guys.

And I say marketing here because let’s be clear – that’s what it is. But here’s the thing – “fair trade” isn’t just a metaphor or a marketing slogan. There are actually huge trade deals in which dairy plays a significant role.

News clip of President Trump speaking:

“This agreement is a tremendous breakthrough for American agriculture. Canada will finally provide greater access for American dairy. Canada is opening up.”

Ryan Zinn:
Remember that a few years ago? President Trump promoted the big US-Mexico-Canada-Agreement or USMCA, the free trade deal between those three countries that replaced the original North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA as a big boost for dairy farmers.

Jim Goodman:
So the USMCA basically told farmers that we’re going to open up Canadian dairy markets and we’ll have all this big export.

Ryan Zinn:
But those promises were just a lot of talk.

Jim Goodman:
Well, you look at the size of the dairy market in Canada. I think Wisconsin produces more milk than Canada does.

And the only way to get rid of it is to force someone somewhere in the world to take it off our hands. And of course, in order to do that, it has to be at a fairly low price. And then in order to keep the farmers here in business, because they’re forced to sell grain or milk or whatever at a low price, we have to have government subsidies.

Ryan Zinn:
So that “get big or get out” theme that has driven U.S. agricultural production has another piece to it. It turns out that dairy farmers in the U.S. produce way more milk than people in the U.S. drink.

And what to do with that surplus basically becomes a problem that U.S. trade policy steps in to solve. That’s how we got to the point where President Trump was so enthusiastically pushing a trade deal that would reduce market protections for Canadian dairy farmers to give U.S. dairy farmers another place to sell their milk.

Jim Goodman:
If we were to saturate their market, which we could do, in a matter of a few years, we’d be exactly back where we were again, because I just saw a report yesterday on Wisconsin and national milk production in the last year – it’s grown. Not just in overall volume, but in production per cow. So we keep producing more and we may find the market here or there for it, but eventually that’s saturated and we got to find someplace else. So again, we need to go back to those 1930s programs and have supply management. So farmers don’t just keep overproducing and expecting someone to buy that. And then the government subsidizes because the prices are so low.

Ryan Zinn:
We could have a whole episode dedicated to U.S. farm subsidies and not fully cover the topic. But for now, I’ll just point out that those subsidies generally don’t help prop up small-scale dairy farmers. Instead, public money helps prop up many of those same mega dairies that are pushing farmers like Jim out of the dairy industry and off their farms.

Overall, it’s a system that’s built on unsustainable growth – and on squeezing people at every step, to extract more profits for the benefit of just a few.

I asked Jim what needs to change in this system.

Jim Goodman:
You know, it’s like Jim Hightower said, “Everybody does better when everybody does better.” I think that we have seen, just like in all industries, the people that own and control the industries are the ones that generally make the money. You know, when unions were broken and workers couldn’t negotiate for better pay increases, that was not good. And they exported production in so many things to different parts of the world that were willing to do it cheaper.

If an activist who, whether they believe in environmental protection, or safe food, or whatever it is, I think they need to start maybe from the premise that farmers need fair prices, we need production controls and production controls would, in addition to limiting the amount of cheap goods that are produced, it would also have a big effect on environmental quality. Because you can’t have thousands of animals in one spot without environmental problems because of the amount of manure you have to get rid of, the amount of groundwater you’re drawing. So a lot of those things, a lot of the environmental problems might begin to take care of themselves if we had production controls where farms wouldn’t get to be so huge, if we had more small farms scattered all over so manure wasn’t the problem.

If the beef industry wasn’t trying to get people to eat beef six or eight or 14 times a week, because we don’t need that. And I think there’s a lot of different activist groups that look at their own little thing, whether it’s environmental quality or eat less meat or less pesticides. And in reality, they all kind of come together to focus on having farms that are smaller, a food system that’s more regional. Everyone that gets paid, gets paid a fair wage, and whether they realize it or not, a lot of these problems sort of are intertwined to the point that different activist groups can really make a big difference.

And I think looking at the Green New Deal, that’s kind of an overarching plan that does look at all those different parts of the, well, you know, it’s billed as an environmental program, but it’s an economic reform program as well. That covers everything from the environment to wages, to healthcare. And that’s the kind of thing we really need.

Ryan Zinn:
The Green New Deal is most often thought of as a program to transition the U.S. from fossil fuel dependence to clean energy through massive investment in good green jobs and infrastructure. But Jim highlights the fact that true climate solutions require addressing every part of our economy. And that includes transitioning our food and farming systems to a vision with fairness at its core.

Jim’s also part of another initiative aiming to bring back what’s called “parity pricing.”

Jim Goodman:
Well, parity pricing was designed based on the relationship of farm prices to farm costs back in a period, a couple of years, 1916, 1918, and those years were picked because the government determined at that time, farmers were getting paid a fair wage relative to what it costs to purchase the things they needed. And it was a system that allowed farmers to make a decent living and they weren’t going to get rich, but most people are okay with that, whether they’re farmers or teachers, they just want to have a decent life and be able to afford what they need and send their kids to school. And so that was kind of the basis of parity pricing.

Ryan Zinn:
The government stopped tying milk prices to the cost of production in the ‘80s – that time during the Reagan administration that Jim pointed to earlier as the moment that small dairy farmers started to go out of business.

But there’s a new effort to bring back a notion of fair pricing coupled with supply management to protect farmer livelihoods and support a more just food and farming system.

Jim Goodman:
I’m part of a project now at National Family Farm Coalition called from Disparity to Parity where we explain what parity is. And obviously to me, it looks a lot different now because there are so many things that need to be considered. Farm workers, the loss of land for Black farmers, healthcare. So I think things that weren’t originally part of the original idea of parity need to be part of that now. And so, while it still has to rely on fair prices, it also has to take into consideration all these other things that guarantee, or at least provide a kind of a decent life for farmers.

Ryan Zinn:
Over the past half century or so, a lot of government policy has been based on that idea that the best government is the one that steps aside and lets the market run things – neoliberalism, to put it in a single word. But Jim’s work is pushing back on that idea.

Jim Goodman:
We’ve been living in an age of deregulation that really got going in the eighties. And we see that that just has not worked too well because that’s what’s created the income disparity, not just in this country, but with this country compared to the rest of the world. And I think that governments are put in place to, what does it say in the Declaration of Independence – for the good of people. That’s what they’re supposed to do. And that’s done by regulation. Having your freedoms are great. But there has to be regulation because we know that in the capitalist economy some people get really rich, most of us don’t. And while we don’t want strict government control of everything, I think that for the common welfare, the government has to provide regulations, be it food safety, environmental regulations. And I think they have to put things in place that protect workers. So they get a fair wage to live that decent life that we would all like to have.

Ryan Zinn:
Maybe it’s the old consumer activist in me, but I press Jim several times with the question that maybe some of you are asking as you listen – ok, what does this mean for me when I go to the store? What kind of milk should I be buying?

Jim Goodman:
We know that with dairy, for example, if you’re going to Costco or Walmart, wherever you shop, the store brands are generally milk that’s produced by these large organic CAFOs, not a good thing. Still, I guess, organic milk is probably better than conventional. So you do have a voice with your dollars and you can support what you want.

But you also need to put pressure on those stores to say that you need to have buying practices that support small farms that are really following the regulations. And you also need to put pressure on your people, whether it’s local government, state, government, federal government to enforce regulations, to support things like the Green New Deal that do protect the environment and bring this whole host of ideas about fair wages and healthcare and environmental protection.

I think we’re at a point where we can’t sit on the sidelines anymore and just take what life gives us. We have to make our voices heard and I think people need to get back into the mindset that they actually do have responsibility beyond going and voting. They need to hold people’s feet to the fire after the elections. And if the people don’t do what they said they would, or what their constituents wanted them to, then it’s time to get them out of office. And of course that would be much easier if we had finance reform, but we’ll see. Maybe that’ll happen someday.

Ryan Zinn:
Well before we sign off Jim, any sort of last words of wisdom or insights that you’ve gleaned from the last 40 plus years in dairy farming?

Jim Goodman:
I was on a conference the other day and they asked me what gave me hope. I grew up in the time of the Vietnam War and the young people, the college kids, that were resisting that war is really, in a roundabout way, what brought it to an end.

Now in the last few years, we’ve seen so many protests beginning with the young people protesting climate change and the Black Lives Matter movement. So I think that gives me hope that people are willing to get back in the streets again. Unfortunately, a lot of places are trying to pass legislation to, in effect, make it illegal to protest, but there’s no shame in getting arrested protesting something.

My wife and I have been arrested on the steps of the Capitol in Washington during a climate protest just because we wouldn’t leave the steps. So I think we need to reform those laws to let people protest and peacefully protest and realize that that’s part of how this country was founded. And I think people need to be willing to get back on the streets and to raise hell and the fact that young people and the Black Lives Matter are actually doing that kind of gives me hope. And I think that’s maybe going to be, again, the key to change, like we saw during the Vietnam era. That people getting out in the streets and saying this is wrong and it has to change.

Ryan Zinn:
Good. Thanks so much for your time. I really appreciate it. And I look forward to, I don’t know when the next WTO ministerial is, but we can have a few beers in the run up to those protests.

Jim Goodman:
Sounds good. I look back fondly on, what was it? 2003…?

Ryan Zinn:
Jim and I met back in 2003. We were both at the World Trade Organization ministerial – on the outside. These ministerials are the big global conferences where countries send their representatives to discuss trade rules. Jim and I were just two people in a giant convergence of small-scale farmers and activists from around the globe who came to oppose the World Trade Organization agenda. And specifically the inclusion of food and farming in those trade deals. We were there to oppose how these trade rules commodified food – how it reduced food from something farmers grew for their communities into just another thing bought and sold where the main consideration was price. Our demands, in short: remove food and farming from global trade deals.

Jim and I aren’t the only ones who remember that ministerial. Lee Kyung Hae, a small-scale rice producer and peasant activist from South Korea, martyred himself on the barricades that surrounded the official meeting place. Lee was among the thousands of small-scale farmers in Korea who lost their farm and livelihoods after the country decided to import its food. His protest of those unfair trade deals pushed by the World Trade Organization is remembered today. Since then, every year on September 10th, La Via Campesina, the global peasant movement, remembers Lee’s sacrifice – and all of those who struggle against unfair trade deals and their consequences for small farmers the world over.

The talks at that WTO meeting broke down. Activists on the outside were able to amplify the tensions between delegates, so no catastrophic deals were made that day.

Jim and I went home from the barricades. But the struggle continues.

Dana Geffner:
These memories are actually really relevant to the story we’ve traced in this episode. Remember when Jim and Ryan were talking about the trade deal that would let U.S. dairy farmers sell their heavily subsidized, cheap milk surplus into Canada? That’s just another example of this sort of unfair trade deal playing out that they were protesting.

Since Ryan did that interview, fair trade certified Chobani yogurt is now getting sold into Canada. Fair trade or unfair free trade? There’s a crisis in dairy – but Ryan’s conversation with Jim shows that just developing more new marketing doesn’t address the problem.

In the course of their conversation, Ryan and Jim trace the story of his Wisconsin farm. From the initial story of how his ancestors acquired the farm to Jim’s family’s struggles to hold onto the land – it’s not a unique story for a farm in the U.S. And through his time on that farm, Jim has seen a lot of solutions come and go.

He tried going organic in hopes of finding a market of people who were willing to pay a little more for good food and for good farming practices. And, while he found those people, soon that niche market got gobbled up by bigger corporations looking to cash in. And that race to the bottom for cheaper food and cheaper prices that he’d tried to leave – well, it just continued with a new label.

We saw another example of that this summer. The largest organic milk brand, Horizon Organics, owned by Danone, announced that they intended to drop 89 of their remaining small-scale dairy farmers in the Northeast. In a market that has gotten so consolidated, there’s no other processor around to buy their milk. Those farmers have now literally lost their market.

That’s the ultimate consequence of the decades of policy decisions to let the market decide. The “free market” favors low prices, easy trucking routes, and efficient logistics. Small-scale farmers and their communities aren’t necessarily a factor.

Over the past few episodes, we’ve seen how this race to the bottom is harming workers AND farmers too. Next episode we’re going to talk about the unseen middleman –the PROCESSORS — with Claire Kelloway of Open Markets Institute. And we’ll be back to the story of Chobani’s fair trade dairy because the biggest dairy cooperative in the U.S. is their partner – and they’re being sued by the very farmers they’re supposed to serve…

Are you participating in the “fair trade dairy” program we’ve been talking about? Whether you’re a farmworker or a farmer, do reach out, we’d love to hear your perspective. You’ll find ways to contact us in the show notes.

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Fair World Project is a nonprofit organization and we rely on donations to keep our work going. If you liked what you heard or learned something new, consider becoming a monthly donor.

You’ve been listening to For a Better World, a podcast by Fair World Project. If you enjoyed the show, make sure to subscribe, review, and share with your friends. Head to our website fairworldproject.org to sign up for our newsletter – it’s the best way to stay in the loop with our work and take action to support the movements you hear about on this show.

Fair World Project is a non profit organization, and we rely on donations to keep our work going. If you like what you heard or learned something new, consider becoming a monthly donor. Your contribution will help us continue to bring you stories from around the globe. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter to stay up to date between episodes.

For a Better World is made possible by our small but mighty team. Our show is edited by Stefanie de Leon Tzic, Katie Gardner is our producer, Anna Canning is our script writer, our storytellers are Ryan Zinn and Anna Canning, our music was composed by Mark Robertson, and I’m your host and executive director of Fair World Project Dana Geffner. Thank you for listening!

Listen Next

Get Big or Get Out: Dairy Farmers of America

November 30, 2021

Dairy is big business. And while the workers and small-scale dairy farmers are getting squeezed out, those at the top are reaping the benefits and getting even richer. Claire Kelloway of Open Markets Institute breaks down what this means for workers, farmers, and consumers.

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For a Better World is a podcast by Fair World Project, a nonprofit organization. Support the show by donating today.