Land Line: Dairy Claw Back, Faux Meat, Vilsack's USDA, Small Dairy-Big Benefits, Meat Processing Challenges

Dec. 11: An LSP Round-up of News Covering Land, People & Communities

Dean Foods Seeks to Get Back Money Paid to Dairy Farmers Before Bankruptcy

(12/10/20) Hundreds of dairy farmers nationwide fear they could owe substantial sums to the bankrupt dairy processor Dean Foods after the company sent out letters attempting to claw back payments made to farmers in the months preceding the company’s Chapter 11 filing last year, reports Leah Douglas on Successful Farming's website. Dean’s actions have been harshly criticized by farm groups and, for some, underscore the dangers of a heavily consolidated dairy industry that leaves farmers with few processing options. Highlights:

  • Dean, once the largest milk processor in the country, filed for bankruptcy in November 2019. Farmers began receiving letters from Dean representatives in late November of this year demanding that they return money that had been paid to them by Dean in the three months preceding the company’s bankruptcy filing. Some farmers were ordered to pay as much as $50,000 by mid-December or face litigation.
  • “The mismanagement of Dean Foods has nothing to do with the farmers, and yet we’re being put through the ringer for no reason,” said Darin Von Ruden, president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union.
  • A significant portion of Dean’s assets were purchased this year by Dairy Farmers of America (DFA), the nation’s largest dairy cooperative and a longtime Dean business partner. The two entities have been sued in the past for allegedly violating antitrust laws by forming exclusive supply agreements.

A recent LSP Myth Buster describes the harm farmers and rural communities have suffered as a result of consolidation in the dairy industry. In episode 238 of LSP's Ear to the Ground podcast, ag economist Richard Levins discusses how a "get big or get out" policy has decimated dairy farming.

Lab-grown Chicken Tastes Like Chicken — but the Feeling When Eating it is More Complicated

(12/6/20) When Naima Brown took a bite of a "chicken nugget" that had been cultured in a San Francisco laboratory, she found that it indeed did taste like the chicken nuggets she grew up with. However, writing in the Guardian, Brown has major reservations about what future role cultured meat will play in our food and farm system. Highlights:

  • Lab-grown chicken was recently approved for sale in Singapore, marking the first such product to be made available to the public.
  • Cultured meat is grown from animal cells in expensive, high-tech labs utilizing the latest advancements in biochemistry. The product Brown taste tested was made from FBS: fetal bovine serum, a nutrient dense serum acquired from fetal calves.
  • Writes Brown: "Ultimately, I think my unease with lab grown meat is that I still believe our farming and agricultural systems can be part of the solution. I would rather the many millions of dollars that are going into developing lab-grown meat went to helping farmers update and rethink their practices — to assist them with creating sustainable, regenerative models…I worry that if farmers can’t compete with food-tech alternative meat products, farms will close, jobs will be lost, and — most importantly — so will opportunities to bring the farming industry into alliance with climate action. At the end of the day, I’m always going to want a chicken from a farm that I’ve heard of, where I know they’ve been treated well, and where the chickens are one part of a bio-diverse system that is creating rich, healthy soil. When that’s not available to me — I can go without the nuggets.

LSP's latest Myth Buster addresses the alt-meat industry's claim that its products will save the planet from climate catastrophe.

Tom Vilsack for Agriculture Secretary Is Everything That’s Wrong With the Democratic Party

(12/11/20) In his previous work at the USDA and as a dairy lobbyist, Tom Vilsack has represented the interests of Big Ag, and is likely to continue to do that as President-elect Joe Biden's choice for Agriculture Secretary, writes Claire Kelloway in the Intercept. Kelloway, who is a senior reporter and researcher with the Open Markets Institute, writes that when Vilsack was Agriculture Secretary under the Obama administration, he let down independent family farmers when he failed to take on agribusiness domination. Highlights:

  • Despite promises to take on Big Meat, Vilsack failed to update new rules to reinvigorate and update the 1921 Packers and Stockyards Act, an anti-monopoly law that established fair codes of conduct in the livestock industry.
  • Vilsack's USDA also implemented a new poultry inspection system that, among other changes, opened a door for plants to run at faster speeds and transferred some inspection duties from USDA staff to meatpacking employees.
  • While Vilsack has touted his civil rights record at the USDA, an investigation by The Counter found Vilsack’s USDA promoted misleading and inaccurate claims about an increase in Black farmers and a record low in civil rights complaints. Racial lending disparities also persisted under Vilsack’s tenure and Vilsack personally failed to prioritize civil rights, according to accounts from USDA employees. Between 2006 and 2016, the USDA was six times more likely to foreclose on a Black farmer than a white farmer.
  • Only a few weeks after leaving the USDA in 2017, Vilsack became president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, a dairy industry trade group; he made nearly $1 million a year from Dairy Management Inc., the council’s parent organization. The U.S. Dairy Export Council is funded through direct grants from the USDA’s Market Access Program, a marketing fund that gave the organization $4.7 million in public dollars last year, along with the dairy “checkoff” program, in which farmers kick in 7.5 cents for every 100 pounds of milk they sell for promotional campaigns. During Vilsack's tenure at the Dairy Export Council, the U.S. has seen an unprecedented number of dairy farmers go out of business.

LSP has been organizing with small to mid-scale dairy farmers for the past year to call for a Minnesota statewide moratorium on new or expanding mega-dairies. For more information, contact LSP organizer Matthew Sheets via e-mail.

Wisconsin Dairy Farmers Returning to Their Roots

(12/10/20) In an era when farmers have been told to go big or get out, Jason Gruenfelder found a way to make his small farm more profitable and more sustainable through managed rotational grazing, reports the Wisconsin State Journal. Highlights:

  • Wisconsin lost 773 dairy farms in 2019, and another 266 so far this year, according to the USDA. After accounting for all the costs of running a farm, including labor, capital, and general overhead, the average Wisconsin farmer actually lost $1.40 for every hundred pounds of milk produced last year, according to USDA statistics.
  • Meanwhile, the focus on increased production has led to an oversupply of milk and increased reliance on export markets, leaving farmers vulnerable to volatile milk prices and dependent on government subsidies.
  • Since switching from confinement feeding to rotational grazing on his 335-acre farm, Gruenfelder said his 80-cow herd produces less milk, but the farm is more profitable because his costs are lower. An analysis by the UW-Madison Center for Dairy Profitability found dairy farms where cattle graze often produce less milk per cow but are ultimately more profitable.
  • Well-managed grasslands can reduce soil erosion and nutrient runoff, which improves water quality, and reduces flooding, while also supporting wildlife like pollinators, birds, and trout, according to research by the USDA, UW-Madison, and Wisconsin's Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

In the latest Land Stewardship Letter, a beginning livestock farmer outlines the economic and logistical advantages of managed rotational grazing. For resources on how to use grazing to build soil health profitably, check out LSP's Grazing & Soil Health web page.

Meat Cutter Shortage has Processors Booked into Next Year

(12/8/20) Finding a processing plant to butcher a few pigs or steers can be a challenge in the best of times. When COVID-19 struck some large packing houses earlier in the year, the challenge increased, reports Tim King in The Land. Last May, 111 farmer-members of the Minnesota Farmers Union, the Land Stewardship Project, Renewing the Countryside, and the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota were surveyed regarding their access to livestock processing. Highlights:

  • Sixty-four percent of respondents said livestock processing options were not adequate in Minnesota, even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
  • “Minnesota has a growing local livestock industry; but a persistent challenge for small and mid-sized livestock producers is limited small-scale meat and poultry processing,” the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture concluded in the survey’s summary.
  • “We are begging to get animals processed. Normally it’s six months out. The shops are doing a good job and the best they can,” one survey respondent wrote.

An LSP blog describes the key role local meat processing could play in creating a more resilient food system. In another blog, LSP member-farmers Jim and LeeAnn VanDerPol propose the creation of community owned meat processing in Minnesota.

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.