Monday, October 29, 2012

Cash Cows? What Writing for Slate Taught Me About Making Milk

Holstein cows grazing by F.d.W. /
"If being a dairy farmer were like riding a roller coaster, 2009 was the loop-de-loop. 

"This summer’s drought was the gut-wrenching vertical drop."

In the wake of this summer's drought, how are dairy farmers faring? You probably never asked yourself that question because it's an unobvious one to us non-farmers. 

Before starting research for this series of articles on Slate I might have guessed that the worst-off farmers were the corn farmers. There's a drought, their crop is destroyed, they lose money, right? Not so. In fact, dairy farmers and cattle ranchers are in much worse shape than the princes to King Corn. The cheap corn and soy that dairy producers rely on is suddenly much more expensive, and the prices they receive for their milk are hardly rising. They're watching their life's savings flow steadily out of their bank accounts, retirement accounts, college savings accounts. Read more from Slate HERE...

There's a lot to this whole debate that I didn't explore in the article. One issue is the labyrinthine milk pricing system in this country. In attempt to understand it, I read the USDA's 20+ page primer on the issue. A half-hour later I was no smarter and battling a serious headache.

I figured an ag journalist would do a better job explaining the issue to a laywoman like me. I decided to talk to Pete Hardin, who edits and writes probably 80 percent of the content in a fantastic trade publication The Milkweed. When we got on the phone, I told him simply: "I want to understand how milk prices are set in this country." There was a pause when I was sure we'd been disconnected, then laughter. He had been sitting in his car, parked in his garage, trying to dig up some old papers and stats for me. He was laughing so heartily I imagined him doubled over his steering wheel, wondering who this supremely naiver writer was.

Finally, he took a deep breath in and said seriously: "If you don't have to, I wouldn't touch that issue." Even though he writes about it ad nauseum, he said it's highly politically charged and--to be honest--pretty boring. Unless the piece is really about milk prices, it'd be better not to give the issue short shrift.

But I got into it a little bit, and I think you should, too. The people who make our milk are getting short changed by ineffective, cobbled-together policies that don't respond readily to market pressures. It's not just that dairy farming is hard or unprofitable. It's actually impoverishing farmers across the country. Those hard-to-understand federal and state milk prices make it easier for monopolistic practices to rule the day. Big diary is on the way. Small family dairy farms are becoming a thing of the past.

And the few young people who have tried to enter the business--and it's incredibly costly and risky to do so--are being driven out. In the dairy sector, perhaps more than any other, we're losing our new farmers. The average age of American farmers is 57. This summer's drought will likely erase any progress we've made in the last five years enticing young people to the biz.

Family Farm Defenders and the National Family Farm Coalition are good sources of information. The Rodale Institute, which focuses on small-scale, organic production, is a great organization, too.

Take some time in the midst of the election shenanigans to think more deeply about your milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, and coffee creamer. My new dairy farmer friend Chris Kraft pleaded with me: "Think behind the shelf."  The people who make our milk need us readers to dare to take on the complex, even the boring. It's often the dense stuff, the weedy policies, the will-not-be-sound-bited issues that matter the most.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

A Magazine Doing It Right

When I was a senior in college and my campus minister was retiring from her job as my pastor, she reflected on her experience with Duke kids. They seem so tough, capable, even cold, like they've got everything together. They don't need help from anyone. But when you touch them, they just melt.

I was reminded today that this is not just true of Duke students; it's true of people. This brief blog post is a shout-out to Los Angeles-based event series and online publication Zócalo Public Square*. This magazine never ceases to amaze me by capturing people as they're melting. Their editorial staff makes intimate personal experience available to the masses--to the readers, sure, but also to the writers who end up sharing their stories. Many of them wouldn't call themselves writers, but Zócalo gives them the space to become one. A recent piece by their deputy managing editor, Jennifer Lee, who I've met in person a couple of times, moved me to my core. Give it a read and tell me what you think!

*Full disclosure: My boss is their editorial director, and I've written a piece for them.