Tuesday, April 18, 2017
My mother never got better. She was diagnosed with asthma, a condition that afflicts many people and a word that I had heard before. So I never really worried. That fall, I stopped taking the morning bus to school and took over my mother's chores on the farm, taking a quick shower when we were done with the cows, curling my hair as fast as I could in the mirror over the sink upstairs, and then having dad drop me off at school. I grew up in farm country, so it shouldn't have been embarrassing to be dropped off at school in an old farm truck, but when you're a 13-year-old girl, everything is embarrassing. I am ashamed to say I worried more about the look of that farm truck than I did the health of my mother.
My mother died the summer she turned 53. The eight years between diagnosis and the grave were not pretty. She became confined to the four walls of the old farm house's living room, filled with the whir of machines that helped her breathe. By the time I finished high school, Mom wasn't getting better. So Dad made me a deal that if I turned down the scholarship to the journalism school I'd been offered, and instead commuted from home to the local college, helped him farm and take care of mom, he'd pay my tuition. So I did. And I am ashamed to say I resented that decision because I worried more about missing the full college experience than I did the health of my mother. Her asthma won during the summer between my junior and senior year of college. The next year I moved to Idaho to become a news reporter. The year after that, my dad remarried. And life marched on.
This is the year I turn 45. And summer will soon be upon us. I was 21 when my mother died. Sitting in the church pew next to my father during her funeral, I counted in my head how many years there were between ages 21 and 45. I've never been good at doing math in my head, which has always frustrated my father, a math genius, to no end. I suspect that's why he taught me how to play cribbage when I was six years old: he figured making 15's and 31's and counting cards would help. It didn't. To this day, I have to find a pen and paper or a calculator to do even simple addition or subtraction. So at age 21, sitting in that church, I kept myself from crying by trying to figure the math of how many years I had left before I got sick like she did. And I've been on a dead run ever since.
During the past 24 years, I've been described several ways, the nicest perhaps being "pushy," the not-no-nicest starting with a "b" and ending with "itchy." One boss described me as a snowplow. Another told me I was like a bull in a china shop. When my daughter was young, she would choose the jugs of milk at the store by which Sassy Cow Creamery "cow card" they carried. You can imagine her delight the day she found one that read: "Darlene: her pushy personality always gets her to the front of the herd." She immediately removed it from the jug, thrust it at me, and said, "This cow is just like you, Mom!" It's been on our fridge ever since.
For the past 24 years, I've lived my life in anticipation of this summer, trying to get as much accomplished as possible, traveling to as many places I can, and earnestly raising my daughter to adulthood, because the most significant woman in my life got sick when she was 45 years old. I'm in good health. I've never smoked. I've never found a brand of alcohol I enjoy, and I seem to be one of the few people who's never tried drugs. There's no doubt that I need to exercise more, and I probably drink too much coffee. But I'm doing fine. No life-threatening diagnoses so far.
That's why a Friday afternoon two weeks ago meant so much to me. My husband and I took my dad and stepmom (who after 22 years in my life, I've started introducing as "mom") to Baumgartner's in Monroe for Limburger sandwiches and a game of Euchre. A group of Green County cheesemakers walked in and bought each other a beer. Several came over to say hello, so I introduced them to my parents. And then something amazing happened.
One of the cheesemakers, who knows my personality, and graciously chooses to overlook the "itchy" parts, shook my father's hand and told him: "your daughter is changing the world." I nearly broke down in tears. Is there any bigger compliment from a colleague? I don't know if my father heard him, because the tavern was full, his hearing aid wasn't working properly, and we would soon leave to find a quieter place. But I heard him. And it made all the difference. The summer that I turn 45 will come and go and I will keep on keeping on. I know I've got another 45 years in me.
Thursday, April 06, 2017
Keep in mind, these are not small factories. They are good-sized facilities employing hundreds of people. Grassland processes more than 3 million pounds of butter, cream cheese and milk powder a year, while Nasonville makes more 2 million pounds of Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Asiago, Brick, Muenster, Hispanic styles, Parmesan, Romano and Provolone at two different state-of-the-art facilities.
While Grassland's predicament can be blamed on Canada (our neighbor to the north just implemented a new milk pricing structure, making it more cost efficient for Canadian processors to purchase milk from their own dairy farmers), the action taken by Nasonville, and I fear more Wisconsin-owned factories in the immediate future, is troubling.
To put it simply, big Wisconsin cheese factories that are not locally owned (more on this shortly) can and do purchase out-of-state milk cheaper by the semi-tanker than they can from the 10 small local dairy farms down the road. With a glut of milk in the upper Midwest, it's a buyer's market, and many big factories take advantage of cost differences by bringing in cheap milk from afar.
It wasn't always like this. In the past 15 years, dozens of family-owned cheese factories that had decades of relationships with multi-generational local dairy farms and who forged long-term contracts with farmers who were essentially their neighbors, have either merged or been bought out by big companies. And most of those companies aren't American. Today, of 127 cheese plants in Wisconsin, more than 15 of the biggest are owned by foreign companies.
- Saputo Inc., a Montreal-based Canadian dairy company that is the tenth largest dairy processor in the world, owns and runs some of the state's biggest cheese plants, whey processing plants and dairy processing facilities in Green Bay, Fond du Lac, Waupun, Lena, Black Creek, Reedsburg and Almena.
- Agropur, a large agricultural cooperative headquartered in Quebec, owns four ingredient-processing and cheese plants in Luxemburg, Weyauwega, LaCrosse and Appleton.
- Arla Foods, an international cooperative based in Denmark, and the largest producer of dairy products in Scandinavia, owns a huge cheese plant in Kaukauna.
- Emmi, a Swiss milk processor and dairy products company listed on the SWX Swiss Exchange, owns Roth Cheese in Monroe and Platteville.
- Last, but, oh my, certainly not least, is Lactalis, a multi-national dairy products corporation based in France. Lactalis is the largest dairy products group in the world. It owns two large cheese plants in Belmont and Merrill and cranks out more President Brie than one can imagine.
What does this mean for Wisconsin dairy farmers?
It means the local cheesemaker up the road they've been selling milk to for the past 20 years - and the same factory that their father probably sold to before that - is now owned by a stranger who values the company's stock price over a handshake deal with a local farmer trying to earn enough money to send his kids to college.
It means that large dairy farmers who have spent the past decade spending money to get bigger rather than getting out are now worrying whether they will have a milk contract in 30 days.
It means small dairy farmers trying to break into the business are trying to find a buyer for their milk. Take for example, T.J. Grady, who will turn 21 in May. T.J's a good-hearted kid who I've watched grow up into a hard-working man and build a small dairy near Oregon, Wisconsin with his father. T.J. has been slowly and steadily building his herd of 25 cows with a dream of farming full-time. In 2015 and 2016, T.J. took classes at UW-Madison, earning a dairy farm management certificate, a pasture based dairy certificate, and completed courses needed for a certificate from the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers.
A few months ago, a neighbor who was milking 50 cows sold out due to a combination of health and financial reasons. "I was doing some research about getting an FSA loan and buying his herd, and renting their facilities. But I don't think I would be able to find anyone to pick up extra milk, with the over supply in the market right now," T.J. says.
T.J. took the news of nearly 75 farmers losing their milk contracts with Grassland especially hard, as most were small dairy farmers like him. "This is very disheartening to me, as someone who studied farm management and hopes to operate my own dairy someday. I can't imagine how terrifying it would be to get a letter in the mail saying that your milk will no longer be picked up. I had a professor in school that said, 'In Wisconsin, it used to be that if you milked 10 or 1,000 cows, there would be a market for your milk.' Unfortunately with the ups and downs of today's commodity market and the consolidation of dairy farms, coops, and milk processors, that doesn't seem to be the case any longer."