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Joel Greeno

Food Voices: The Interviews

Joel Greeno, Farmer
Kendall, Wisconsin

Joel Greeno is a dairy farmer on 160 acres at Greeno Acres in Kendall, WI. He currently has 43 cows.

My family has been farming in Monroe County, Wisconsin 150 years now. Before that they had farmed in upstate New York. Before that in Scotland. I grew up on a dairy farm. In that business my whole life. When I was getting started I did work off farm jobs. Trying to help keep the parents’ farm going and then farm when you got home and then once I was on my place I continued to work off farm jobs until, burning the candle at both ends and in the middle, it became feudal.  I decided if we couldn’t make a go of it just farming, then the opportunity to find a job would probably be there. So, I decided to farm until I couldn’t farm any more. It’s been tough, but I’ve still stuck it out. 17 years. Pretty little valley location. Kind of a nice set up with old buildings. I am President of The American Raw Milk Producers Pricing Association, Vice President of Family Farm Defenders, on the Executive Committee of the National Family Farm Coalition.

I helped found a coop called Scenic Central Milk Producers. We started the process in September of 1998. July 1 of 1999 after fighting months of Wisconsin Department of Agriculture red tape, we picked up the first load of milk and began marketing farmers’ milk. It started with 16 producers on that first truck and has grown to over 300 now, all in Wisconsin. Central has 30 or so markets for the milk. The milk pretty much mostly goes to small cheese factories. For the most part, it has been the top paying coop in Wisconsin for the last six, seven years or so. There’s a lot of work yet to do and with market concentration, it is always difficult and with prices so low it is difficult to maintain producers.

It had always been tough, but since November of ’08, prices have crashed. Basically, farmers’ incomes are less, respectively, as to what it was during the depression. A far as the percentage of the consumer dollar. It’s made it real difficult for farms of any size to survive. We feel it’s due to market manipulation and consolidation that we are in this mess. And that is why we have called for the US Department of Justice to oversee it and hopefully, go after the culprits and somehow restore fair milk prices to farmers. That being, cost of production, plus a profit. If you are going to pay bills and retire debt and build capitol, it has to be on profit. It can’t be on just break even or less and get ahead. It has been a tough fight.

We would like to be optimistic, but knowing the history of things and the way things go, the power that money has. We have a lot of work to do if we are going to win. It is the money thing. It’s sad that we have come to a time where justice isn’t dolled out by the law, it’s by who ever has the most money, it seems and if you can buy the biggest lawyers and throw the biggest money, the one with the most money seems to win often. And in this case, we need to make sure that’s not the case.

It’s been difficult for my organization, American Raw Milk Producers, to organize dairy farmers. It’s hard to explain to them the power that they really have through a cooperative structure. In a way it almost seems too simple for them. With the cooperative structure, they don’t believe it is simple as farmers uniting and setting a price. But, it really is. That was the right that was given to us by Capper Volstead. They have the legal right to collude and set a price. The whole idea was to protect farmers from big interests. It used to be the rail companies and transportation and markets. The government gave coops exclusive rights to help farmers, to protect them. And our coops have grown so big that they look more at corporate profits and paying the staff and paying the CEOs that they forget about paying their farmer/producer, which is their job. We have taken on the task to re-educate farmers, but they’re so busy and so tied to the farm. Through all the rhetoric, they are constantly confused. They are told one story here, they are told another story there. They hear another story at the feed mill. They hear a different story at the barbershop.

Our association now works with groups around the world – John and Randy are going to Germany in January to help develop the Dairy Manifesto, which is an international document put together by dairy farmers from around the globe. That has just recently been sent to USDA Secretary Vilsack, to President Obama, to Christine Varney, to Eric Holder, just to show them that there is world-wide support for fixing milk prices.  That in itself is a feat and a goal and a victory.

There’s injustice taking place everywhere and farmers everywhere want food sovereignty. Food sovereignty in a sense, is that the farmers of a given country should have the right to feed the people of their country and that they receive a fair and just price for that production. It should be more local, they should be taking care of their local people and people should have a closer relationship with their farmers. It’s a bit about circumventing the stranglehold of corporate America by producing these close relationships.  I am trying to make it happen and it is through our connections internationally that we are working with it. The momentum is growing. I think quicker other places than it is in the US. I guess with mechanization and the fast pace of US life. I think it is going to be harder for us to understand that philosophy here than in a lot of other countries.  We have our work cut out for us.

I think the one thing is the future of this country is going to rely on rural America. If the economy is going to recover, I think it needs to understand that 70% of all raw material comes from our farms and the day they decide to pay our farmers will be the day we get this country back and not until.