This month Farm Aid spoke with family farm advocate and grass-based dairy farmer, Joel Greeno. As our country embraces a spirit of renewed responsibility, Joel is an inspiring example of both self-sacrifice and civic participation. In his fight for fair pricing and a living wage for family farmers, Joel serves as the vice president of the Family Farm Defenders and on the executive board of the National Family Farm Coalition – two of Farm Aid's long time allies and funded groups.
There may only be 24 hours in a day, but that's not stopping Joel Greeno. In addition to feeding, milking and managing 100+ head of dairy cattle, rotating 160 acres of pasture, raising a two-year old daughter with his wife, Laura, and contributing as a founding member to one of the better functioning dairy cooperatives (Scenic Central Milk Producers) in the country, Joel Greeno has made it his calling to fight against corporate manipulation of the free market and for a fair price for family farmers. To this end, in his "free" time Joel dons the hats of president of the American Raw Milk Producers Pricing Association and vice president of Family Farm Defenders, and sits on the executive board of the National Family Farm Coalition. And, every so often (we wonder when?), he finds some time to sleep.
Joel initially purchased his farm (very cleverly named Greeno Acres) to provide added acreage for his parents' dairy just a few miles down the road. That was until 1993, when his folks' farm faced foreclosure and Joel was forced to move what was left of the family operation onto his land.
When Joel purchased his farm it had been abandoned for eight years, its buildings completely ransacked. Light switches off walls, doors off hinges, you name it – anything of value had been lifted. In the face of adversity, Joel took a broken farm and made it functional in just a matter of weeks. Of course, doing the same for a broken dairy industry is a much bigger task, but that hasn't kept Joel from trying.
Joel shares the hope that the Obama Administration will address many of the challenges he and other dairy operators are facing today. His biggest issue: product pricing. According to Joel, dairy farmers are currently receiving 30% of what it costs to produce their milk. With input costs rising and volatile markets shifting prices daily, it is extremely difficult for small and mid-sized dairy producers to earn a living wage, let alone recover production costs. Instead of focusing on best management practices, farmer attention is constantly distracted by a fickle market. The current surplus of milk in the face of a deepening recession is driving prices even lower, making Joel's advocacy work as important as ever.
Joel knows he's not alone. Sacrifice seems to be the common denominator tying dairy farmers together these days. During our conversation Joel recounted more stories than I can bear to retell of neighboring dairy farms being stripped of their industry and dignity, the result of misguided policies and corrupt practice. The bright spot, he says, is working toward a solution with all the good people of Family Farm Defenders and the National Family Farm Coalition
"If I wasn't so stubborn and committed to these groups, I probably would have given up long ago. But we can't all give in. There have to be some leaders in this to help the family farmer survive."
At the time we talked, Joel was starting to make his preparations for an early February trip to Washington, D.C., for the National Family Farm Coalition's annual meeting. With 14 hours of hard chores daily, careful planning is essential to any time spent off-farm; and with temperatures plummeting double digits below zero in Wisconsin, herd management is all the more challenging. But to Joel, the meetings are worth the effort; they are just the fuel he needs to keep going.
"I go to refill the 'gas tank.' There's nothing like being around good people to get you motivated again."
And there's nothing like a good farmer story to keep us going here at Farm Aid.
Thanks, Joel, for your inspiration.