Sauk County, WI
We are saddened to report that John Kinsman passed away in January 2014. Please read our tribute to him on our blog and check out our Growing Change profile of Family Farm Defenders to read more about John’s role in the family farm movement.
Nestled in the verdant, rolling hillsides of Sauk County, Wisconsin, John Kinsman starts each morning with a hearty, country breakfast before pulling on his boots and beginning farm chores on his organic dairy farm. At age 84, John now has a partner who does the milking and heavy farm work, but he still puts in fourteen-hour days feeding the calves, maintaining the barn and pastures, and rotating fences.
“We put every bit of organic matter back into the soil and built it back up.”
The Kinsman family purchased their farm shortly after World War II. “The farm was eroded and part of the pasture looked like Stonehenge. Weeds wouldn’t even grow,” recalls John. “We put every bit of organic matter back into the soil and built it back up.”
On the farm John now grows hay and employs a highly intensive rotational grazing system for his thirty-six dairy cows and thirty-eight calves and heifers. He moves the fences to new pastures every twelve hours. “The cows depend on it and let me know if I don’t do it,” laughs John, “They do all the work by eating the grass and leaving manure as fertilizer.” He also has a rotation of contour crops on ninety acres, with sixty acres preserved as woodland.
John is committed to using methods that do no harm to human, environmental, and animal health and to use as little fossil fuel as possible. He has been farming organically since a health scare in the 1960s changed his mind. When he started farming, extension schools were encouraging farmers to use pesticides and herbicides. “Without thinking I began to use them, because we trusted the universities, until I had nerve damage on the covering of my sciatica. I went organic overnight and I’ve never been better,” says John.
When he’s not out in the fields, John can be found working tirelessly for democracy in our food system as president of Family Farm Defenders. In between moving fences and feeding calves, John keeps busy writing press releases, traveling to meetings in the U.S. and abroad to discuss food and farm issues, and taking phone calls from farmers, politicians, and activists. Over the course of his career, John has witnessed substantial changes in the agriculture sector, and more specifically in the dairy industry. “The Great Depression wasn’t nearly as bad on the farm as today’s economic crisis is. [Back then] we had 12 cows, a diversified farm and we ate from our garden,” John recalls. “My parents did not work 15-20 hours a day like farmers do now. They took time to go places and do things. They went to the World’s Fair in Chicago and to California by train way back when.”
But times are different for farmers and their families today. For generations John and his neighbors have cared for the land in Sauk County through rotational grazing, and strip farming of crops well suited for the rocky, ridges of southern Wisconsin. But, today John sees farms around being put into corn and soy production. “It is wrong for the land,” says John. “The farming methods that many farmers are now using are not what the farmers want to use. They are getting huge subsidies to do so, but they are destroying the future of food producing capacity of the land here with monocropping, no crop rotation or grazing animals, and the use of industrial machinery and chemicals.”
“We sell our organic cheese as cheap as conventional cheese, but our cheese does not have to travel 1,500 miles. We are trying to get people more involved with food on a local level.”
As president and founder of Family Farm Defenders, John has worked diligently since 1994 to transform the food system through grassroots activism. John remembers the first informal meeting of Family Farm Defenders, held in a Washington, D.C. hotel basement after a frustrating meeting with a farm-lobbying organization that catered to large agribusinesses instead of farmers. He and his fellow farmers “felt that the interests of farmers were not being considered.” Family Farm Defenders now reaches out to farmers across the country and across the globe, from both the urban and rural sectors, to help create a democratic, farmer-controlled and consumer-oriented food system. The organization also works to create new cooperative endeavors for farmers that will help them market their products, connect them to consumers, and return a fair price to the farmers.
A living example of the principle “think globally, act locally,” John has dedicated the past twenty years to improving U.S. food policies as well as fighting for food sovereignty worldwide with an international organization called Via Campesina. Locally, Family Farm Defenders is providing a model to ensure farmers receive fair prices for the products they produce. Family Farm Defender cheese, which provides a fair price to dairy farmers providing the milk, and a healthy, safe product for consumers, is now being sold in Wisconsin. “We sell our organic cheese as cheap as conventional cheese, but our cheese does not have to travel 1,500 miles. We are trying to get people more involved with food on a local level.”
A dairy farmer first, John considers farming to be “a very dignified way of life. Farmers must work with nature, not against it. It gives you a great feeling when nature and the environment cooperate with you.” His work as a farm activist and advocate over the past sixteen years has also given John great pleasure. “Seeing the local movement starting to unfold is invigorating. People are healthier, and their health of mind and outlook on the world and people is changing, but we can’t push people too fast. We want to throw the book at them but they are just ready for one page.”
Despite these small, incremental changes, John is improving the lives of producers and eaters alike. His passion for food and farming is a living example of how one farmer can make a lasting, global impact on what we eat, where it comes from, and how it is produced.