Monthly Archives: November 2009

What are you thankful for?

by Bethany M. Dunbar, November 27, 2009

I’m thankful for the newspapers and dairy farms still in business in Vermont.  I’m thankful that I learned how to milk a cow by hand and how to type on a typewriter.

I’m thankful for my boyfriend, Jim, who keeps me grounded and makes Cleveland a fun place to go.  I’m thankful for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and some really nice hikes in the Cuyahoga National Park.

I’m thankful for my parents, who are in their eighties and still in good health.

I’m thankful for my kids, who are in their twenties and still a handful sometimes.

I’m thankful for all the rest of my crazy, wonderful family and friends.

I’m thankful for warm November weather, even though it’s weird.

I’m thankful for a pumpkin cheesecake recipe and turkey and cranberries and mashed potatoes.

I’m thankful for a big yellow Labrador retriever who is so happy to see me when I get home that he does aerial corkscrews.

I’m thankful for an extra day off today — on Friday.

I’m thankful for the Turkey Trot in Barton and all the people who do it.  I’m thankful that I knew Missy White who the whole thing is in memory of.  I’m thankful for all those T-shirts, even though I didn’t sign up early enough to get one this year.  I’m thankful for the gorgeous wreath I won in the drawing at the end.  (see the header photo)

I’m thankful for the sight of the sharp, white marsh hawk; stars in a black sky; the warm fur on my horse’s neck; the sound of wind with no wind towers in it; the smells of hay and clean leather.

What are you thankful for?  Something big?  Something little?  Leave me a comment, I’d love to hear about yours.  I’m thankful that you are reading this right now and thankful for your comments!

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A convenient tsunami of milk

Sun hits a farm field in Glover. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

 

A federal dairy lawsuit is filed; perhaps a tsunami of justice will ensue

by Bethany M. Dunbar, November 20, 2009

When I started looking at the complaint in the federal lawsuit recently filed against dairy processors, a couple of names popped out at me.

Alice Allen of Wells River is one of the plaintiffs.  As part of the Vermont-New Hampshire Milk Marketing Study Group, she has hosted meetings about agriculture policy in the Wells River area for years.  One of these was in 2006.  An assistant professor from Iowa came to talk about the local food group he had started out there 13 years before — to try to link farmers and consumers.

He had done economic studies that showed that farmers in his county produced $1.08-billion worth of food, while consumers in the same county bought $400-million worth of food, mostly shipped in from somewhere else.  He decided to have a goal of capturing 10 percent of that for local farmers.

A full story about that meeting is posted on the Chronicle’s web site. I came away from that meeting excited about the ideas he had to link farmers and consumers.

The more the food is handled, processed, and shipped around, the more energy is wasted and the more money goes to middlemen instead of producers who could strengthen our rural economies if they could make ends meet.

Local food is not only likely to be healthier for people to eat — it’s healthier for the economy and the planet.

The other name that I noticed in the dairy lawsuit was Gary Hanman of Dairy Farmers of America (DFA).  This giant dairy processor is named as one of the defendants in the lawsuit, which claims that milk handlers have been colluding to keep the price low for farmers in order to keep more income for themselves.

I remembered hearing Gary Hanman speak at a meeting of the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery and looked that story up.

Coincidentally, that was also in 2006.  At that meeting Mr. Hanman talked about a “tsunami” of surplus milk.  Turns out it was a rather convenient tsunami for some of the processors.  In fact DFA might have even helped create the tsunami.  According to a report I read recently, DFA might have even helped create the tsunami by importing great quantities of dairy products.

What’s wrong with this picture?  Nothing if you are the CEO of a giant mega processor that is getting away with paying dairy farmers much less than the cost of making milk, while consumers are paying just as much as they ever did in the supermarkets.

To read the full story of that St. Albans meeting, check on the Chronicle’s web site.

Posted below is the story I wrote about the federal lawsuit.  It’s likely to be a long time before this one is resolved.  I will try to keep you posted.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.  I hope your tables are well laden with wonderful local foods.

Class action suit filed against dairy processors

by Bethany M. Dunbar, the Chronicle, October 21, 2009

BURLINGTON — A class action lawsuit has been filed in U.S. District Court against Dairy Farmers of America (DFA), Dairy Marketing Services (DMS), Dean Foods, and H.P. Hood for keeping farmers’ milk prices low.

Alice and Laurance Allen of Wells River and Garret and Ralph Sitts of Franklin, New York, have filed the complaint on behalf of roughly 9,000 dairy farmers in 11 states in the northeastern United States.

A similar suit was filed about a year ago in the southeastern United States, according to Benjamin Brown of Cohen, Milstein, Sellers and Toll, a Washington, D.C., law firm that is handling the case.  Andrew Manitsky of Gravel and Shea in Burlington is listed as a co-counsel along with another attorney from the Washington firm.

The lawsuit claims that the defendants worked together to buy up dairy processing plants and force small cooperatives and independent farmers to deal with them, so they could control the raw milk market and therefore the price of milk paid to farmers.

Similar allegations have been discussed in the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee recently.  The U.S. Justice Department is considering some of the same questions about the dairy industry and a hearing was held on this subject in St. Albans recently.

Testimony at this hearing was that dairy farmers are getting milk checks that do not cover the cost of production, and many are going out of business.  Meanwhile the CFO of Dean Foods made over $116-million in five years.

Alice and Laurance Allen operate Al-lens Farm, which was a member of Booth Brothers until 2006 and a member of the National Farmers Organization from 2006 until today.  The Allens milk about 30 cows.  The Allens and some other farmers in their area, on both sides of the Connecticut River, have hosted discussion meetings on wind energy for farms, local foods, and other related subjects.

The class action would include anyone who made and sold milk for drinking through DMS from October 9, 2005, to this month.

“Dairy cooperatives are associations of dairy farmers who agree to collectively market their Grade A milk.  Dairy cooperatives are supposed to be owned, operated, and controlled by their member farmers,” says the complaint.  It says that farmers not only didn’t control DFA, but meetings and deals were secret.

“DFA’s management does not disclose the details of its financial transactions to its members, thereby avoiding oversight and accountability.  Because DFA is not a publicly traded corporation or a union, it is not legally required to publicly disclose such information.”

The complaint says that in 1996 Carole Knight was elected to the regional board of DFA’s predecessor, Mid-American Dairymen.  She began asking questions about what deductions from her milk check were being used for.  Management had her ejected from the board.

“She subsequently filed suit and won a $450,000 verdict and attorney’s fees,” the complaint notes.

Dairy cooperatives allow farmers to work together to get a better price through a federal law called the Capper-Volstead Act.

“The Capper-Volstead Act grants dairy cooperatives antitrust immunity with respect to price-fixing agreements with other dairy cooperatives ‘provided, however, that such associations are operated for the mutual benefit of the members thereof,’” says the complaint.

The 67-page document offers an explanation of the federal milk price system and a background of mergers and sales that, the plaintiffs argue, forced most farmers to deal with DFA and DMS or lose their market for milk completely.

The complaint says DFA was created in 1998 by merging four cooperatives, and it currently has about 1,900 members in the Northeast.

In 1998 DFA began investing “significant amounts of its producers members’ monies and equity and incurred significant amounts of debt to acquire stakes in many fluid Grade A milk processing plants.”

Robert Wellington, senior vice-president at Agri-Mark, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that “DFA simply used its economic muscle to buy up market outlets for milk even though it does not have the local milk supply to service that milk,” according to the complaint.

“DFA greatly strengthened its position in the Northeast in 1999 by forming DMS, a marketing agency, with Dairylea Cooperative,” the complaint says.

It says that DMS hauls table milk to the processors for its members.  “DMS determines how much its member farmers and member cooperatives receive for the fluid Grade A milk,” the complaint says.  It says DMS sells about 16 billion pounds of milk produced by 9,000 farmers in the Northeast.

DFA owns 50 percent of DMS and controls DMS’ operations, the lawsuit says.

The milk industry needs balancing plants to take milk at times when supply of fluid milk exceeds demand.  There are seven balancing plants in the Northeast, the complaint says, and five are owned and controlled by DMS cooperatives.

In July 1997 Suiza entered the New England market when it bought Garelick Farms, and in July 1998 Suiza bought West Lynn Creamery in Massachusetts.  Suiza then bought Cumberland Farms and two others.  By 2000, Suiza controlled 70 percent of the fluid milk processing in New England, the complaint says.

Suiza had entered an agreement with DFA, then it closed several of the plants.  In 2001, Suiza and Dean Foods merged.

“Dean, Suiza, and DFA agreed that Dean would buy out DFA’s 33.8 percent stake in Suiza for $166-million.”

Dean and Suiza were ordered to divest 11 plants, the complaint says, but the plants were sold to a third party “owned and controlled by another member of the conspiracy,” National Dairy Holdings, created by DFA and two former Dean executives.

“Upon information and belief, DFA and its subsidiaries provided more than $400-million in financing to NDH.”

After Suiza and Stop and Shop in Readville, Massachusetts, merged, the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery was forced to join DMS in order to maintain its market for fluid milk.

In February 2003, St. Albans issued a statement saying it had reached a marketing agreement with DFA.

“This is not a merger of these two organizations.  This is an annual marketing and membership agreement,” says the statement.  Later, St. Albans joined DFA and over-order premiums paid to farmers decreased significantly, according to the complaint.

In November 2002 Hood and NDH tried to merge.  Objections were raised by state attorneys general, and the merger was restructured to a stock exchange.  NDH sold all its Northeast fluid bottling plants to Hood.  DFA became 50 percent owner of NDH and 15 percent owner of Hood.

Agri-Mark is the only cooperative that supplies fluid Grade A milk to Hood that is not a member of DFA or DMS, the complaint notes.

It says independent farmers have been forced to join DFA or DMS in order get a market for their milk, and the complaint says Dean’s CFO has bragged that low milk prices for farmers have created “the perfect sunny day” for the $12-billion corporation.

No hearing date has been set yet.

E-mails to the defendants yielded only one immediate answer.  A statement from DFA denies that the cooperative has hurt farmers by its actions.

“We are continuously looking for additional ways to increase dairy farmer pay price and net returns, not suppress them, and have been successful in doing so,” says the statement issued by Monica Massey, vice president of communications for DFA.

The answer my friend

The power struggle that is wind energy

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Milkweed seeds catch the wind in Newport. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

by Bethany M. Dunbar,  November 13, 2009

Wind energy has been a tough subject for us here at the Chronicle.  Everyone likes the idea of renewable energy, and we are no exception.  I really enjoy the sight of small wind towers at individual farms and homes, spinning away.  You can’t hear them unless you’re right next to them, and most of them are not that much taller than the area around them.

But comparing those systems to a wind “farm” with dozens of 400-foot towers and lights on them is kind of like comparing a five-cow farm that sells raw milk in half-gallon glass jars from its milkhouse to a 2,000-cow factory farm in California.  Do you want a row of those on top of your Vermont mountains?

Putting an industrial development on top of our wild and unspoiled Vermont mountains seems incredibly counter-productive and short-sighted.  There are so many other potential sources of energy that have not been fully explored.

Tourists are not flocking to Vermont to look at wind turbines.  They are coming here to see beautiful wild mountains, working farm landscapes, wildlife and woods and streams and lakes.

After next summer, most likely, the people who go to the beautiful Crystal Lake state park beach will be looking at a row of wind turbines with lights on top.  The Sheffield wind project is smack dab in the middle of that particular view.

I remember when I first started thinking about what wind energy would really look like.  It was when Paul Lefebvre got ahold of a map of proposed wind projects all over the state.  It’s still hanging on the door to his office.  It’s as wide as the door, almost, and shows the state of Vermont in white, with black writing showing towns, mountains and the usual stuff that shows up on maps.

Pink circles the size of coffee cans around the proposed wind projects show the towns that will be looking at these developments.  These are the towns that will be paying the price.  Putting a project like this to a vote in one town is kind of a sick joke.  But that’s the way it’s been going.

The most recent project is Lowell Mountain.  This week, the Chronicle came out in opposition.  Chris Braithwaite’s editorial and this week’s news story are available to you to read at the Chronicle’s web site, along with a lot of work that we have done about wind in past issues.

That’s including reporting by Paul who went to see the project in Mars Hill, Maine, and talked to people there about how it had affected them.

Please take a look, and post your comments — here, on that site, or send me an e-mail at bethany@bartonchronicle.com.

Thanks again for reading and for all your feedback.



Slaughterhouses and a visit from Temple Grandin

Header photo:  Frost on maple leaves.  Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Another reason to eat local food

by Bethany M. Dunbar, Nov. 6, 2009

We meat eaters, even in Vermont, have to face some facts and clean up some messes.  The news of the shut-down of the slaughterhouse in Grand Isle for animal abuse allegations brought this story home.

In truth it was already home — right in the neighborhood.  When my kids were little and my ex husband and I were dairy farming, I was always so pleased to be able to make an entire meal of food from our own farm.  We were not raising beef cattle at that time, but a dairy animal that needed to be culled would provide wonderful beef for our family.  Those cows were not treated badly, they had a great life.  We loved them.  I still have photos of some of those ladies — Eve was our first Jersey cow.  Her daughters’ names all started with E so we could remember which family they came from.

So we had our own beef and our own milk.  The milk was unpasteurized, about 5 percent butterfat.  In those days we were working physically all the time and didn’t have to worry about extra fat in the milk.  We had fiddleheads picked from the side of the road and potatoes grown by my father or my father-in-law.

We used Cabot butter because that’s where our milk was being shipped.

What I’m saying is that I was a localvore before anyone ever heard of that word.  I learned how to be one when our family moved to Vermont in 1968 and my parents read Stalking the Wild Asparagus and started growing their own food.

I learned a lot more, including how incredibly delicious venison can be, from the Dunbar family.

We are so lucky in Vermont to be able to know so much about where our food comes from and how it’s grown and made.

The rest of the country is starting to think about all this, and that’s fantastic.  I just read an article in the New Yorker about the horrors of slaughterhouses and how chickens are treated in them.  Disgusting, plain and simple.  I will never be a vegetarian and certainly hope those people don’t take over the world.  Some of them make absolutely no sense to me.  But I do appreciate their horror over how these factories treat the animals that become our food.

It doesn’t have to be that way.  A woman named Temple Grandin recently spoke at Sterling College about ways to design humane slaughterhouses and systems to ensure the animals are treated well right up until a humane death.

Posted here is the article I did about her speech.  I found it fascinating and hope you will too.

Where do you get your food?  Do you think about who is growing it and how it’s made?  It’s a little harder in the late fall and winter but there’s a lot we can do.  Let me know your ideas for eating locally and in a way that is not cruel to the animals.

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Dairy cows in a September pasture. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Animal science expert describes humane slaughterhouses

by Bethany M. Dunbar, the Chronicle, October 14, 2009

CRAFTSBURY COMMON — “My mind works like Google for images,” said Temple Grandin, an expert on animal psychology who has helped improve conditions in slaughterhouses all over the United States and the world.

Sterling College hosted Ms. Grandin on Thursday, October 8.  The dining hall was packed for the occasion.  The event was sponsored by the Vermont Highland Cattle Company and the University of Vermont Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

Ms. Grandin has autism.  She has written nine books and has a doctoral degree in animal science.  She is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University.

In extreme cases, autism can render a person almost completely unable to communicate.  Autism tends to make the mind focus intensely on specifics, Ms. Grandin said, usually visual images instead of words or phrases.  For example, if she mentions the words church steeple, most people would conjure up an image of a generic steeple.  But someone with autism would think of an example of a specific steeple, or many of them, that the person had seen in the past.

When she was little, people wanted to put her into an institution.  Luckily, her family helped her get through the hard times.

“When I was a young kid in high school, I thought everybody thought in pictures,” she said.  She struggled with algebra but found geometry and trigonometry to be no problem.

At some point she started realizing that animals must be thinking in a similar way.  Scientific studies have shown that even ants have multiple stored visual images in their minds.

“There’s no other way animals can think,” she said.

Animals remember specific visual details of a situation that people might overlook.  So a chain hanging down and rattling, a piece of paper fluttering and making a noise or motion, a sunbeam on the floor, or dark stripes on the floor created by shadows, could make all the difference in being able to move animals around — especially animals that are not handled frequently and are basically not that tame.

A calm animal is much easier to handle than a frightened one, she said.  Animal emotions have been scientifically shown.  Emotions that drive animals include fear, separation anxiety, rage, and curiosity.

One device for training animals to get used to something new is put that item into their pasture where they can take a look on their own terms and at their own speed.  Animals are attracted to something new and might get used to it that way.

A slippery floor that causes an animal to fall can create a problem with a whole group of animals that all become afraid.  The same is true of a light shining directly in their eyes so they can’t see the flooring or what lies ahead.

Among the design changes Ms. Grandin has instituted in slaughterhouses all over the world are solid walls in curving patterns.  That way the animal thinks it will be able to go back where it came from, and it can’t see anything frightening to make it afraid to go ahead.

Simple changes to slaughtering facilities can make the process extremely more humane, which enhances the quality of the meat.

“Good handling right before slaughter improves quality,” Ms. Grandin said.  Other incentives for slaughterhouses include savings on workers’ compensation because workers are less likely to get hurt if the animals are not scared and freaking out.

In most cases, she said, when managers of meat plants could see the results of making small changes they were all for it.  There were a few cases of managers that liked hurting animals or could not agree with change and had to be fired.

In 1999 she was hired to make changes for McDonald’s.

She was able to make simple design changes in 75 big plants.

“There were three plants where the managers had to be fired because they just had the wrong attitude.”

In Mr. Grandin’s experience, small plants are either really good or really bad.  She told one person who runs an organic chicken plant, “You’ve got to make sure that Tyson’s not doing a better job than you are.”

Usually problems come in when the plants are too full, understaffed, or equipment is broken down.

In some cases, reform started by taking the chief executive officers on a field trip to see how badly the animals were treated in the slaughterhouses.

“I call that opening up the executives’ eyes,” she said.

Ms. Grandin said activists can be helpful to encourage reform up to a point.  She said before there were protests about conditions in the meat plants, she was making no progress.

“Prior to that it was like pounding on cold steel,” she said.  Once people started protesting, she was much more able to bend the steel.

But many activists take things way too far.  Ms. Grandin said there are two kinds of activism:  “Activism for reform versus activism for let’s just get rid of the meat industry.”

People need to understand how it works out in the field, she said.  If not it’s just “Radicals fighting radicals.  What happened to the big old mucky middle?”

Ms. Grandin said the banning of horse slaughtering has created horrible conditions for certain living horses.  Some are sent to Mexico where they are basically tortured, she said, and others are starving.

“That horse slaughter thing is a real mess,” she said.  “You could have terrible slaughterhouses and that would be better than this.”

Ms. Grandin helped reform slaughterhouses all over the place but found that when she went back, in some cases the reform did not stick and bad practices had returned.  So her next step was to develop a system of auditing slaughterhouses that anyone can use to see if practices are humane or not.

Guidelines must be specific, she said, so you don’t want one that says, “Animals must be handled properly.”

Instead the guideline should say that no more than 1 percent of animals should slip or fall down, not more than 3 percent should vocalize when being handled, and cattle prods should only have to be used in no more than a certain percentage of times.

Cows should not be lame or skinny.  Of course a few will be, but a high number of lame or skinny cows shows mistreatment.  Coat condition and dirty animals are also an indication of mistreatment.

For more information, Ms. Grandin’s web site is www.grandin.com.