Attempted Suicide in Wisconsin = Marketplace Fallout in Real Terms

December 19th, 2018

Dear urban allies,

You have the power. You have the power to protect your family by buying the truly best, authentic organic dairy products. And by doing so, you have the power to protect family farmers who get their hands dirty for a living and crack a sweat producing nutrient-superior milk.

Right now, many are being crushed in the marketplace by factory farms the USDA has allowed to fraudulently produce “organic” milk. These are not just jobs for family farmers. The majority of these farms have been in the same families for multiple generations. These are highly skilled practitioners, but in today’s technologically sophisticated employment marketplace there are few other places for them to go.

You can speak loudly, in solidarity with these farm families, by doing your homework and voting with your pocketbook every time you are standing in front of the dairy cooler. Choosing organic is not enough.

Please use Cornucopia’s Organic Dairy Scorecard to separate family farms, most with cows that have names not numbers, from the livestock factory imposters.

Every day you spend your money wisely, you have a true impact.

I shared the message below with our dairy farmer-members and collaborators in the industry Tuesday.

In organic solidarity,

Mark A. Kastel

Hello all,

I bring sad news. An organic dairy farmer in eastern Wisconsin, yesterday, shot himself in an apparent suicide attempt. Unless I receive permission from the family, I’m not going to relay any identifying information, but I’d like to use this as a cautionary tale for all of us in the community and a warning to business people who treat farmers like expendable pawns—if you have too many automobiles in stock, you might shut down your factory for a few weeks and furlough your workers, but it just doesn’t work that way with cows, farmers, and their families.

First, and I will also say this at the end of my message, if you are a producer who is currently struggling, you are sadly in good company. If you are feeling despondent or are having challenges controlling your anger, which is understandable, please, please talk to someone you trust.

Neither I nor the other staff at Cornucopia, or Ed at NODPA, are mental health professionals. But we can help you connect with someone. In hard times we all need someone to talk to in order to regain our equilibrium.

I’ve been in touch throughout this year with a group of five farmers in Wisconsin whose milk was being picked up by one of our cooperatives and delivered to a major cheese maker. That contract was evidently abruptly curtailed, and, since the co-op had been buying milk from these farmers (I think displaced from another market disruption) and they were not actually co-op members, their contract provided for termination after notice (the co-op had no home for the milk and was just passing along the pain).

The five farmers found another market with a small independent cheese maker. That collapsed when the cheese maker ran into some kind of financial trouble and quit paying for the milk (a high crime and misdemeanor here in Wisconsin). We have laws on the books requiring bonding/escrows for just this type of situation, but there’s a time lag in getting paid and lots of paperwork. If you are already in an economically stressed situation without cash reserves, this can place you and your farm in real jeopardy.

Ironically, the large cheese maker came back into the market looking for milk, this time purchasing directly from patrons. However, out of the five certified organic farms, they only wanted the production from the three largest (120-cow range). The two smaller farms, about 50 cows each, were being hung out to dry. The larger farmers were still trying to negotiate with the company to take all the shippers on but, so far, have failed.

So, reportedly, faced with a mountain of paperwork due Monday, pursuant to the default by the small cheese maker, and no potential market for his organic milk looming, this farmer shot himself.

I’ve been able to confirm the primary details with the County Sheriff. As of Monday night, I had a report from one of the other farmers that the farmer in question was hospitalized in stable condition. So, God willing, he will survive. I was told he is a bachelor. I have no idea who is milking his cows today, but I am thankful that in Wisconsin we have a tradition of neighbors helping each other in times of crisis. And if I receive permission, I will include details including, especially, the names of the companies that are involved here. I will be interviewing them myself so they understand the events that cascaded due to their business practices.

So again, if you are in a tough spot, please know that there are many of us standing with you. Please talk to your family, your neighbors, a clergy person, or call Ed or me if you’d like. But talk to someone.

Cornucopia has more members in California than any other state. I don’t know what resources are available there, but here is a listing of suicide hotlines for nearly every county in the state:

Not surprisingly, the second highest state in terms of our membership is Wisconsin—there are more than 450 organic dairy producers here alone. If you are in Wisconsin, you can contact your county’s human services office or the Department of Agriculture’s Farm Center Hotline for a referral: 1-800-942-2474.

The National Farmers Union also launched a Farm Crisis Center:

If others on this list can share resources in your individual states, please do.

If there’s no one else to connect with, you can anonymously call the National Suicide Hotline, 24/7, at: 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273 TALK)

I can’t tell you how much I respect each and every one of you who are out in the barn every single day taking care of your girls and providing such an important and wonderful form of nutrition to our society. When you have bills to pay, it’s hard to forget the economic impacts, but I for one will say there isn’t a job in the country more important than the people who produce our food.

Please know that there are millions of organic consumers who do recognize the value of your work. The challenge for all of us is to widen that circle so that more people know that prioritizing the very best food, and paying our farmers fairly, is a critical family value. It’s the foundation of life.

Wishing you all well!

Mark Kastel

NOTE: We’ve had a bit of an internal debate here at Cornucopia about whether this post might seem to be opportunistic. That is not my intent. But I do want to take this occasion to remind consumers what’s at stake here so the same thing doesn’t happen to some other farmer.


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