New York farmers speak on dairy at just food conference

CEW-MR-2-NY farmers speak2by Lorraine Lewandrowski
Since 2009, I have been following New York City “food movement” groups. In 2009, the very week that Northeast dairy farmers chartered buses to Washington, D.C. to seek help, New York City was hosting a conference on agriculture called “Food and Climate Change.” Telephoning conference organizers at a group called Just Food in NYC, it was apparent that they had little knowledge of the crisis that farmers were facing Upstate. Indeed, a NYC Food Charter developed at the time of that conference recommended that consumers “drink more water” as the beverage of choice. Further, animal agriculture seemed to be portrayed in a negative light. Regional agriculture was mentioned, but not dairy specifically.
Having seen growing interest on the part of some NYC food-interested people about rural New York in recent years, a group of dairy farmers from the Mohawk Valley decided to put in a proposal for a presentation at the Just Food 2013 conference. Our proposal called “Introduction to the New York Milkshed” was accepted. We then got to work photographing our farms, developing the statistics of the number of farms Upstate in various size categories, differences in regions of New York, and the contribution of the dairy farms to rural New York and in feeding New York City. We wanted our presentation to be comprehensive and fair, with no dairy farmer left behind.
Debbie and Dale Windecker, from Frankfort, NY, Tammy Graves and I were accompanied by family members including Kayla Windecker, on our trip in Manhattan on March 29. We carried coolers of cheese donated by Three Village Cheese of Newport and Jones Farm of Herkimer along with other cheeses to distribute to conference attendees. Chobani was a conference sponsored and helped by sending the Chobani truck with free Greek Yogurt for conference breakfasts.
Seeing a group of dairy farmers troop into the Just Food conference center, the greeters were surprised that we had traveled five hours to speak to them. Repeatedly, people thanked us for coming, saying this was the first time that average dairy farmers had attended the conference. The conference was sold out, with 2,000 attendees attending rotating workshops on a variety of topics, including many agriculturally-related topics.
We spoke from our hearts as farmers hoping to give a good representation of the dairy farms of rural New York. Tammy Graves opened the presentation, taking attendees on a virtual trip through rural New York, showing the contributions of each of New York’s regions in producing milk. She told the story of her home farm, showing photos of her late father, Holstein breeder, Gordon Donahoe. Tammy showed photos of farms of all sizes, ranging from the thousands of smaller scale farms to the largest. She emphasized that all farms are individual and that each farm has its own set of strengths and weaknesses, as well as a family story and history.
Jumping into my part of the presentation, I told my family’s story that began in Brooklyn when the Lewandrowskis arrived from Poland, subsequently setting up their first farm on the Tug Hill Plateau along with other young Polish and Irish immigrants. Having grown up around farmers who had organized the milk strikes of the Depression-era, I told of the first New York Mayor who was very interested in securing an adequate, wholesome supply of milk for NYC: Fiorello LaGuardia. I let them know that food security experts have stated that NYC has only a three to four day supply of food on the shelves at any given time, and that their food supply chains are growing longer and longer from farms that they no longer know. We all tried to inform them that milk comes from a rural production system that is strong on inspection and education for farmers in modern times.
We showed the NYC consumers photos of “beauty down every country road” and spoke of our long tradition of New York rural heritage that, they, as New Yorkers, should be proud of. We spoke of jobs, economic development and that a rural job is created for every nine cows. Environmental benefits or “eco system services” provided by dairy farms including large tracts of wide open lands, wildlife habitat, watershed protection, flood plain protection and biodiversity were presented to the audience. The diversity of people engaged in New York dairy from our traditional dairy farms, to newer Amish and Hispanic dairy farmers and workers was described.
It was Deb Windecker’s presentation that generated a flurry of questions by conference goers. Deb showed photos of her farm, inside the barn, her family at work, her husband harvesting corn, photos of favorite cows and much more. Dale Windecker brought silage samples for the conference participants to examine. A dozen hands shot up with questions for Deb, with the single greatest concern openly expressed repeatedly was “what’s in the milk?” Consumers were surprised that conventional milk does not contain antibiotics. They were curious to learn about the extensive testing that all milk undergoes. Deb answered questions as to why a farmer would want to treat a sick animal, giving examples. Some consumers were also curious about cooperatives and how the pay price to the farmers is set. Other consumers expressed concern that dairy farmers may use GMO corn and pesticides. Some consumers told us that it is their belief that only organic milk is “safe.”
Tammy Graves concluded the presentation with a discussion of “How to shop like a dairy diva.” Tammy emphasized purity in dairy products and that consumers should look for products that have five ingredients or less. She showed the audience imitation and fake dairy products that are made with water, palm oil and imported milk derivatives. Tammy also talked about the standard of identity in dairy products and how she prefers real dairy to fake. Consumers were attentive, taking notes as Tammy told of the website where plant identification numbers can be entered and the plant location will be shown.
As dairy farmers, we were somewhat saddened that water was served at lunch as the “environmentally friendly” beverage. Dairy was represented only by goat cheese in the salads and some mozzarella slices in the veggie wraps. We were proud that Kayla Windecker circulated throughout the conference with tasty cheese samples. I was glad that I attended a workshop on NYC Food Systems, where presenters promoted Mark Bittman, the NY Times writer who was extraordinarily critical of milk during 2012. Presenters in that workshop highlighted an upcoming fundraiser sponsored by Open Space Institute and Brooklyn Food Coalition that will feature Mark Bittman as keynote speaker and his book “Vegan Before 6.” I couldn’t help but express my personal sadness that these groups are promoting Mark Bittman and not the thousands of wonderful dairy farmers who humbly tend the lands of rural New York.
We left the conference joyful that we had made it to Manhattan. A young conference attendee approached us to see if it would be possible to charter a bus to bring NYC people up to the Mohawk Valley to see actual farms and maybe attend the Fair. We made numerous invaluable contacts from other organizations who asked us to try to tell our story in NYC. Cheesemongers gave us their cards, media people asked us for our contact information and green market representatives asked what they could do to help. Average people told us that they do indeed worry about the future of New York’s agriculture and good food for all of NYC’s consumers. I hope that we will return to the Just Food conference of 2014, next time with a busload of Upstate farmers. If any Country Folks readers have any ideas on how we as farmers can establish better communications with NYC consumers or would like to help us with this effort, please e-mail us at

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