John Kinsman Interview

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This article is part of the Food Rights Network, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy. Find out more here.

John Kinsman, Wisconsin dairy farmer, was interviewed by the Center for Media and Democracy's Food Rights Network on Thursday, September 15th, 2011. He passed away at his farm in Lime Ridge, Wisconsin on January 20th, 2014.[1]


John Kinsman Interview


Part 1 of the audio interview (in which he talk about his farm and methods) is here. Part 2, in which he talks about his years of activism, is here.


Below is the transcript of his interview:

Part 1 (Farm)

John Kinsman Farm Cows.jpg

My wife and I bought this farm from an older widow lady who had lived here 49 years, and she did not have much money, so she had to rent the land out. In other words, people farmed it and took the crop off and paid her so much an acre for using the land until it was so worn out that it couldn't produce anymore. That was her living.

She sold it to us very reasonably. She was a very good neighbor, because we lived next door and gave her rides to church and different places. That would have been, I'd say, sixty years ago, actually.

Anyway, she gave us a very good deal, and so we were able to afford it, because we just didn't have anything then.

Building Organic Matter

Then we started building it up. And I knew the only way to do it was to get organic matter back in the soil, so any time I see a leaf fluttering away, I think, "Oh my gosh, it should be put into the soil!" And people put them in the garbage! It's awful, because that's tremendous fertilizer. The roots go down and bring up minerals that you don't get otherwise.

We built it up with organic matter, and it became very productive, but it took many years. At that time, we had chickens and pigs and cows, which is a diversified operation, which really was the way to farm, and still is. People are going back to that. It utilizes the so-called "waste" of one and, usually in the past, one of the three would bring a better price. You always had meat-- you always had chickens, and you had pork and beef, and you had milk and eggs.

Eventually, because the rocks, as you can see, were so great and so numerous and just buried beneath the surface, it was no use trying to plow and plant corn and do the regular rotation of corn, oats and hay (alfalfa, clover and grass). So we divided it into areas where it was all grass and hay, and then we started doing rotational grazing.

Rotational Grazing

Every twelve hours, the cows get new grass. The manure-- the fertilizer-- is spread where it belongs. The cows do the work. They go out and get their food. We don't have to chop it or bail it during the summer and haul it in, all that moisture, both ways. And with the manure, to make it balanced, we add a small amount of natural rock phosphate. This helps lock in the nitrogen and make it a balanced fertilizer. So now we do not use any fertilizer other than that. The land gets increasingly productive.

Now we do not even reseed the land, most of it, because after a certain point, nature kicks in and has that balance of clovers and grasses (that's legumes, of course). That's a balance that furnishes nitrogen, and it's just a tremendous hay crop.

We cut off usually two crops of hay, and then the third crop we rotational graze until the snow flies.

Reducing Inputs

Kinsman Tomato & Grape.JPG

We listened to the university for many years-- they were our best friends, my father and I-- and the College of Agriculture's recommendations for farming. But then we thought, well, the cows don't need that protein! We'd buy all this extra protein, and it was very expensive. So I kept cutting down and cutting down until I didn't buy any, and they still did well!

We were willing to sacrifice just a tiny bit of production to make the cows so much healthier, and there's some money left over.

All the emphasis in these farm magazines, which are funded by the big chemical companies and feed companies, says you have to have all this production, all this input, and mostly comes from petroleum-based products. And all the transportation, coming and going with this stuff.

So we buy no chemical fertilizers, we buy no protein, and as you can see, the cows are very healthy. We have less animal health problems, their lifespan is longer, the calves are healthier, and it's just a win-win situation.

Wisconsin Milk for Wisconsin Cheese

My milk goes to Cedar Grove, a private cheese factory in Plain, which is 20 miles away. This man Bob Wills could not exist, or keep his factory going, if he did not have a degree in law and a degree in economics because the big ones all want to put him under. Half the milk is organic, and he has another stream that is family farm friendly-- all have to pasture their cows, no hormones, and so on-- so it's very close [to organic]. He tries to pay top prices.

He's helped us to develop a fair trade cheese project starting thirteen years ago, and any of the cheese that we sell through the Family Farm Defenders gets a fair trade price, which is thirty dollars a hundred [pounds], when we're getting (right now) twenty-seven, and it's been down as low as twenty-one. That percentage that we sell of the cheese, at the end of the year they tally it all up, and all the farmers in his plant get a share of that fair trade price. It may not be much each, but it can happen.

Cedar Grove Cheese has between thirty-five and forty farmers, but they are looking for organic farmers, because they have a real good market.


We planted probably a hundred thousand trees, and some of them are now eighty feet tall, on the poorest land that produces almost nothing but brush and rocks. They are two and three feet in diameter. It's becoming our most valuable land, land that was almost useless, and it's the best use of the land. The organic matter builds up over the rocks, and when it rains-- we have these heavy rains-- it does not wash, but months later, clear water runs out where it never did before. So it's just like a sponge.

This is the way our crop land is becoming, because it's not disturbed, and the roots go down very deep, even the grasses. They go very deep. And so, when it's a dry spell, it will still produce.

We have a forty acre part of our farm that was in forest. It's the most level area of our farm, the only area that's level. So people advised us, "Oh, boy, you must bulldoze those trees out of there and plant corn!" Because it's dark soil, and it's just perfect for corn. I didn't want to do that.

Luckily, the forester was a very reliable person at that time, and he said-- he went over it with me-- and he said, "There's a lot of promise here." He said, "You can buy land cheaper than you can bulldoze that land, if you want to plant corn." So I was overjoyed to hear that.

We practice timber stand improvement in that area, and it's just beautiful in there. There's a lot of wildlife. So that's a joy. Then we have the areas that we planted, and now they're big enough to harvest.


So we're able to support thirty-six milking cows and about thirty younger cattle of all ages on-- it would be-- eighty-five acres of pasture and hay. But we're not considered farmers because we're not out there every day with a big tractor, doing all the things that conventional farmers are told to do, which only puts money in the pockets of the chemical companies and the petroleum companies and the GMO companies like Monsanto. And then there's Cargill...

Part 2 (Activism)

Civil Rights Movement

Kinsman Tractorcade.JPG

I became more aware of the powers that are running this country and running all of us, right down to our local people. Going to Mississippi in the 1970s-- this was right after the harshest part of the Civil Rights Movement, and everybody had left because they thought, "Well, we've got the laws, it's OK now." But it wasn't, it was really sad.

We helped with an exchange program, a cultural exchange program with children. One of the law students had started to leave, and Beulah Washington, a black leader in Grenada, Mississippi, said, "Mel, we can't end this like this. This is the only time our children have had a good relationship with a white person, and we want that to continue."

So-- that was forty-five years ago. Children from Mississippi stayed in white homes--mostly rural-- in the state of Wisconsin [and vice versa]. And, after three or four years, it got so complicated that he turned it all over to me.

It was pretty rough because we never had enough money. We had to buy old school buses, paint them, get them legal, and we'd haul or transport as many as ten roundtrips per summer.

During that time, then, I got to know the parents and other people, and sat through horrendous trials where innocent black people were framed and found guilty of crimes.

One case was a discrimination lawsuit from the Federal farm programs. We actually won a case-- they did-- and got the right people from Washington, some that we knew and other ones. That was one of the first cases that black farmers ever won, and that was almost forty years ago.

That helped me to see how broad the picture is, of how agriculture and urban life and factory workers and everyone fit together, because all of these people are involved in all of these programs.

National Family Farm Coalition

When the National Family Farm Coalition was formed in Omaha or Kansas City or someplace, friends of mine drove out of their way from Northwestern Wisconsin to come over here and pick me up-- and I know they were four hours out of their way both ways-- to make sure I went to one of these organizing meetings, or maybe more than one. And of course, once I went, I was hooked! That's how I got involved with National Family Farm Coalition.

It evolved. There were big problems along the way. Certain Chief Executive Officers, and sometimes Presidents, of the organization were-- I would say-- corrupt. They were power-hungry, and they had double agendas, and people were calling each other racists and so an at a meeting we went to in Washington. So we just simply walked out-- our Wisconsin delegation.

Family Farm Defenders

We had a meeting that evening in the basement of the hotel-- five of us-- but fifteen people came. So that's how we formed the Family Farm Defenders fifteen years ago.

We formed it to include at least forty percent urban people, because we were finding that our urban friends cared more about family farmers than farmers did, and understood the reasons for caring about them.

They can look at it from a perspective without all the garbage-- propaganda-- that we as family farmers get. I get four farm papers, and only one of them I subscribe to. The others are totally funded by the chemical companies and the fertilizer companies. They need readership to justify the ads.

Almost all of the material is written by the transnational companies, the chemical companies. Of course, they're all intertwined, with interlocking directorates. Most farmers don't understand that, so they're bombarded with that, and the same way with the farm programs that come out. They're funded the saw way.

They founded AFACT [American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technology], which was founded by Monsanto. They were part of it, but now they say it's a grassroots thing!

Antibiotics are fed by the ton to cattle to make them grow faster in living conditions of extreme overcrowding, so they won't get sick. If they get to a certain weight, they die, because they're so hyped up, so they gotta be sure and sell them before that.

The urban people haven't had that message in front of them day and night, and so they can look at it objectively. I feel very sorry for these farmers who have nothing but that. They're caught, and they're told they've got to expand, they've got to get bigger, they've got to use all this Roundup Ready, they've got to plant all these seeds… There's all kinds of problems now that scientists are finding: cattle with abortions and a lot of reproductive problems with cattle and hogs that are fed these GMO crops.

Fighting GMOs and RBGH

Over the years, after the introduction of the first GMO to enter the food chain, before that happened was the bovine growth hormone, which was being researched at the University of Wisconsin by American Cyanamid. We went to some of the early meetings of the scientists from the University, who were so excited about the increased milk production. Thirty percent, which meant-- and they said it!-- it would put thirty percent more farmers off the land because of that much over-production.

That wasn't the thing to tell farmers! We listened to them, and there were a lot flaws with what they were saying. In the evening, it was more of a social area, as these scientists and researchers at the University started drinking and talking. They were making remarks about who could create the biggest monster because of their breakthrough.

Fifty percent of all the dairy products at that time-- and that's twenty-six years ago-- that were sold at the University of Wisconsin and the University Hospital, fifty percent of all the milk, cottage cheese, the cheese, the butter, everything that was manufactured in Madison at Babcock Hall and other places (ice cream!) came from these experimental cows. No one knew about it except this small group of people, and they weren't even informed of it.

Because we couldn't get any attention, I used my civil rights experience and wrote up a placard, or a sign on a stick. It said, "Do you know you're a guinea pig?" and so on, for this experiment. Then I made up some, at the beginning very crude, information sheets, and I would go in front of the Memorial Union and hand out this information.

The Movement Goes International

Some of this went to Europe within a year, and the people in Germany and other countries were so excited to see the farmers marching on the University in opposition. A couple of times-- I was on a farm in Germany and staying overnight, and they said, "We were so excited when we saw the video of the farmers marching on the University." Well, I said, "Here I am! Those are all students milling around in front of the Memorial Union." They thought it was farmers marching on the University.

They said, "Well, that's what inspired us-- our consumer groups and farm groups-- to fight!" And they still are keeping up the fight.

=Via Campesina

These same people-- many of them whom I met in Europe on that first trip-- were the founders of Via Campesina, the international peasant and worker group and family farm group that now represent about 400 million people around the world.

Then out of that came the Food Sovereignty Initiative. All of this has been really helpful to learn how all these tremendous farm methods-- agriculture methods-- can combat climate change. To be working with these people, who risk their lives, coming from Indonesia and coming from many other countries that are oppressed, and of course at these meetings, there are people from Iran, there are people from Cuba, and there are people from Bolivia!

We were in Mexico to talk to the people about resisting the CAFTA (the Central American Free Trade Agreement), and we were in the state of Veracruz. The… issue was that Monsanto was offering them 500 pesos per hectare to plant GMO crops, and they hadn't even heard of those things, they were so far out. This would be three years ago, so that would have been about 2007 or 2008.

This one man gave an account of how he migrated to the United States to work. He had to because of the loss of income there by NAFTA-related causes. When he and his group came to the border of the US, the coyote who recruited them for, I think, two or three thousand dollars, abandoned them because there was the Border Patrol.

So everybody ran, scattered in the desert. He said, "I never saw one of those people again." But he was able to find somehow a man from the US, an Anglo person, who did take him in and fed him, and helped him get further north away from the border.

After a year, or maybe a little more, in the US, he had to come back because of a death in the family. They asked if he would go back again and face all this uncertainty, and [he said], "I have to."

Later on, I talked with him through an interpreter, and he told me more of the story. I was moved to hear it firsthand because I'd read so many horror stories of what it's like for the migrants to cross the desert and be shot like rabbits. They're not even counted, the bodies and the people that disappear.

So I took off my Via Campesina hat, like this red cap here-- it says "MST," the Landless Workers Movement of Brasil, and I have a number of those caps because I run into these people at a lot of international gatherings-- and as I gave it to him, he pulled off this sombrero and gave it to me. So I hang this on my wall and wear it once in a while.

The DFA, Kraft and the CME

The biggest dairy cooperative in the United States is DFA (Dairy Farmers of America). They're not a cooperative. They're using the cooperative legal rights, but they're corporate-run. They and Dean Foods-- they're all so mashed in, they keep merging and so on-- and Foremost (in Baraboo and Reedsburg), they are run by the same people.

Kraft is one of the main players, and the price of milk is set in the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) on the price that they decide for that day is going to be the price for a forty pound block of cheese, which amounts to maybe two percent of the milk in the United States.

We've been short of dairy products in the United States for twelve years. We're importing more than we're exporting. So whenever the price goes up a little bit, they import a lot from-- India is one of the biggest ones, it's the biggest dairy-producing country in the world. We were importing from the Ukraine-- Chernobyl region!-- dry milk products, and countries that we didn't think even had dairy cows.

So every 17th of April, or close by on a working day, Family Farm Defenders organizes a protest in front of the CME in Chicago. Three years ago, we got them to allow us-- some of us, three people-- to go in and present what we wanted to their Board. So they dressed up and they went up.

The rest of us stayed outside in cow suits and handed out leaflets. At first, we drew huge amounts of police. They thought we were going to riot and burn some cars or something. That brought a lot of press, which was good, so we always alert the police before we go, because we know people in Chicago that support it, and so that helps.

Anyway, these guys went up, and the meeting started. "Oh," they thought, and smiled benignly at these dumb farmers, y'know that came to see them. And as time went on, they said, "Well, we know that Kraft-- sometimes Kraft and sometimes DFA-- are the only bidders." So they bet how soon-- under five minutes-- they can set the price of cheese. And he said the smiles just disappeared off the faces. They knew their inside jokes!

But that price, then [as set by the CME], goes to Europe immediately, and from there it goes all over the world. So we set-- the world price of milk is set in Chicago right now. And it could be whatever Kraft wants to make that quarter, or DFA, or they collude. That influences our price, and it's always down, because they want to make-- they're so greedy, they want more and more profits! Kraft-- I watch their quarterlies, and their biggest earnings are always when our price goes down.

CME sets the Milk Price for the World

They decide-- not only Kraft, but all these transnationals. When I'm overseas, and I was in Brittany (France) in March, at an international interim meeting between the big Via Campesina meetings, and they talked of how there are transnational (they call them TNCs), the transnational police-- they have transnational police that are brutalizing these indigenous people and poor people all over Africa and South America and Asia. And it's beginning to happen here, in a different manner. In fact, they're criminalizing dissent of all kinds, any kind of dissent.

So far, it's happening here, but it's in a manner that's a little hard to describe. They're making it illegal to do a lot of things that we could do before, legally. All of those people [in Via Campesina] understand, because we work together, and I keep telling them, "The price is set at the CME."

And now they understand that, and so they say, "We've got to all work together to curb the power of these TNCs." Because they are more powerful than many, many nations; and right now, they're as powerful as the US.

Building Community

Our local group now is sponsoring free meals, all local, and now all the meals that are done in the Lutheran Church in Reedsburg have to be local. We started a farmers' market in Lime Ridge, which is on Wednesday. Local hospitals-- we're working with all of them. And the Sauk Prairie School is buying a lot of produce. They got a big grant to buy local, and they're just thrilled with it! Sweet corn by the truckload almost, because it's a large school.

So all of these opportunities are here, and we have to have this locally to get around what's happening nationally and internationally. That's what I've learned all over the world. There are such excellent models, just tremendous models, that I see in Africa, in Asia, and all over South America and Central America, and some in Canada, too, that work. And it's tremendous friendships, and a sense of community.

It's building community-- they say, "We're building community!"-- these people will all of a sudden say, "We're building community!" And that's the answer to a lot of the economic and social problems of the world.


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  1. Family Farm Defenders, John Kinsman, Founder and Longtime President of Family Farm Defenders, Has Passed Away, organizational website article, January 20, 2014.