MADISON, Wis. – The Land recently interviewed John Peck, the Executive Director of Wisconsin-based Family Farm Defender. FFD is a domestic and international farm advocacy group currently focusing on blocking the proposed Deans/DFA dairy merger and incorporating food sovereignty and agro-ecological proposals on a just transition for a Green New Deal.

The Land: Family Farm Defenders started in the mid-1990s as an effort to end the mandatory check off on raw milk and to demand labeling for rBGH Milk. Are those struggles still relevant today or have you moved on?

Peck: We were indeed started in the early 1990s by Wisconsin dairy farmers as part of a grassroots rural resistance movement to the mandated USDA dairy check-off program. That program requires all dairy farmers to pay into a corporate controlled commodity marketing programs over which they have little say. It’s a classic case of taxation without representation. We also resisted the aggressive taxpayer subsidized promotion of rBGH which was a huge moneymaker for Monsanto and facilitated rapid expansion of factory farms.  

While corporate agribusiness control and patented industrialized technologies remain a problem for many farmers and a core focus of our group, by the late 1990s Family Farm Defenders had expanded its mission and membership to include those who support sustainable agriculture, farm/food worker rights, animal welfare, consumer safety, fair trade and food sovereignty.  

This shift was in large part due to the influence of La Via Campesina (LVC), which crafted its food sovereignty principles in 1994 in response to the passage of NAFTA and the growing threat of neo-liberal globalization. FFD had adopted those principles by 1999.    

The Land: How was it that those early efforts defended family farms? Why did you call yourself that?

Peck: Many of the family farmers who founded FFD were survivors of the 1980s farm crisis. They had been involved in the AAM Tractorcade to (Washington) DC, had attended the first Farm Aid concerts, and they saw that the cultural identity and economic viability of rural America was being destroyed by the imposition of an industrialized factory farm agribusiness model in which family farmers lost their autonomy and were reduced to being modern day peasants.  Increasing monopoly control of commodity markets at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange meant that family farmers could no longer get a parity price, and they were under the thumb of processor contracts, bank loans, patent rules, and so many other constraints on their decision-making. Many of them were also looking for better alternatives that they found in new trends such as organic certification, rotational grazing, and direct marketing.  

I think the founders of FFD liked the term "family farm" since that provided a contrast with the "get big or get out" policy being promoted by then USDA Secretary Earl Butz. That approach meant a vertically integrated factory farm under nominal "farmer" management; but was entirely dependent upon outside capital investors, oppressed farmworker labor, rampant animal abuse, and integration into global corporate commodity markets. 

The Land: FFD talks about food sovereignty. What the heck is food sovereignty? What has it got to do with defending family farmers?

Peck: Food sovereignty is a concept coined by LVC in 1994 and which FFD has adopted. It emerged from struggles in the global south as an alternative to the dominant "food security" concept being pushed by Henry Kissinger and other proponents of the larger neoliberal capitalist agenda. According to food security, lack of food is not a political problem but a technical challenge that will be solved by privatizing common property, global market integration, patented biotechnologies, and the like.  

In contrast, food sovereignty sees the perpetuation of hunger as a political issue. Economic inequality caused by privatization, commodification, and globalization are the root causes of the problem. 

LVC is the largest family farmer, hunting/fishing/herding/gathering, and indigenous community umbrella organization in the world, and FFD is proud to be an active member. In the U.S. farm context we often explain food sovereignty as being democratic local control over agriculture. However, for native tribes in the U.S. we do not have to really explain the concept of sovereignty since they have been struggling for that for more than 500 years.

The Land: Who was John Kinsman and why do you have a prize in his name?

Peck: John Kinsman was one of the founding members of FFD and an amazing pioneer of both the organic movement and the global food sovereignty struggle. John was among the first to raise the alarm about the insidious dangers of genetically modified organisms and his foresight continued in his opposition to global free trade, the military industrial complex, factory farming, carbon trading, land grabbing – name the issue, and John was probably involved in one manner or another. He passed away in 2014 on Martin Luther King, Jr.  Day and to honor his legacy we launched the John Kinsman Beginning Farmer Food Sovereignty Prize. 

The Land: Every politician in rural America used to make empty claims about supporting family farms. They don’t so much anymore. I think that’s because there’s not many of us left. Is the relatively small number that are left really worth supporting or defending or whatever you want to call it? Why?

Peck: Well, we have more prisoners than farmers in the U.S. now - and you don't hear many politicians advocating for prisoners either. So, yes, the steady decline of family farmers has certainly reduced their power to influence public policy. In Wisconsin alone we've lost half of our dairy farms over the last decade. So, 7,000 family dairy farmers, or 20,000 inmates, don't have much sway on their own in a state of 5.8 million.  But that is where solidarity comes in. Family farmers are not alone in this struggle, and FFD has many allies among consumer advocates, environmental activists, labor unions, and indigenous communities.  

John Kinsman used to joke about how he did not want to be the last family farmer on display in the Smithsonian Museum.  And now we do have many new farmers who are not only hoping to survive this current crisis, but serve as an inspiring role model for others. These new farmers often do not reflect the older white male stereotype. They are more likely to be women, people of color, recent refugees or immigrants who are operating smaller more diversified operations. These farms may also not be in a rural area, but on the edge or even within larger cities. How we define "family" is also changing. The majority of U.S. households are not two parents with two kids anymore and that is also true for folks producing our food. 

The Land: Somebody said that you’re from a Minnesota farm family. Is that true and if so, what the heck are you doing in Wisconsin?

Peck: Yes, I grew up on a 260-acre family farm in central Minnesota, in Stearns County, surrounded by dozens of family dairy farms. I was one of only a handful of students from my school that did not join the military. I went off to college instead. Thanks to tuition reciprocity I ended up at UW-Madison in the College of Agriculture for my graduate school work. I got a PhD in Land Resources from the Gaylord Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies. For two decades now I've been the part-time staff person for FFD, while also teaching economics and environmental studies part-time at Madison College. For the last three years my partner and I have been owners of a one and a half acre farm, called Yellow Dog Flowers and Produce, near Edgerton, Wis. 

The Land: You have members in Minnesota and Iowa, right? Where else?

Peck:  Over half of FFD’s 2,500 members are in the Midwest, but we have members in all fifty states, as well as in Canada, Mexico, Australia, Europe, and other parts of the world.   

You can contact John Peck at P.O. Box 1772, Madison, WI 53701 or by phone at (608) 260-0900. The website is familyfarmdefenders.org.