Valerie Dantoin wants you to consider farming an art form. That doesn’t mean thinking small or “crafty,” because she is well aware of the importance of efficiency and technology when it comes to feeding people, particularly from the breadbasket of Wisconsin, where she lives.
Along with her husband, she owns a sustainable grazing farm that has been in the family for 100 years. Her farming methods bring her into concert with the environment rather than working against nature, or attempting to control nature. “Technology keeps fixing problems that we create,” she said in her interview for the Future of Food podcast.
We may think of the storybook farm with animals and plants being raised together. As we cover in the podcast, that’s not the case for large-scale industrial farms, which separate livestock from crops, supposedly generating efficiency but more often creating environmental problems.
As an instructor in sustainable food and agricultural systems at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College Valerie is helping create career paths for students who want to become farmers, or become closer to the land.
She recommends looking at the farm ratings at Cornucopia.org to see which farms are really sustainable, and which only say they are. Here’s an evaluation of dairy farms. Check out her documentary *Searching for Sustainability.*
Subscribe to the podcast at futurefood.fm, and check our deep dive stories about the future of food.
Click on any play button in the transcript to hear that section.
Lee: It’s “The Future of Food.” I’m Lee Schneider. Valerie Dantoin is a farmer, educator, and environmentalist. Valerie and her husband, Rick, own and operate a 100 cow organic grazing farm that has been in the Adamski family for more than 100 years. Since 2009, she has helped create and teach more than 25 different courses in the Sustainable Food and Ag Systems associate degree program at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College. She is a co-executive producer of the documentary film, “Searching for Sustainability.” Valerie, welcome to the podcast.
Valerie: Thanks, Lee. It’s good to be here.
Lee: First, let’s start at the beginning. What have been your most popular courses?
Valerie: Well, the popular ones are some of the short hitters. I teach a beekeeping course, I teach in herbs and health course, I teach cheese making and fermentation. And a really great course is an online soils course that I have that’s just particular to people who really wanna understand farm practices, gardening practices, and just get the basics, but do it in a very nice slow release way where they’re not overwhelmed that you sometimes get when you’re in a short workshop.
Lee: What’s your sense of why those courses have become popular?
Valerie: Those particular courses are nice because they give people an introduction into what it might be like to be a farmer. And in the case of bees they are very tiny set of livestock. So, people get to see what it’s like to take care of an animal and then have that animal respond and give you the fruits of its labor. In the case of bees, that’s honey. So, they get a sense of what it’s like on a daily basis to care for an animal, especially if they haven’t done it before. And also they can do that in an urban setting. So, they’re trying to touch base and get back to tending both plants and animals, and being really in touch with the earth again.
If you close your eyes and you just imagine what you would think of as an organic farm, you probably get this image of a nice cow out on green grass. That happens on our farm. It doesn’t always happen on every organic farm and it certainly doesn’t happen anymore on farms that we call conventional farms.
// Valerie Dantoin
Lee: Let’s explain what it means to be an organic grazing farm.
Valerie: So, if you close your eyes and you just imagine what you would think of as an organic farm, you probably get this image of a nice cow out on green grass. That happens on our farm. It doesn’t always happen on every organic farm and it certainly doesn’t happen anymore on farms that we call conventional farms. They might let their cows out a little bit onto what we call a dry lot, but in the Midwest here, more farms are going to full confinement, which means the cows always have a roof over their back and they always are on concrete. And some spend their entire life without their hoofs ever touching the earth.
Lee: There’s a spectrum here which urban dwellers like me might not really understand. There’s industrial farming and then all the way on the other side of the spectrum, we have what you guys do. So, do you have any sense of the numbers, how many people are doing it, like, you’re doing it versus the sort of middle ground of the more commercial farming versus, of course, the huge industrial farms?
Valerie: Well, I can tell you that in the 1950s, and this is just Wisconsin, you know, the dairy state. Well, maybe California is now. Not sure. But we used to have something like 60,000 dairy farms back in 1950 and now we’re down to under 9,000 farms, yet we still have the same number of cows on our landscape. And actually that’s a misnomer. They’re not on our landscape, they’re in our barns, in our sheds. So, I would say companies like Organic Valley, they are cooperative of farmers who have pledged to have their cows out on pasture. A certain amount of the time they have to be out there eating fresh pasture and be true to what people think would be an organic vision, and have some integrity there.
Lee: I want to understand, too, the number of small farms and you already said that the number of farms in your state has gotten…there’s fewer. Is that true? Do you know over the whole country?
Valerie: Yes, grazing is making a big comeback and there are fewer farms in general. And what has led to that is some of our subsidies for meat, and milk, and corn, and soy, whereas grazing farms don’t get any subsidies. And also, this thing called technology that sometimes leads us to invent new things to do when we concentrate cows. So, it makes it more possible to concentrate cows in one small area and we bring feed to them in a confinement situation. So, that’s a contributing factor, is inappropriate technology. I think grazing farms, some people might think of them as backward or maybe Amish or slow, but we’re actually pretty modern. We use a milking parlor, we use technology imported from New Zealand, our electric fencers and so forth. So, we use technology that actually fits our system and is easier on the environment. And we think it’s a really a win-win for the cows. The milk that they produce which is higher in omega-3s, several studies have shown that, which is a good fat. That’s what you want to be drinking and also, it’s easier on the farmers. We enjoy what we do being out on the pasture watching our cattle and taking care of them that way.
Lee: You know, this is a big deal, the notion of relatively confined animals and food is brought to them versus cows that are allowed to roam. That seems like a small thing, but that’s actually pretty huge, right? I mean, it makes a very big difference to the cow. Yes?
Valerie: Yeah. We think it does. Our cows on pasture tend to have about six and a half lactations which means six and a half cubs throughout their life. So, they’re about eight years old on average, whereas the cows in confinement, the statistics show that that cow lasts for one and a half lactations. So, she’s only able to have one and a half calfs and contribute her milk for just that year and a half before a new cow was put in to replace her. So, she’s just really another cog in the wheel or a brick in the wall.
Lee: Most people listening to this podcast know that we need real food and healthier food, we generally need to eat better. But they might not know how to do that. So, you might say support local farmers, but what if like me you don’t live really near farmers. I live near some farmers, but I’m not that close. What can people do no matter where they live to help the real food movement?
Valerie: Consumers are the ones who really are helping our farm be sustainable and more farms join and become like ours. And that’s because you’re purchasing authentic organic products. Look at the kind of farms you’re supporting with your purchases and pick the ones that meet your criteria for sustainability, and support those. And it makes all the difference in the world to us, farmers that the consumer really is understanding and supporting our style of farming.
Lee: Now, let’s talk a little bit about technology, since you brought that up. That’s kind of a double-edged sword. What’s your view of the tech revolution or even the startup revolution around food? Do you think, for example, that creating lab meat or plant-based meat substitutes are solutions or instead should we concentrate on developing small farms, grazing farms, sustainable farming practices?
Valerie: Well, it’s an interesting question and that’s actually what our documentary film addresses. It’s called “Searching for Sustainability.” Because we interview a variety of different kinds of farmers and they get to show what they’re doing. So, some of them are large confinement farms with 5,000 and 6,000 cows, and they’re using technology like manure digesters or embryo transfers for their high producing cows or just other technology.
What that has resulted in in Wisconsin is for the first time ever, we actually have too much milk and we don’t have a home for that milk, so some farmers are getting kicked off the milk truck here because we have too much milk. So, there’s a quote I really like from Wendell Berry that addresses this, he says, “Once plants and animals were raised together on the same farm which therefore produced neither unmanaged surpluses of manure to be wasted and to pollute the water supply nor did such farms depend on large quantities of commercial fertilizers.” And then he goes on a little sarcastically, “The genius of the American farm experts is very well demonstrated here. They can take a solution, which is plants and animals together on the same farm, and neatly divided it into two problems.” So, that’s what we’re getting at least over in our neighborhood.
We’re getting two problems, we’re getting manure and we’re getting too much soil that’s exposed too often because it’s corn and soybeans, which are annual crops. So, the soil is exposed to the rainfalls. We have here in the spring and the fall, it runs off the land, it takes fertilizer and manure with it. It ends up in the bay of Green Bay and guess what, we have a great big hypoxia zone and on par with the type of hypoxia you see in the Gulf of Mexico, a dead zone in the water at the bottom of a bay or gulf where there’s no oxygen because there’s been an algae bloom that’s feeding on all the nutrients that have been released into the water.
Lee: This is an interesting thing. I’ve read this too, where this divide and conquer technique of technology really where the old-style farm, the sort of storybook farm that I may think of involved plants and animals together, kind of its own ecosystem. Its own micro system, but industrial farming and modern farming has really blown that up, I think. Yes? And taken it into these, as you say, dividing it into different problems.
Valerie: Well, there’s an aspect…I agree with you on that, but I want people to take a look at this film, “Searching for Sustainability” and listen to the other side of the coin where farmers are saying, “But we need to feed the world. We must have these large farms.” And so, we’re going to get problems associated with that. We have a bread basket here in America. So, we do have a responsibility to help feed other people, but it’s very ironic that we have these urban food deserts and we’re not feeding our own people. We’re actually, in some cases, exporting things and ruining markets for local farmers, and making it challenging for them to make a living in their own country growing their own food because of our exports.
Lee: It ends up being a global…When you look at it from a standpoint of globalization, it becomes incredibly complicated. So, that makes it even harder to get your arms around.
Valerie: I do wanna just go back to your question about should we be growing meat in the laboratory or some sort of laboratory plant. And there are some technologies, I think, that can be beneficial. I think we just have to be pretty wise in how we use them and watch for unintended consequences.
And the guideline I use is from another early conservationist who, Aldo Leopold, and he said…Now, this is about whether to know if a technology is gonna work or not and he’s saying, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and the beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” That’s kind of my benchmark. If I look at a technology and I can see where it’s not really supporting the ecosystem, and the humans, and the prices people need in order to eat relatively inexpensive food, then I tend to think it’s not a good technology. It might not be something we really want to embrace.
Lee: I’ve read that quote also and it’s very wise. If you want to leave our listeners with just one big idea from this episode, what do you think it should be?
Valerie: I think the main idea I’d like to share is that technology can be sexy, but all it does is keep fixing problems that we create. So, I like our farm to come full circle, that’s actually the name of it. We come full circle forward and we are creative, and we try and be generating new ideas in how to farm in concert with the environment rather than in a controlling way. We try and be cooperative, regenerative, we try and farm a little bit like an art form. We really wanna rebuild that soil and keep our nutrients in place and keep our cows in a relatively happy situation. And that’s a little bit as opposed to something where we’re in a competitive race to the bottom with milk prices, where we’re using extract of agriculture that eventually we’re going to run out of certain things including our soil health. And where it’s very prescriptive where we just put on a certain amount of nutrients or herbicide or pesticide and then we’re going to get a certain yield out of it.
We really want to be more flexible in that in our sustainable agriculture and managed grazing is a great technique that allows young people access to the land, and it allows farms to really thrive.
Maybe one other thing I wanna talk about is some of the career paths for how people are becoming farmers again.
There’s some people who just really feel called to be farmers and maybe they don’t call themselves farmers, but they do want to be in touch with the plants and animals. So, how do you get to be a farmer if you’re not from a farm family?
Well, we’ve created a couple new things, career pathways we call it in, and one is the dairy grazing apprenticeship program. So apprenticeship is an old way of learning a trade or skill. This is how we get plumbers, and electricians, and welders. And this is the first new agricultural apprenticeship in the U.S. in 100 years, dairy grazing apprentice. And we place young people on farms with master grazers and we’re able to teach them skills in some classroom learning as well as some knowledge about how to become better farmers. So, that’s pretty exciting. There’s a lot of hope on the horizon. The thing I’m most encouraged by is all the young people who want to somehow reconnect with the land and get back at it.
Technology can be sexy, but all it does is keep fixing problems that we create.
// Valerie Dantoin
Lee: That’s so true. So many people feel called to this or seeking some kind of connection and it sounds like you’re ready to provide one.
Valerie: Yes. I hope so and I hope people have good luck in what they’re trying to do. And there’s more and more people trying to connect either their food and their lives. And just slow down a little bit, and be conscious of the land, and the animals in those connections. And I really think that’s going to be a great thing.
Lee: There’s an appreciation for the land even in my small way and especially in urban environments where they’re teaching kids about food and they’re using a garden to do it. That seems pretty powerful to me.
Valerie: I think the urban farming movement is what has enabled the growth of organics as people realize those connections. They put people in touch with the land and teach people that they can feed themselves. They don’t have to rely on the supermarket. The earth is so abundant and wants to give us so much.
The urban farming movement is what has enabled the growth of organics as people realize those connections. They put people in touch with the land and teach people that they can feed themselves. They don’t have to rely on the supermarket.
// Valerie Dantoin