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The Loss of One Small Dairy Farm

By       Message Judy Palmer     Permalink
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"Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands." -Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Jay (Aug. 23, 1785)

Our country was founded on agriculture. With vast land to be settled and tamed, farming was originally seen as the most noble of professions. These days, farmers and others who work with their hands and bodies often earn ridicule rather than respect. Although their land is still coveted, their work is not. Technology has replaced intuition, debt has replaced honor and security, and the scratch for money has replaced the love of work. This is the story of former dairyman Guy Ekola and how he lost his dreams and his livelihood.

A farmer for over thirty years, Guy owns a small tract in west central Minnesota and had a dairy herd of about twenty cows. His one goal always has been to leave the land he worked better than he found it, and he knew what he wanted at a very early age. Guy was, and is, the embodiment of Wendell Berry's idea "What I stand for is what I stand on." He farms with horses rather than tractors to more closely observe the nuances of the land and makes decisions based on nature rather than technology. He's never made much money, and yet, he and his family prospered in different, more profound ways, raising three children and more importantly, living a life of their own choosing. Guy, one of the first members of a well-known organic dairy co-op, sold his milk to them for many years. Like all businesses today, the co-op had to grow or die and has changed from a small, "family of farms" concept to larger economies of scale. Guy was caught up in this and it is here that this story begins.

The winter of 2008 was cold and harsh here in Minnesota. Temperatures fell well below zero and stayed there for many weeks. In the past, Guy's co-op had always used small trucks to pick up his milk. As the co-op grew, they started using large semi tankers. Because of the size and configuration of Guy's yard, it was difficult for the larger trucks to navigate. One night the pipes from his well to his barn froze. Guy lost a very expensive water heater and, among other things, had to carry buckets of hot water from his house to his barn through deep snow in the below zero weather. Guy had always contended that the heavy trucks compacted the soil in his driveway, changing the frostline and causing the pipes that ran under the driveway to freeze. He had complained to the co-op before to no avail. The co-op went from unresponsive to actively hostile when Guy told them what happened. They took no responsibility, nor did they offer the Ekolas any remedy or compensation for this accident.

Because there was no hot water running into the barn, the milk inspector degraded his milk for a period of time, causing the Ekolas to lose a large part of their income. The milk inspector gave the Ekolas a long list of repairs to be done. Guy completed them--his livelihood was at stake--then the inspector came back with a second long list. At this point Guy lost his temper, and as the saying goes, when you lose your temper, you've lost the argument. A field representative from the co-op came in and tried to intervene. When confronted with an angry Guy who stood to lose both his ideals and his livelihood and would not bend, they decided to terminate the Ekola's contract. Now a black sheep in the family of farms, the co-op did what many families do--turned their backs on the one who did not fit in.

Life has gone steadily downhill for the Ekolas since that time. Citing the bad economy, the co-op refunded the Ekolas a fraction of their original membership investment, just at the time they needed their cash the most. They ignored all phone calls and pleas made by others on the Ekola's behalf. Guy had to sell his milk in the non-organic milk stream at a much lower price and the change came just as the bottom fell out of the milk market last year. The new co-op, knowing of the Ekola's problems, had no further use for them and harassed them in every way imaginable, including slandering Guy to other people, threatening his income, and trying to stop their milk pickups by using test results that were later proved by an independent lab to be totally inaccurate. At the end of last summer, Guy sold most of his herd for slaughter. As a final insult, because there were so many other dairy farmers selling their herds at the same time, he got almost nothing for his animals.

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When I heard the story of Guy Ekola and his problems last year, I knew I had to help. As a former legal assistant, I did research for Guy and tried to find him an attorney. I do what I can because I know exactly what is at stake here. I have children and grandchildren and want them to be able to live the American dream. For my family, the American dream is not one of big houses and three-car garages, but rather the dream of clean food, good health, freedom to be left alone, a passion for living and love of the land, values that Guy Ekola embodies and offers to the world every day. I knew that the Ekolas had a clear-cut breach of contract case and started what has been up to now a fruitless search for someone to represent this family. My computer quickly filled up with the names of attorneys I had contacted as I followed one dead-end lead after another. So far, no one has come forward to represent Guy. Some think he has a good case and some say he has no case at all, but the bottom line is that the Ekolas don't have the money to litigate and no one wants to take the case on a contingency-fee basis. Guy also needs an expert to prove his frost line claims. So far, there has not been a single attorney in Minnesota that I have found who is willing to front the few thousand dollars that's needed to hire one.

As I did my research, I learned other things, too. I learned that co-ops that were originally created to protect the rights of farmers now take their rights away. I learned that the price of milk that fell so precipitiously last year (only to the farmers, not on the wholesale or retail level) is set by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, who told us last year simultaneously that the reason for the lower milk prices was that there was a decreased demand from consumers because of the recession, and that there was a supply of cheaper milk coming in from China to meet a higher demand. I learned that price fixing abounds at almost all levels of the wholesale and retail chains--this has been going on for many years. Farmers are the only ones who are left out of the price-fixing loop.

What happened to the Ekolas seems at first glance to be an isolated incident, specific to them but of no interest to anyone else. But can any of us say in this new world that we will never experience an incident that would threaten our livelihood or our way of life? And if we did, would we be able to trust the people that we do business with to help us, or would they prey on our misfortune? If those same people were responsible for the incident, would they take responsibility or would they do whatever they could to shirk their responsibilities? I think that what happened to the Ekolas is a sign of the times. Trouble could come to you, to me, to anyone. If it did, who could we count on? Business is now the enemy and the courts are closed to people without money. There is no honor left in the business community as they grapple for more and more money. There has never been justice in this country for people who don't have money. If friends and neighbors don't band together to help one another, who will? All we have left now is each other and if we don't help one another we will all go down, one by one. That's why I fight for the Ekolas, and that's why I am telling their story.

This year the Ekolas are growing vegetables, goats and sheep, trying to rebuild and hang on. Guy's wife works outside the home, uses the wool to make rugs, and they will also try to sell seeds. It's been a good year weather-wise here in Minnesota and they are surviving, but no longer thriving. The corporate world has no use for people like Guy now. He is too small and too inconsequential to be of use to them, not many will notice it when he's gone. He's also too abrasive, outspoken and inflexible about what he believes is right, which makes him a threat to those who measure themselves by a lower, but much more common standard. If Guy is pushed out, we will lose the the quintessential American man, the one who nurtures his land and his family, the good steward, the one who lives what he believes and fights for it, the keeper of what little light is still left in this world. Guy is a dangerous man now, the one who still understands and values his freedom. Because of this, a dispute which could have been resolved over coffee at the kitchen table is now the subject of possible litigation. It's vitally important to understand this story, because when men like Guy can no longer seek justice through the system, we'll lose infinitely more than one small diaryman.

If anyone reading this is an attorney or knows of one who might advocate for Guy, please contact me by clicking on my name at the top if this article.

I won't let Guy--or what he stands forgo down without a fight. I'm hoping that the one right person, the one who might be in a position to help, feels the same way.

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I'm a former legal secretary from Stillwater, Minnesota.

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