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Farmsteaders, An Intimate Portrait Of A Young Dairy Farming Family

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[theme music]

Kayte Young: From WFIU in Bloomington Indiana, I’m Kayte Young, and this is Earth Eats.

“I honestly don’t know what we thought we were doing when we first started milking cows. It cost more money than we were making to produce the milk…"

KY: This week on our show, we talk with a dairy farmer featured in a new documentary debuting this week on PBS. And we chat with the filmmaker, too. 

Susan Mintert has a vegetable recipe for the grill and Harvest Public Media has a story about sweet corn in the midwest. That’s all just ahead, so stay with us. 

[theme music fades]

KY: First, a correction. In last week’s show, inaccurate statements were made about policies for vendors at the Bloomington community farmers market that I failed to correct. 

The episode is being revised, and we have a link on our website to the correct information about vendor policies.  Find that at Earth Eats dot org

My deepest apologies to everyone at the Bloomington Community Farmers Market, and to listeners who received the misinformation. While Earth Eats is not a hard news program, and many opinions are shared, it’s my responsibility as the producer to fact check and to avoid the spread of false information. Measures have been taken to assure this does not happen again.

And now, to Renee Reed, for the news. 

Hi Renee, 

RR: Hello Kayte. For this Labor Day weekend, we’ve got a couple of stories about conditions for workers in our food system. Over the last decade, a social accountability program has helped transform conditions for tomato farmworkers in Florida.  The industry that provides industrial-strength tomatoes for many fast-food chains and mega grocers was once rife with abuses including wage theft, sexual assault and other types of violence against workers.  The Coalition of Immokalee Workers organized the Fair Food Program, which has improved wages and safety for about 35,000 low-wage workers, mostly in Florida. More than a decade ago, the effort convinced companies such as Yum Brands, McDonald’s, Burger King and Walmart to purchase tomatoes from growers who follow better standards.  But the fast-food chain Wendy’s remains a notable and stubborn holdout.

The Fair Food Program has been urging the burger chain to join since 2013, with protest campaigns and a call to boycott the restaurant.  In 2014, Wendy’s stopped buying winter tomatoes from Florida and started importing most of its supply from Mexico, where labor conditions are poorly regulated.

In a recent email response to the food news site Delish, Wendy’s said that the company only purchases tomatoes “from indoor hydroponic North American farms.” The statement went on to declare the company’s “commitment to responsible sourcing practices by providing safe, indoor working conditions, shelter from the elements and environmental contaminants, reduced water and land use burdens, and a significantly reduced need for chemical pesticides.”

A company spokesperson told The New York Times that most of those hydroponic farms are in the U.S. or Canada.  Fair Food Program organizers say smaller companies have also opted out of the standards and use Wendy’s decision as cover.  Close to 25 percent of tomatoes in the US are purchased from growers that take part in the program.

No one in America should endure 14 hour workdays, for 20 straight days with the heat index near 115 degrees; especially with no breakfast and only a gallon and a half of water shared among multiple people. According to a recent investigation, migrant workers in fields near Kennett, Missouri have endured such conditions.

A report by The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting says local documents show farmworkers holding H-2A agricultural visas were not given adequate food and water, forced to live in a motel with bed bugs, and later moved to an old county jail that was never inspected by authorities. Though the Department of Labor sued the Missouri workers’ employer, Jorge Marin, the case was eventually dismissed, and regulators approved Marin’s request for workers this year in Florida, Indiana, and Missouri. Marin was previously fined $1,600 in August 2015 for not providing proof that he reimbursed visa application costs for workers at an Indiana job site. 

The H-2A visa allows US employers to recruit and hire foreign nationals to live and work in the US temporarily to fill agricultural jobs. Employers are responsible for visa application costs, food, water, housing, and other necessities during the recipients’ employment.

In addition to inadequate federal funding for the program, the Center’s report also shows inconsistencies between states as a common contributor to poor H-2A oversight.

Thanks to Chad Bouchard and Taylor Killough for those stories. 

For Earth Eats, I’m Renee Reed

KY: Thank you Renee,

RR:  Your’re welcome, Kayte

KY:  Most of the corn grown in the United States goes into livestock feed and ethanol but people in the Midwest will literally wait in line for an ear of fresh, hot corn on the cob - a quintessential summer snack.  Harvest Public Media's Amy Mayer says sweet corn comes in many varieties. But most people don't know, or care, what they are.

AM:  Ajay Nair knows sweet corn.

AN:  There's one called ole san glow

AM:  He says farmers plant what sells.

AN:  There's one, a yellow-colored type, it's called 'cafe'.

AM:  But they also consider how quickly sugar is converted to starch, how long the ears last after harvest.

AN:  Another corn they call 'cuppa joe'....

AM:  Nair says consumers care mostly about sweetness, texture and the intensity of the corn flavor.

AN:  We have bodacious silver queen...

AM:  They don't pay a whoe lot of attention to the name.

AN:  There's a cultivar called temptation.....

AM:  But the Iowa State University Horticulture Professor says one name has become almost synonymous with sugary two color sweet corn.

AN:  Peaches and cream.  It's easy to say. Easy to remember and it's fun. 

AM:  At the farmer's market in Ames, Iowa Ray Olsen does a brisk business with his sweet corn.

What's the difference?  RO: That ones got a little more corn flavor.  This one just isn't yellow. This is probably the most popular of the colors.... 

AM:  He has this conversation again and again.  Customers want yummy corn beyond that, most have little preference but a few returning customers are more discerning.

GS:  You know some of the corn is really rich.  Like the examples down here, the ears or the corn hull, corn kernels are you know full and rich. 

AM:  Glenda Stormes-Bice asks for smaller ears, one Olsen says are a little less mature.

GS:  I actually think the ones with the little smaller kernals are sometimes a little sweeter.  They also get in your teeth a little less.

AM:  As she picks through a crate to select the ears she wants, Terry Flocker of Kansas City compares cooking strategies with her. 

TF:  I wrap it in like a burrito or whatever and then get it wet and then put it on a plate and just cook it in the microwave like that.

GS:  Oh see I don't even peel mine before I put it in the microwave. 

TF:  Versus back in the day when my mom would cook corn or whatever, you'd boil it and get the kitchen all hot and steamy. 

GS:  Oh gosh yes, exactly moist and you know...

AM:  Olsen says he grows six varieties each year.  He knows which he can plant earlier and which ones are most popular with customers, who rarely know any of the names.  Several stalls over Deals orchard has a sign declaring the week's sweet corn is a variety called 'Christine'. Benji Deal says it's done well for him.

BD:  It's our sweetest variety that we grow.  It's a bi color...nice and tender. I think it's a little more tender than some other varieties.  

AM:  Deal says a few customers will ask for a variety by name but more often they choose by color.

BD:  Today i saved six ears for someone because I....we were almost all out and so I knew she always stopped by and wants the all yellow...

AM:  Midwest states that lead in field corn production think Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, don't stand out when it comes to national production of sweet corn.  The Iowa Corn Promotion Board says sweet corn accounts for just one percent of corn grown in the state. Still, for hungry attendees on the final Friday of the Iowa State Fair, it's the only kind that matters.

'Well thank you, sir, you were very helpful. Thank you so much'

AM:  A boy hands out napkins to people in line for a free ear of corn.  It comes on a paper plate from an FFA teen. Fair volunteer Mary Smith squirts margarine from a squeeze bottle onto the corn for those who want it.  Most people also stop at a table to shake on some salt. Wade and Stella Hardiman came to Iowa for a family reunion.

WH:  Very delicious

SH:  Yeah, Really sweet.  It's my first time.

AM: Richard Wademan of Essex, Iowa may have a more refined palate than some.. 

RW:  I don't know what..it kind of tastes like ambrosia but it may be some other brand. They've got so many now...could be peaches and cream or something like that but it's very good.

AM:  It's first come; first served until they run out.  John Carpenter from Kansas City, waits in line with his fiance. He declares the corn incredible.

JC:  I'll be moving to Iowa to have more of this sweet corn as often as I like.

??:  Now I'm going find the place to eat my corn.  That is definitely an ?? of sweet corn.

AM:  But what kind was it?  Farmer Ron Deardorff who grew it isn't telling.  He says "anything beyond the obvious by color is proprietary information."

Amy Mayer, Harvest Public Media

KY:  Find more at Harvest Public Media dot org

Production support comes from Bill Brown at Griffy Creek Studio, architectural design and consulting for residential, commercial and community projects. Sustainable, energy positive and resilient design for a rapidly changing world. Bill at griffycreek dot studio.

Elizabeth Ruh, enrolled agent with Personal Financial Services.  Assisting individuals with tax preparation and planning for over fifteen years. More at Personal Financial Services dot net.

And Insurance agent Dan Williamson of Bill Resch Insurance. Offering comprehensive auto, business and home coverage, in affiliation with Pekin Insurance. Beyond the expected. More at 812-336-6838

KY: Growing food is hard work, and it can be difficult to make a decent living as a farmer.

The Average annual farm income is 43 thousand dollars and less than half of all farms had positive net cash farm income in 2017.

While 96% of farms and ranches are family-owned the average size is over 400 acres. Smaller farms, with earnings in the 50 thousand dollar range, represent under 3% of the total farms in the US.

SM: I'm Shaena Mallett-Heartwood and I'm the director of Farmsteaders and also currently starting a farm down here in North Carolina. 

KY: Filmmaker Shaena Mallett had grown up in a farming community, and she'd experienced a way of life that seemed to be disappearing. Through her film, Shaena wanted to share an intimate, close up glimpse into the world of those who chose to live their lives as farmers. She zoomed in on one family, The Nolans, in rural Ohio, who run a small dairy farm. 

Let’s listen to a short clip from the film.

[music]

[Celeste Nolan’s voice, sounds of farm in the background]

I never thought I would be a farmer.  When we moved here, I had never been to a dairy farm.  I like to jump into something and then I find out everything I can.  When we got cows and started milking, that kind of gave me confidence in myself that I could do something that was hard.  When we started we milked for four years at a loss. You cannot make a living milking the number of cows that we milk and selling your milk wholesale.  We borrowed money, maxed out all of our credit cards, got a second mortgage and then maxxed out all the credit cards again. I would run every check that we would get to the bank as soon as we'd get it.  They way that we made farming work for us is through cheese. We're five years into our cheese-making business and we still struggle but I don’t feel like I’m drowning.

KY: I had a chance to speak with Shaena, the filmmaker, and one of the farmers featured in the film.

CN:  I’m Celeste Nolan.  I'm the co-owner and cheesemaker at Laurel Valley Creamery in Gallipolis, OH.

KY:  The 110 acre dairy Farm in the foothills of the appalacian mountains has been in Nick Nolan’s family since the 1940s. When Nick and Celeste decided to move to the farm, and get the dairy operation going again, they didn’t quite grasp how things had changed since his Grandfather was dairy farming. As Celeste says in the clip we just heard, they couldn’t make it work selling milk wholesale.

CN:  Milk prices are set by the government.  You get paid for the milk that you produce.  You normally sign a contract with someone and they come and pick up all of your milk.  They do it every other day. At the end of the month, the person that bought your milk, the milk company comes and they give you a check for what they said your milk was worth and that was determined by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and how much cheddar cheese prices were that three different people were bidding on.  You know things that were very unrelated to the cost of production. It's a formula that they figure out based on how much cheese they have in storage and the price of corn and this is how much we're gonna give you regardless of how much it cost to make it and so milk prices....I mean they fluctuate and they go up and down but they're not....I mean especially now they're not sustainable for anybody.I honestly don’t know what we thought we were doing when we first started milking cows.   It cost more money than we were making to produce the milk.

[banjo/guitar music fades in] 

KY:  So, when life gives you milk, make cheese! The Nolan’s decided to try making cheese. 

CN:  Cheesemaking; it was the lowest capital investment.  It required the least amount of equipment and also cheese you don't have to have a market for the day that you make it.  You can put it in the aging room and six months later it tastes better. 

[banjo/guitar music fades out]

 Cheesemaking allowed us to spend, invest less money originally and then build the market and it's something we still do...it's we balance our fresh cheeses with our aged cheeses to meet demands.

KY:  In the film, you see Celeste in the cheese house, late at night, over stainless steel vats of steaming milk. But I wanted to hear more details of cheesemaking at this scale.  

CN:   Cheese is...I guess we have to go back and start with milk.  Milk is 86% water. the other 14% of milk is fat and proteins and so when you make cheese what you're doing is turning the naturally occurring sugars the lactose that's in milk, into lactic acid and you're getting rid of all the water.

[banjo/guitar music fades in]

I make both fresh and raw milk cheeses so the fresh cheeses, all the milk has been pasteurized, it's been heated up to a hundred forty five degrees, kept there for thirty minutes and then cooled back down. The raw milk cheeses, I just heat up to the beginning temperature, I skip the whole pasteurization process and that varies in legality from…

[banjo/guitar music fades out]

I don't know if it varies from state to state.  I know that as long as raw milk cheeses are aged over sixty days they're inhospitable to anything dangerous so it has the same effects as pasteurization.  We do both of those, we add the culture at the beginning when the milk is warm. It starts turning the sugar into acid then we add rennet. We use this vegetarian rennet. It helps the protein and the fat bind together so they cling together and that's why when you make cheese you want to have a matching number.  You want to have a high protein milk content as well as high fat because that's how you get, that's where all the volume comes from that where all the.... you want to have all the fat and the...you want all the fat to have something to cling to and it clings to protein so they bind together. What we do then, it turns into a milk solid.  It goes from liquid milk to solid milk , when you add the rennet and then we cut the curd and begin to cook it and we just cut that whole solid into little squares and we start heating them and cooking them and it just starts expelling water and the fat and the protein they cling, bind together and they shrink down and get smaller as their pushing out all that water and there you have curds and they tend to look like cottage cheese essentially and then depending on what types of cheese that I'm making, the steps vary a little bit. 

We make fresh cheddar curds so that's cheese that I make every week. We sell those at Farmers Market and to some restaurants and Cheddar is a verb so what I have what looks like the cottage cheese in the bottom of the vat it forms a slab and when you flip that slab over and you stack it on top of itself that's called 'Cheddaring' and that's why we have cheddar cheese. So I cheddar that. It comes out of the vat and gets cut up into small pieces and salted and that's ready to go. That's ready to sell, ready to turn into cash. I can also brush that and age it and turn it into aged cheddar cheese.  We press even more of the whey out of it and then wait three or four months and then we have blocks or wheels of cheddar. Some of the other cheeses that I make, this morning I made pepper jack which is a fresh cheese but then when it looks like cottage cheese there at the bottom I mix in some fresh peppers that grew in our garden and some salt and then I put that into molds and press the whey out of it and then I'll have that for sale in about two weeks. I also make a soft cheese called cloverton that's the only cheese that really has a different process so to speak. It's a lactic curd cheese and it takes about three days for us to make it.  It's another one that we do every week.

 

[banjo/guitar music fades in]

 

CN: I guess one of my goals is always been to take things that we're familiar with and make them better and so that's what I think all of our cheeses do.

 

They're not crazy out-there flavors.  They're not something that's too far out of anybody's palette.  They're just...it's like when you start with good things the end result tends to be better so and that's what...I hope

I hope that’s what comes through in our cheese.

 

KY:  One of the things that comes through in the film is the everyday immediacy of work on the farm.

 

CN: On the farm, the cows get milked two times a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year.  Normally about nine in the morning and about seven in the evening.

 

[banjo/guitar music fades out]

 

KY:  And that milk needs to made into cheese, and delivered, and cows need to be fed, and kids need to be fed and storytime and laundry needs to be done.

 

CN: Yeah, there's not...we don’t drive away from it. Even if we come inside and you know try to ignore it for a while, it’s still right there.

 

KY:  One of the ways the filmmaker captured so many intimate moments with this family, was by visiting and filming them for weeks at a time over the course of 5 years. 

SM: Patterns repeat themselves.  Sometimes some of the same struggles repeat themselves and you see the rhythms that the seasons....and how the family is living within the rhythms of the seasons and how the children, they kind of grow up into different roles on the farm.  It's interesting just being able to watch this one place, this one piece of land and this one family over five years and just how everything changes and the things that don't change. 

 [banjo/guitar music fades in]

KY:  Shaena Mallett is a documentary filmmaker, photographer, educator, and farmer. Her first full-length feature film, Farmsteaders Airs on PBS stations on the documentary film series POV. The film will also be streaming at POV dot org through the month of September

[banjo/guitar music fades out]

 

[upbeat Carribean-style music]

KY: Whether you grow your own tomatoes and zucchini, or your neighbor dropped them off on your doorstep, late summer is prime time for these summer vegetables. Susan Mintert has a simple side dish featuring summer vegetables, a cast-iron skillet, and an outdoor grill. It’s called a vegetable Tian, and it starts with a few minutes on the kitchen stove to get the onions going. 

 

[ skillet sizzle sounds]

SM:  We just want to get these onions cooking and starting to turn translucent, starting to soften up.  We're not trying to brown them or cook them all the way. Alright, those onions are softening up now and I think it's time to go ahead and get the garlic in.  And again our heat is not high at all. It's kind of a medium-low heat. Just enough to get...get a little sizzle but not so much that we're gonna brown the onion and garlic.  So we're gonna let this go for just another couple of minutes. And I'm going to give these onions and garlic just a light sprinkling of salt and pepper and one more quick stir around and these are finished so we're going to turn off the heat and we'll get our other vegetables sliced and while we're slicing, I'm going to get the grill started. 

So we want to get our grill up to a temperature of about three seventy-five. So, I've got my gas grill. We're gonna let that preheat while we slice the rest of our vegetables and put the dish together.

Alright we're going to slice the rest of our vegetables now and this is going to just be potatoes, zucchini, and tomatoes and when they're all sliced we'll lay them out in the skillet and season them before we put them on the grill.  And I'm slicing everything in about a quarter-inch slice. And we're using the Yukon gold potatoes. These just cook really nicely. Especially in this dish with these other vegetables in combination. Alright, we've got everything sliced and I'm going to just put one more good drizzle of olive oil in the bottom of my skillet before I start layering in these other vegetables so we're just going to start...I'm going to just start out with one layer of potatoes right on the bottom or I should right on top of the onions.  So we'll just get that kind of a loose layer there on top and then I'm going to scatter on some of the other vegetables, some of the zucchini and alternating with the tomato. You can kind of do this however you want. You know alternate potato, zucchini, tomato, potato, zucchini, tomato, all the way around and putting on your layers that way or you can do just like a layer of potatoes, and a layer of zucchini and a layer of tomato or kind of mix it up a little bit. It's kind of like a Bob Ross painting. Just whatever makes you happy.  It's a good idea before you get too many layers deep to do a little bit of seasoning along the way so I'm going to sprinkle on a little of my seasoning mixture. This is basically salt, pepper, granulated garlic and then continue layering on and as a final touch, I'm going to sprinkle on some parmesan cheese freshly grated right over the top and another generous drizzle of olive oil all over the top.

And our grill is heated. Gonna just set this right in there. And we want to keep this at 375 for 45 minutes and then we will cover it and continue cooking it for about 15 more minutes.  And I'm putting this in over direct heat. I've got my burners right underneath the skillet. Afterwhile, once it gets cooking good, I'm going to move it over off of the burners so it'll cook indirectly for the rest of its time. Alright, we've been cooking just about an hour our here on the grill, potatoes are tender. I'm just checking those with a knife. So this is done and ready to take back in and you can let this sit for up to half an hour and it'll be a great side dish to go with any grilled meat you’d like.

[upbeat Carribean-style music]

KY:  Find Susan’s recipe on the earth eats website and on her blog, indiana home cooks dot com Susan Mintert is the host of Indiana Home Cooks Podcast.

[theme music]

RR: The Earth Eats team includes Eoban Binder, Chad Bouchard, Alex Chambers, Mark Chilla, Taylor Killough, Josephine McRobbie, Daniel Orr, The IU Food Institute, Harvest Public Media and me, Renee Reed.  Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Earth Eats is produced and edited by Kayte Young and our executive producer is John Bailey.

KY:  Special thanks this week to Shaena Mallet, Celeste Nolan and Susan Mintert

KY: Production support comes from insurance agent Dan Williamson of Bill Resch insurance.  Offering comprehensive auto business and home coverage in affiliation with Pekin Insurance.  Beyond the expected. More at 812-336-6838.

 Bill Brown at Griffy Creek studio.  Architectural design and consulting for residential, commercial and community projects.  Sustainable, energy-positive and resilient design for a rapidly changing world. Bill at Griffy creek dot studio and

 Elizabeth Ruh, enrolled agent providing customized financial services for individuals, businesses and disabled adults including tax planning, bill paying and estate services. More at Personal Financial Services dot net

[theme music fades]

A man in overalls dipping and kissing a woman in jeans, in front of an old farm building with silos and rural landscape in the background.

Nick and Celeste Nolan steal a playful moment together outside of the cheesehouse on their dairy farm in Ohio. (Courtesy of the filmmaker)

“Honestly I don’t know what we thought we were doing when we started milking cows. It cost more money than we were making to produce the milk.”

This week on our show, we talk with a Celeste Nolan, a dairy farmer featured in a new documentary, Farmsteaders, debuting this week on PBS. And we chat with the filmmaker Shaena Mallett.

Also this week, Susan Mintert has a vegetable recipe for the grill and Harvest Public Media has a story about sweet corn in the midwest.

Correction from Last Week's Show

In last week’s show, inaccurate statements were made about policies for vendors at the Bloomington Community Farmers' Market, that I failed to correct.

One of our guests indicated that vendors selling at Market needed to commit to a full season, and that booth space couldn't be shared between vendors throughout the season. In fact, the market structure is flexible and allows for farmers to sell for the whole season, for the few weeks that their crop is in season, or even for a single Saturday. 

The point system at the farmers market is used for the selection of Market spaces, but the market is open to new vendors, and there is space for new vendors this season.

You can find more detailed information about vendor policies here

My deepest apologies to everyone at the Bloomington Community Farmers Market, and to listeners who received the misinformation.

While Earth Eats is not a hard news program, and many opinions are shared, It’s my responsibility as the producer to fact check and to avoid the spread of false information. Measures have been taken to ensure that this does not happen again.

----

Farmsteaders

Shaena Mallett had grown up in a farming community, and she experienced a way of life that seemed to be disappearing. Through her film, Shaena wanted to share an intimate, close-up glimpse into the world of those who chose to live their lives as farmers. She zooms in on one family, The Nolans, in rural Ohio, who run a small dairy farm. 

The 110-acre dairy farm in the Appalachian foothills has been in Nick Nolan’s family since the 1940s. When Nick and Celeste decided to move to the farm, and get the dairy operation going again, they didn’t quite grasp how things had changed since his grandfather was dairy farming. They couldn’t make it work selling milk wholesale. So, they became cheesemakers. 

Celeste walks us through the cheesemaking process and describes some of the Laurel Valley Creamery cheeses.

One of the ways the filmmaker captured so many intimate moments with this family, was by visiting and filming them for weeks at a time over the course of 5 years. The film shows the rhythms of farm life, of living in-tune with the seasons, and, over the years, what stays the same--and what changes. 

Shaena Mallett is a documentary filmmaker, photographer, educator, and farmer. Her first feature-length documentary film, Farmsteaders airs on PBS stations, including WTIU, on the documentary film series POV September 2 at 10pm. The film will also be streaming on the POV website throughout the month of September.

Stories On This Episode

Susan's Vegetable Tian On The Grill

images/eartheats-images/vegetable-tian-photo.jpg

If you've already got the grill fired up to cook meat, why not cook your side dishes on the grill too.

Yellow, White Or Both, An Ear Of Sweet Corn Is A Summer Pleasure

images/eartheats-images/081619-am-sweetcorn-01.jpg

Even though the Midwest is tops in field corn production and grows row after row of it, these states don’t stand out when it comes to national production of sweet corn. But for many in the region, nothing says summer quite like a fresh hot ear of sweet corn — plain, buttered or salted.

Migrant Workers Denied Food, Water On MO Farms

images/eartheats-images/farming.jpg

Workers near Kennett, Miss., reported working and living conditions that are illegal under the H-2A temporary agricultural visa program.

Farm Workers Pressure Wendy's to Adopt Fair Food

images/eartheats-images/wendys.jpg

Labor rights groups are redoubling calls for a boycott of Wendy’s fast food chain to improve pay and conditions for farm workers and sign on to the Fair Food Program.

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