“Devastated” is the word Tony Schultz uses to describe his feelings the night he came home from high school football practice, and his father announced that the family would have to sell its 50 dairy cows.
Farmer, fighter and firebrand, Tony Schultz is not an easy man to devastate, but he saw the future he’d chosen for himself falling victim to a relentless wave of factory farming, and he’s been battling back ever since. It’s been an uphill struggle, but he says it’s a long way from over.
“The decision was made to sell our cows, but not necessarily by my father,” he recalled. “He wasn’t making any money. He couldn’t go on having a conventional dairy farm in a market where farmers were getting nine dollars a hundred weight when it cost 18 dollars to produce that 100 pounds of milk. It happened because of the consolidation of the dairy industry.”
“Get big or get out” is the message Schultz sees coming down from state and federal government policies that rig subsidies against family farmers, provide higher payments for mass producers and decline to enforce monopoly law. But he’s done neither while helping to lead the fight for family farms.
When you hear Schultz talk to tens of thousands at a rally in Madison, you think he was born to be in front of a microphone. But the 32-year-old third generation farmer is most at home with his partner, Kat Becker, running Stoney Acres Farm in Athens where they grow organic fruits and vegetables on 12 acres alongside a pasture-fed beef and pig business on 90 acres. He grew up on the place, and it’s about as far from a factory farm as it can be.
Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) like the one proposed near Adams like to pretend that their interests are the same as the interests of family farmers. But Schultz will tell you nothing could be further from the truth.
“Look at the agricultural landscape,” he said. “We’re hemorrhaging family farms. People are selling out every day at the same time as you have a rise in CAFOs. The two are directly related because of agribusiness domination. When these big farms come into play, they leverage out small farms.”
Is the situation hopeless for family farmers? “Absolutely not,” said Schultz, who sees the rise of organic farming, a boom in farmer’s markets and a consumer interest in buying food locally as major positives.
“It’s not just about being organic,” he said. “It’s about having a system where there’s economic democracy where lots of people can have access to the land, to production and to a livelihood that supports them.”