If I lived in South Dakota, I’d probably be in a nursing home. And that would be hell.
What could be more rare than cactus in a Wisconsin farmer’s wintry backyard? That would be the farmer himself if it’s
John Kinsman. At age eighty-five, Kinsman has lived a singular life of activism.
This modest farmer from the Dairy State boondocks has traveled the world to stand with small farmers and indigenous people.
“You have to put your whole self into it,” he says of his approach. “You have to live what you’re saying.”
Kinsman has certainly done that. He’s locked arms with Native Americans like Winona LaDuke in their struggle. He founded the activist group Family Farm Defenders in 1994. He marched with his friend the French farm leader Jose Bové of anti-McDonald’s fame in “The Battle of Seattle” in 1999. He’s even sailed with Greenpeace.
How he managed all this while running a dairy farm in central Wisconsin, near tiny Lime Ridge, and raising ten children with his wife, Jean, may be the most improbable thing of all about Kinsman.
On a winter afternoon, Kinsman is just another Wisconsin farmer as he walks his 150 acres. He and Jean bought the worn-out, rock-strewn farm in the early 1950s not far from where his parents farmed. An early run-in with chemical pesticides put Kinsman in the hospital and converted him to organic farming. He points to the results.
Here are the pastures on which he rotationally grazes his milking herd of thirty-six Holsteins, the forested hills where he’s planted, literally, tens of thousands of trees, and the stand of fruit trees and bushes he’s grown around his house. And that patch of cacti—the prickly pear—was no exotic transplant but a stubborn native remnant from a warmer geological age in Wisconsin. Sort of like Kinsman himself.
Kinsman is a fourth-generation Wisconsin family farmer. His grandmother Samantha, who died at the age of ninety-seven in 1944, saw General Ulysses S. Grant when he visited Sandusky, Wisconsin. His dad was a “dyed-in-the-wool Republican who would vote for a dog if he were a Republican,” he says with a laugh. His own political awakening began in World War II, when on an Army train through Mississippi, he was upbraided for waving to the black people along the track.
Working with the Farm Bureau and the Farm Service was a revelation to him, as he saw the hold that corporations have on these agencies. He acknowledges that organizing farmers isn’t the easiest thing in the world.
“Farmers are bombarded by propaganda in the farm press,” he says. “They think they’re very independent, but they’re all getting government help. Organizing them is like pushing a wheelbarrow of frogs.”
Kinsman chuckles as he says this. He’s a cheery man with sparkling blue eyes and a work-hardened body. Activists praise his good humor. They like hanging with him. To draw attention to their cause, Kinsman and John Peck, his colleague at Family Farm Defenders, dress up in cow suits when they conduct their yearly picket at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. They charge that the privately run exchange has allowed Kraft Foods and the Dairy Farmers of America to fix the prices that farmers receive for their milk and cheese.
Kinsman is unrelenting. In 2009, he cornered Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at the La Crosse County Fair in western Wisconsin and seemingly got him to commit to re-authorizing a dormant Justice Department investigation into the pricing allegations. When nothing happened, Kinsman publicly called Vilsack out at Community Food Security Coalition conference in Iowa. His friend Jeffrey Smith, a leading critic of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), then took the floor to challenge Vilsack on his support of GMOs in the food supply.
“We went out in the hallway and had a good laugh,” Kinsman says. “We got Vilsack in his home state.”
The GMO issue is longstanding for Kinsman. He rose to prominence in the mid-’80s as a lone picketer at UW-Madison, protesting the agricultural school’s experiments with bovine growth hormone (BGH) and the serving of rBGH-tainted milk and ice cream to unsuspecting students. He’d milk his cows in the morning, clean the barn, and then drive ninety minutes to Madison to pass out his leaflets. Big dairy interests were furious: Kinsman was questioning the safety of milk, for gosh sakes!
The hormone was eventually approved for farm use, but a corner had been turned. Public unease was so great that a few years later certified organic milk became a runaway bestseller. “John never let up until he helped elevate rBGH into a nationally prominent issue,” says Mark Kastel of the activist Cornucopia Institute.
Kinsman credits his protest savvy to his years working for racial justice. Starting in the late 1960s, Kinsman helped run a novel summer-exchange program—begun by the Freedom Riders—that sent dirt-poor Mississippi black kids to Wisconsin families and Badger State youngsters to delta and hill country families. Klan violence and intimidation were a fresh memory. Kinsman, for example, organized support for Tchula, Mississippi, Mayor Eddie Carthan, a young African American leader whose challenge to the white gentry got him incarcerated on trumped-up charges in the early 1980s.
Thirty and forty years later, Kinsman still hears from the program participants. C. W. Morris, a Minneapolis retiree who was raised in a house in Black Hawk, Mississippi, without running water, was on the verge of tears as he explained to me how spending summers at Kinsman’s farm changed his life.
“We were the poorest of the poor,” he says of his parents and twenty-one siblings. “But when John came into my life, he was like a bundle of goodness.”
Kinsman doesn’t dwell in the past. Always an organizer, he recently rallied community support to keep a priest assigned to their tiny rural Catholic parish. He’s fighting the Post Office’s plans to close its station in Lime Ridge, a fading crossroads in struggling farm country. And his church’s peace and justice committee is taking the lead in promoting sustainably grown local food in Sauk County.
I ask him what is the key to successful organizing? “Three things,” he says, smiling broadly. “Relationships, relationships, and relationships.”
What have you learned all these long years?
“Justice is ‘just us,’ ” Kinsman replies. “If we don’t work at it, it’s not going to happen.” Sure, some people lose hope and burn out, he admits. “They work and work and hit a plateau. Then they give up. But if they just stay at it, it gets easier. It does. And it helps if you can laugh and have fun.”
With an impish grin, Kinsman leans forward to tell me how John Peck had found a perfectly formed cow pie, shellacked it, and turned it into a plaque that the Family Farm Defenders, with great fanfare, awarded to the factory farm polluter of the year.
Marc Eisen is a freelance writer based in Madison, Wisconsin.