The Milk Muckraker

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Dispatches from the ‘other’ Brooklyn.

Photo provided by Pete Hardin

I. Pete Hardin is obsessed with milk. He’s been thinking about, talking about, and writing about milk all his life. He’s sixty-four and a half and he’s the founder and editor of The Milkweed.

The Milkweed is an old-fashioned print newspaper, which Hardin mails out to 5,100 subscribers – mostly dairy farmers – every month from his home outside of Brooklyn, Wisconsin.

This is how Hardin finds stories for The Milkweed: he drives to his local supermarket and positions himself in front of the dairy case. He examines every label and ingredient list of milk, yogurt, and ice cream. He looks for knock-offs. He scans prices. If he’s not in a rush, he’ll spend hours visiting supermarket after supermarket – comparing, contrasting, and taking notes.

He drinks one glass of 1% milk a day (“the cheapest form of protein you can find”) and says that his family consumes about 60 pounds of yogurt a month (“one of dairy’s finest expressions”). He eats a lot of cheese. Ice cream is mostly out – “the doctor’s giving me the evil eye on cholesterol,” he explains. For dessert, he likes Chobani’s blood orange flavored yogurt. It tastes just like the orange creamsicles of his childhood, but without all the calories.

Travel for work offers a chance to peek into the milk aisles of other locales, and he travels every few months for “can’t-miss” dairy industry meetings. There’s the annual milk powder conference in Chicago, for example – Hardin has only missed one conference in 25 years.

He’s also a copious reader and relies heavily on data and public documents for his story ideas. He is mesmerized by all that’s available about milk. “In dairy,” he says,  “if you really focus on the data, it’s thrilling.”

But most of the time, Hardin is on the phone, keeping up with his “sources and spies” in the milk industry, among them dairy farmers from around the country and anti-trust lawyers. On The Milkweed’s website, a simple HTML operation with scrolling headlines in red (“Five Problems Defining Southeast Dairy Industry…”) Hardin quotes himself in his editor’s bio: “‘Nobody knows everything in the dairy industry, but my network of friends and sources keeps me pretty well posted.”

Indeed, after 34 years of publishing The Milkweed, Hardin is what reporters would call “well-sourced.” This is no part-time hobby – Hardin says he supports his family with the income he earns from The Milkweed’s modest annual subscription cost of $70 ($125 for a “First Class Fast Pak,” for readers who want The Milkweed within 24 hours of publication).

The Milkweed is an old-fashioned broadsheet – mostly black-and-white, few photos, no advertising, and no press releases. (His readers and friends laud him for his original reporting; many farm papers are full of press releases, they say.) Hardin edits the paper, and writes most of the articles, too – not a small feat, given the length and breadth of each issue, usually about 16 pages long.

The articles, full of industry language and Hardin’s nicknames for CEOs he disdains are practically unintelligible to outsiders. But The Milkweed is far from boring, with its shocking, unorthodox headlines (“How Did Dairy End Up in this Crooked Mess???”), editorials (“Raw Milk Musings…”) and insider gossip (“Founder’s Ex-Wife Sues for 53% of Chobani’s Yogurt Empire”).

“A good story,” he says, “has some shock value to it.”

Hardin founded The Milkweed at age 30, shortly after graduating with a master’s in Agricultural Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He worked for a farm journal in New England, but soon decided to strike out on his own.

He wanted to help dairy farmers understand the business side of their industry. “Dairy farmers work 15 or 16 hours per day, often times heavy, physical work,” he says. “They just don’t have time in many cases to learn about the economics and market side of the dairy industry.”

Hardin fashions himself as an advisor for the underdog, raising consciousness among vulnerable farmers about their exploitation by corrupt companies. “I think that the powers-that-be would prefer that the farmers not know what’s going on,” Hardin says.

When Alice Allen, a now-retired dairy farmer in Vermont, first picked up The Milkweed over three decades ago, she says, “a lot of it was way over my head but it was interesting.” She kept reading, and eventually sent subscriptions to fellow farmers and her former professor of dairy management. “I thought, boy, everybody ought to be reading this thing.”

The Milkweed doesn’t pretend to be objective – it’s Hardin’s opinion through and through. If he’s writing about a person or a company, he doesn’t necessarily call for comment. It’s case by case, he says.

After all, Hardin calls himself a “journalist and an activist” and has even held press conferences to denounce what he sees as unsavory practices by big companies that hurt farmers. He has also been quoted in mainstream articles about the dairy industry, in places like National Public Radio, where he adopts a less strident tone than in The Milkweed. But he’s still resolute in his belief that small farmers are getting ripped off by big companies, and the government isn’t doing enough to curb their power.

“The money is there,” he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2009, in an article about anti-trust concerns surrounding big players in the dairy industry. “It’s just not getting back to the farmer.”

II. You could trace the history of milk in America through Hardin’s family. A dairy farm in New Jersey has been in the Hardin family since the 1700s. His great-grandfather was one of the first directors of a milk cooperative, Dairymen’s League. Dairymen’s League later became Dairylea Cooperative and remains powerful to this day – through a partnership with another cooperative, it supplies milk to Chobani’s New York plant.  (Despite this historical connection, Hardin has not spared Dairylea in The Milkweed: “I’ve been rough on them, too,” Hardin says.)

Hardin grew up in the town of Sussex, New Jersey, but spent much of his childhood on his grandfather’s farm, and on the farms of his uncles. This was back when New Jersey was a center of dairy farming. Hardin also used to accompany his father, who had a lime-spreading business, on trips to dairy farms around the East Coast. Spreading lime helps increase soil fertility.

The cow still awes Hardin. He speaks lyrically about the four parts of the cow’s stomach, and the “love affair” that often exists between farmers and their cows. “I could not get excited about writing about pig farming or hog farming, “ he says, “because to me, you’re simply raising the animals to kill them.”

But he knew that he didn’t want to be a dairy farmer himself. In high school, he took the “Cooter Preference Test,” and journalism was far ahead of every other profession. He majored in English at Earlham College, and then worked for a few dairy companies before going to graduate school.

Hardin now lives on a 40-acre hay farm with his wife and two children, where he works out of a two-room office in the basement, with a separate phone line for business calls. He writes, researches, and conducts interviews all day, with occasional breaks to tend to his farm and large vegetable garden.

III. Within the dairy industry, Hardin’s style has made him a polarizing figure. Even those who love The Milkweed don’t always agree with him.

“I think The Milkweed, like all publications, you kind of have to read it and make your own decisions,” says Bill Johnson, a blustery 88-year-old dairy farmer from Orange County, New York. Johnson has known Hardin since he was 10 – Hardin’s father used to spread lime on Johnson’s farm.

Several readers – dairy farmers – told me that The Milkweed is the only place to get the real story about the dairy industry. Hardin “tells it like it is,” they say. But other industry players – journalists and company spokespeople – question The Milkweed’s credibility.

“I guess the short answer I can provide is that every business needs a tabloid newspaper and The Milkweed is the tabloid for the dairy business,” says Christopher Galen, spokesperson for National Milk Producers Federation, an Arlington, VA-based organization that represents dairy cooperatives and lobbies for them in Washington. He did acknowledge, however, that the office has a subscription. “It’s a form of entertainment and he’s very good at spinning tales that provide the readers entertainment.”

“It’s a very irreputable dairy publication,” says Jim Dickrell, editor of Dairy Today magazine, which has a nationwide circulation of about 20,000, though he admits that “he’ll get a scoop every once in a while.”

I keep inquiring about why it is disreputable, and Dickrell continues rather hesitantly. “If you don’t believe what he believes, he just personally attacks people,” he says. “It’s just the sleaziest journalism. It’s just not the way it should be done.”

After a silence, I ask Dickrell if he himself has ever been featured in The Milkweed. He said that he has. “He’s personally attacked me,” Dickrell says. “I don’t want to get into that.”

IV. Though The Milkweed may be sensational and outlandish at times, its articles are too well-researched to neatly fall under the “tabloid” label.

Hardin was sued for libel once, for $20 million, and he won. The case, filed in 1981 by a milk cooperative, was featured in the Columbia Journalism Review and the New York Times. The lawsuit focused on an article in which Hardin described a government investigation into issues surrounding a loan guarantee application submitted by the cooperative.

The article was based on government documents, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Hardin’s lawyer, in turn, handed the documents over to the presiding judge. The judge dismissed the case against Hardin before trial, ruling that the article was “fair and true.”

In 2007, Hardin and another Milkweed writer, John Bunting, also made a splash when they analyzed government datasets and published their findings in an article titled “USDA’s Milk-Pricing Fails: Producers Lose Half a Billion Dollars.” The article reported that a milk powder company, DairyAmerica, was misreporting data on nonfat dry milk prices to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). (Large dairy manufacturers are required to submit data on pricing and production volume every week to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.) The misreporting altered a complex federal formula used to set prices that farmers are paid for their milk.

After the article came out, the USDA Office of the Inspector General issued a report, which called for more government oversight and praised The Milkweed’s reporting:

“It is significant to note that this error in NASS’ [National Agricultural Statistics Service] weekly estimates was only discovered because of the impact of the article in The Milkweed and that the error was not detected by NASS’ existing survey and estimation process.”

The Milkweed was also mentioned in a subsequent class-action lawsuit of dairy farmers against DairyAmerica, which alleges that DairyAmerica’s misreporting artificially depressed the price of milk, resulting in losses to dairy farmers totaling millions of dollars.

DairyAmerica declined to comment on The Milkweed.

Hardin has also written extensively over the years about anti-trust allegations and lawsuits against two of the biggest dairy companies in the United States, Dairy Farmers of America and Dean Foods.

“Dairy ‘competition’ has devolved into something like a basketball game in which the referees are intentionally blind to the blatant fouls and dirty tactics employed by the biggest players,” Hardin wrote in an introduction to a Milkweed “special issue” on anti-trust, in 2010.

Though Hardin may use inflammatory language, his claim isn’t necessarily untruthful. Dairy Farmers of America and Dean Foods recently agreed to pay $158.6 million and $140 million, respectively, to settle a class-action lawsuit that alleged that the cooperative and the milk processing company violated federal anti-trust laws in the Southeastern United States, suppressing prices that farmers were paid for their milk. Both companies, however, denied wrongdoing. Another class-action lawsuit filed in 2009 against Dairy Farmers of America and Dean Foods also alleged anti-trust violations, this time in the Northeast. Dean Foods denied wrongdoing but settled for $30 million. The case against Dairy Farmers of America is ongoing. Alice Allen, the Milkweed reader and retired farmer mentioned earlier, is the lead plaintiff in the Northeast case.

Dairy Farmers of America declined to comment on The Milkweed.  A representative from Dean Foods acknowledged that the company has a subscription to The Milkweed, but declined to comment on the newspaper.

V. Hardin is aging, and so are his subscribers.  Small dairy farms are going out of business, and subscriptions are down. “I can see bumps in the road coming,” he says. “I write about milk marketing but I know I haven’t done the best job in marketing the paper.

He’s planning to take out ads in other dairy publications, to entice potential readers with a “did you know?” headline and tidbits of insider information. He’s also willing to send sample copies for free, to try to build his readership.

But he doesn’t have any illusions about the future of The Milkweed. He hopes to reach 500 issues – sometime in the next six or seven years, he says – and then retire. He expects that The Milkweed will go with him. It’s just too personal, he says, to give over to someone else.

“That’s one of the realities of the business, I’ve realized that for a long time,” he says.

For now, Hardin continues to wake up at dawn to write, taking breaks for long walks around the perimeter of the farm. Even those closest to him can’t explain what keeps him going.

Edward Mikkelson is a good friend, and helps Hardin design and print The Milkweed every month from a small print shop in Orfordville, Wisconsin. “I’ve never seen anyone more excited about the dairy industry than him,” he says. “He lives and breathes the dairy industry.”

“I guess he’s a guy on a mission,” says Nate Wilson, a retired New York dairy farmer and Milkweed freelancer, who has known Hardin for 10 years. “He figures the almighty put him here to write about the injustices he sees in the U.S. dairy industry…I guess he publishes The Milkweed for the same reason that dairy farmers dairy farm. It’s a calling.”

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