Rest in Peace: The Unrelenting John Kinsman

Wisconsin recently lost a dairy farmer. But this was not just any dairy farmer.

We’ve lost John Kinsman, a pioneer of organic sustainability before it became cool and commodified.

In the March 2012 issue of The Progressive, Marc Eisen wrote about Kinsman. Here’s an excerpt of Eisen’s piece:

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.

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.

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.”

Here's an extensive interview with Kinsman as well:

John E. Peck of the Family Farm Defenders notes John Kinsman “has literally touched the lives of thousands of people as a grassroots pioneer of organic sustainable agriculture and globe trotting advocate of food sovereignty for decades.”

His family is still planning the details for his funeral, but are hoping to have a wake at Hoof Funeral Home at 312 N Park St. in Reedsburg on Fri. Jan 24th in the evening and the funeral at St. Boniface Catholic Church in Lime Ridge on Sat. Jan. 25th. The exact times have not been set yet, but people can check with the Hoof Funeral home (tel: 608-524-2337) if they wish to attend.

The 3rd Annual John Kinsman Beginning Farmer Food Sovereignty Prize Award Dinner to be held on Sat. March 15th at UW-Baraboo with Raj Patel as the keynote speaker. Sponsorships of this tribute are still being accepted.

His voice and spirit will be sorely missed.