Catskills Conversations: Lorraine Lewandrowski

Lorraine Lewandrowski does not live in the Catskills, but our radio interview and half of our phone conversations, which are always fascinating, take place in the Catskills, so I’m printing them here. Lorraine is an agricultural lawyer and dairy farmer with 60 cows in the Mohawk Valley, New York. She is a very active spokesperson for the farming community, speaking at agricultural conferences and writing articles for trade publications. She tries to do things like link deep rural farmers with urban food groups. Lorraine is a descendant of Polish immigrants who arrived in the valley about 100 years ago and one of a long line of farming advocates. Her grandfather was one of the founders of a co-op, of which her father was the president for many years. She’s on Twitter with 15,000 avid followers.

I’ve never met a dairy farmer and lawyer before.

There are a few of us around. Actually, I know some attorneys and dairy farmers in England and we keep in touch on Twitter to compare notes on contracts and things that are going on. In fact, I keep in touch with farmers in Wales, New Zealand, Australia, all over the place and to the best of my ability in France. I’m not that great with French. We try to share information that way. The global corporations have far more extensive communications networks than we do, but this is a way of us getting at least some idea of what’s happening.

Tell us a bit about your ancestors. You have said in the past that it was all the female members of your family that were put on the boat to the US.

My grandmother came with her sister and a younger niece or cousin, something like that. She was joined by other sisters because it was so poor there that they decided to send the girls to America. That turned out to be a good move because the boys’ families ended up being in Siberia. The boys stayed behind and kept the land and the farms, but then in WWII war was breaking out and the Nazis were invading from the west. Someone, I’m not exactly sure whom, came from the east with the Russians and took my mother’s entire family with them to Siberia. That was 1939. They were in Siberia for a few years and escaped Siberia, made it to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and eventually they made it back to Poland. But there lives were very, very hard compared to my mother’s aunts and my mother’s who married farmers and milk farmers. They’re children became educated. It was a totally different world from old Europe.

Do you keep in touch with the members of the family that went to Siberia?

Yes. Actually, we never did lose touch with them except for when they were in Siberia. We’ve been very lucky, because the women would always stay in touch. They would always send photos and things like that.

What do you do for work?

I’m working at my law practice by day and on evenings and weekends, I help out at the farm. My brother runs the farm. We were lucky to inherit a farm as opposed to having to buy a farm. I don’t know if that could be possible now. It’s really hard to buy a farm. We are what are known as generational farmers, in that the farm is passed down through the generations.

Is there a tax liability that comes with inheriting a farm?

The limits are high enough. It used to be that if the farm was worth over $600,000 then you would pay 40% taxes. But then they raised it to $1m and then, $2m and now I think it’s $5m. I saw an article in the Wall Street Journal complaining about this, but once you get over the $5m amount you get into some substantial taxes, so that would impact really large farms. You could end up pay $400,000 in taxes once you cross over that threshold.

What made you decide to go into law?

I like to be an advocate for the farmers, but in 1989, the government chose our farm to be the site for regional landfill project. One day we opened a newspaper and it had a picture of our farm on the cover stating that it had been chosen. They tried to eminent domain us, so we fought that with everything we could for an entire year and beat it. So, I thought, I’ve spent a lot of time in courtroom and in advocacy sessions, so I think I’ll go to law school.

Were you a teenager or out of college?

I was already out of college for about ten years. I was what they called a non-traditional law student, where you’re not coming directly from undergrad. There were a couple of us: a woman who had been a teacher and a man who had been an engineer. It was good because I had life experience, so I appreciated it and enjoyed the law as opposed to going to law school because you didn’t have anything else to do, or you weren’t sure what you were going to do. I really like the advocacy.

What undergraduate degree did you do?

Sociology and Political Science: then I went to graduate school in Boston where I studied International Development. Then when I while I was in Boston, I was able to go to a program at Harvard Business School called Agribusiness, so I was able to complete the HBS Agribusiness curriculum while I was going to grad school at Tufts University. That gave me a very different perspective, because while I was there I was able to listen to major worldwide companies lecture on how to get commodities from the farmers cheaper. (Laughs). How to scour the globe buying more cheaply and taking advantage of low labor costs overseas. Basically, what it would be to be a global business. Some the trade representatives came to our class to talk about trade negotiation. So my education was very different from the normal farm agricultural education.  Most of the kids that went to Cornell were learning how to produce more.

Do you think farmers are being squeezed by big corporations?

Definitely. I see fewer and fewer choices on where to sell. I see big companies consolidating, like say a Chinese company buying out Smithfield, so then it becomes one very large buyer as opposed to many very small buyers. In New York State, there used to be many fluid milk bottlers. You could take your pick of any number of independent milk dealers. Now there are very few.

What can we do about that?

I think that the food movement should really become more aware of [other issues], lift their focus from the farmer’s market. I mean, I’m really glad about farmer’s markets, but we should really look at the structure of our food sector, which is consolidating every day. You can get those charts that show you who owns what. You might think you’re buying from a different company every day, but it’s all the same. There was a hearing in New York, Batavia, about consolidation in the dairy sector. President Obama held anti-trust hearings. He held one in Alabama for poultry people and there was one held out west for the ranchers, but no food movement people came at all. It was only farmers speaking. I personally called some of these groups to tell them that this was a perfect opportunity to come and testify that you, as a consumer, are concerned about consolidation, but not one showed up. You can go online and watch the poultry one. It’s on YouTube. These companies also control specifications under which products are raised too. Large companies selling chicken will tell the contract poultry grower how many chickens they can raise per square feet, medication, grain etc. There’s a lot of control over the type of production. That’s more of a concern to me going forward. Things like the fact that four global packing companies control some huge percentage of beef worldwide. When the sale of Smithfield was going through, I sent Michael Pollan an email asking him, is nobody going to say anything? So he put out a tweet saying, by the way, let your congressman know about Smithfield, but I think the vast majority of people don’t even know [what’s going on]. Only foodie-type people might know or realize.

What does an agricultural lawyer do and what takes up most of your business?

I deal with a lot of land transactions and disputes over land; tax issues; trying to help farmers with the regulatory environment. I have a couple of guys now want to brew beer and one trying to start up a distillery. Other things might be the buying and selling of things that you need to farm; matrimonial divorces between farmers; a couple of estate issues where the farmers have committed suicide; lately I’ve been helping farmers trying to pass their farm on to the next generation.

How tough is farming?

It’s quite difficult. You have to really love it to be a farmer. It’s not a career for you if you do not love animals and do not love being outdoors. Most farmers in the US barely break even. The vast majority of farmers have a second job, or a family member has a second job, what we call a safety net. So for example, during the milk price crash of 2009, I had to pour money from that [law practice] into the farm to keep it afloat because things were so bad. Don’t expect to get rich, but you’re going to enjoy your life as I do. The old expression is “live poor; die rich.” I see some of the older farmers now driving around in a beaten up truck, but their farm could be worth several thousand dollars.

Do you think we should pay more for food?

Well, in the United States in general spend 6% of our income on food. We are the lowest in the entire world, so we really devalue food in a way. That’s even borne out by the way in which we waste food. It’s something like 40% of the food we get ends up in waste. We really have it pretty darn good. You can go to the store and get things really reasonably priced, but farmers are under great pressure to produce food very cheaply.

How can we relieve some of that pressure on farmers? We do rely on them. They grow our food.

And we continue to lose them. I saw statistics that over the last five years we lost another 100,000 mid-sized farms countrywide. Farms are becoming either much larger or much smaller. In New York you have to produce and sell $10,000 of food to be called a farm. I saw a study out of Colorado State last year, in which agricultural economists ranked states talking about various policy considerations like fuel prices, land taxes, worker’s compensation and other regulations and New York ranked Number 2 most hostile states in the country to farmers and small business. California was rated Number 1 most hostile. I know a lot of farmers struggle to come up with the land taxes every year. When they hire employees, the worker’s compensation is expensive. When we talk about farming, we need to discuss these policy issues.

What do you do on the farm?

I try to help out in the evenings. I feed the calves when I get home. I do all the unskilled labor, things that take time like feeding the babies with bottles. My sister’s a veterinarian and most of her calls come at the end of the day because farmers won’t go to bed until their animal is taken care of. So I drive my sister to her night calls. I also like to build fences. It’s my specialty.

Is there such a thing as a day off in country life? Or in your case, farming?

No, once in a great while we’ll take a day off. We were raised to feel guilty if we took any time off. I do take a nap on a Saturday afternoon sometimes, for an hour or so and I feel great. Read a book and take a nap.

I’m asking this question of everybody lately: what is work?

It feels more like work when you don’t like doing it. On the farm, work is really satisfying because you can really see something when it’s done. So, lets say you unload 200 bales of hay: you can see it there, whereas in my law practice, I could work for a couple of hours reading a contract and really have nothing to show for it other than understanding this contract. So I can’t show anybody what I’ve done. The farm is very satisfying: you’ll see the new fence built and the calves growing stronger. So I think maybe the results are more visible.

1 thought on “Catskills Conversations: Lorraine Lewandrowski

  1. William A. Piervincenzi

    An enlightening account the current problems facing farmers today. Is factory farming our only option?


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