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Nonprofit supports organic coffee production in Honduras, Guatemala

When a cup of coffee becomes just another step in a morning ritual, the work that went into getting that coffee to that point can sometimes be overlooked.

Annual trips and yearlong support have built a bond beyond Wisconsin-based nonprofit Farmer to Farmer and organic coffee farmers in Honduras and Guatemala.

Six people, a larger number than is often typical on these trips, recently traveled through the organization to Honduras earlier this month to visit the farmers there firsthand and engage in a cultural experience. A board member or two will also visit Guatemala this year.

Sue Gerlach, operations manager for Farmer to Farmer and one of three part-time contractors for the organization, was among the group on the latest Honduras trip.

In a year, Farmer to Farmer gets 4,500 pounds of coffee from nine farmers in Honduras and 16,500 pounds from 26 farmers in Guatemala, Gerlach said.

Each of the farmers is committed to being organic, Gerlach said, which helps with maintaining water quality and healthy soil.

In Guatemala, all of the farmers that Farmer to Farmer purchases from are women, Gerlach said. The women are organized as a women’s co-op under a larger co-op.

They are “empowered” to make their own decisions, Gerlach said, and take care in providing high quality coffee.

Farmer to Farmer’s connection to Honduran farmers dates back to board member Andy Gaertner’s time in the PeaceCorps in the late 1990s.

The Honduran and Guatemalan farmers often live in poverty or just above the poverty line, Gerlach said.

Farmer to Farmer eliminates the middle man and pays all the coffee farmers above fair trade price, Gerlach said, adding that while fair trade prices establish a good baseline, the prices still aren’t enough to bring the farmers good revenue.

Because planting and harvesting are some of the most cost-intensive parts of growing the crop, Farmer to Farmer also pays 60-100% of the cost upfront before the harvest is completed, Gerlach said.

Most people “don’t have a clue how hard” growing and harvesting coffee is, Gerlach said. If they did, people would be willing to pay “far more” for it, she added.

The organization helps the farmers they support beyond purchasing the coffee as well.

Twenty-three Guatemalan students, from kindergarten to college, are supported by Farmer to Farmer scholarships, Gerlach said. Scholarship money is distributed twice a year.

“It’s very personal,” Gerlach, who has been involved for 10 years, said, noting that they check in on the kids’ grades and to make sure they’re healthy.

The group has also sponsored one-time education experiences for the Guatemalan and Honduran farmers, including getting the farmers from the two countries together so that they could learn from each other and helping the farmers get the training they needed for their organic certification.

Farmer to Farmer trips to Guatemala and Honduras are not limited to members from the organization. They hope to have more people join the trips and extend an “open invitation” to anyone interested, Gerlach said.

“It gives you a whole new perspective,” Gerlach said.

In addition to visiting the farmers, the recent Honduras trip included hiking mountains, enjoying authentic Honduran food, picking coffee, seeing the coffee be processed, taking a boat ride to an island and encountering many animals and birds, Gerlach said.

Taking the trip gives visitors a deeper appreciation of the work being done and the environment the farmers are doing it in, Gerlach said. It also exposes those on the trip to the political challenges in those countries and helps them identify with the farmers and others there as people who have the same needs and wants that everyone else does, she added.

Experiencing a culture where you don’t necessarily speak the language can also allow you to experience a similar type of isolation that those who come to the U.S. often face, Gerlach said.

The whole experience is “pretty life changing,” she said.

For those interested in supporting Farmer to Farmer, the organization is looking for board members, Gerlach said, or people can “support sustainable and good coffee” by purchasing some themselves.

While the nonprofit, which is in its 30th year, is incorporated in Glenwood City, there is no brick-and-mortar location for it. The coffee is sold at select locations in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

For more on Farmer to Farmer, including contact information for the group and a list of locations where coffee can be purchased, visit Farmer to Farmer is also on Facebook at

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Studies: Consumers drinking water, coffee instead of milk

MADISON — Jen Walsh, vice president of insights and strategy for Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, gave those in attendance at her session at Dairy Strong on Jan. 22 a fair warning: she would be using the words “almond milk” in her presentation. She asked them to hold their boos and their shoes because even though she doesn’t like using the words to describe what she called an “almond beverage,” “almond milk” is the term the consumer is using every day.

“I will tell you, consumers say the words almond milk,” she said. “And it’s important to speak the same language as the consumer.”

She has some qualms with the word “plant-based” too. Plant-based may sound healthy to the consumer, even though she argued that a candy bar could be plant-based as it’s made of sugar and a cigarette could even be plant-based because it’s made from tobacco.

“Plant-based sounds a lot healthier than it is,” she said. “If you look at the nutrition label, the ingredients are not leafy greens.”

Dairy farmers and those in the dairy industry tend to share concerns about the rise of these plant-based, non-dairy products, but Walsh explained that the research shows a very small percentage of consumers buying these products over milk and instead, consumers are replacing traditional fluid milk with other beverages like bottled water, coffee, tea and juices.

Americans consumed almost 7.6 million fewer gallons of milk from 2016 to 2017, leading Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin to team up with Dairy Management Inc. to better understand what consumers purchased in 2016 vs. 2017. The data collected from consumers showed changes in how much milk they bought and also the alternative products they bought to replace or substitute for milk.

“Fifty-three percent of that volume went to bottled water,” she said, even with rising concerns about plastic in the environment and water rights issues, among others. “Bottled water has been responsible for half of volume lost year over year.”

Eleven percent of the volume lost went to coffee, a beverage area that has seen much innovation. It is often consumed in the morning as well, so it could be replacing milk at breakfast time in households across America.

Vegan or plant-based milks made up seven percent of the volume lost, leading Walsh to say they “are not really the primary competitor” for fluid milk.

“We tend to think they are the ones holding us back, but the products stealing our share are others,” she added. “I don’t think we should take our eyes off of them though, but put it all in perspective.”

However, a research study conducted by Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin found that consumers may have an inaccurate view about the nutritional value of plant-based and alternative milks. The study used 800 consumers with even proportions of each of the four generations and asked them various questions about how they perceive the nutrition of fluid milk vs. almond milk.

They first asked the consumers to compare to nutrition labels — 1% milk and almond milk — and without telling them which label belonged to which product, asked them which one was more nutritious based on the label alone. Seventy-two percent perceived the almond milk more nutritious because of its lower calorie and sugar content; however, those who selected the milk believed it more nutritious because of its protein content.

When shown the list of ingredients in each product, consumers in the study leaned more toward the milk as more nutritious as it has few ingredients compared to the almond milk. The majority of consumers in the study thought the dairy milk had more protein and more calcium than its almond milk counterpart, but there was still a significant amount of those consumers who believed otherwise.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s true — it’s what the consumer perceives is true,” Walsh said.

Sustainability is becoming more important to consumers as well, but the definition of sustainability is different for each person and each company. Another study Walsh referenced found that consumers are pretty happy with sustainability in the dairy industry, but more and more consumers are not sure how to tell if something has been produced sustainably.

“It’s a huge opportunity for us,” Walsh said. “Sustainability and nutrition are intertwined in consumers’ minds. They think if it’s better for the planet, it’s better for me.”

Other opportunities coming down the pike for the dairy industry, specifically fluid milk, include a call-out of added sugars on nutrition labels; having a clean label with few ingredients; and the idea of helping the consumer define sustainability.

There are bright spots in fluid milk as well with the rise of lactose free milk, up 11% in 2019; A2 milk, which has also seen tremendous growth; and “premium milk,” using an example of a milk being produced only from Jersey cows.

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DNR officials: CWD research facing obstacles

ROCK FALLS — The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is doing what it can to understand the affect chronic wasting disease is having on the state’s wild deer population, according to Wisconsin DNR Secretary-designee Preston Cole.

A major obstacle the DNR is facing when it comes to its CWD research efforts, Cole said, is hunter buy-in.

“Culturally, we’re upside down in terms of processors saying they aren’t going to process deer that are tested for CWD and hunter apathy, they don’t care about CWD one way or another,” Cole said to more than 50 people in attendance Jan. 23 at a CWD update meeting at Rock Creek Town Hall. “People aren’t getting their deer tested for a reason. We need to talk to those individuals who harvested deer and ask them, ‘What is it? What are you afraid of?’ They know why they didn’t get their deer tested. We need to know those reasons.”

CWD is a fatal neurological disease of deer, elk and moose, was first identified in southeastern Wisconsin in 2002 and has been spreading ever since. The disease has been detected in five wild deer in Eau Claire County since fall 2017, including a mature buck killed in October, and the state Department of Natural Resources confirmed the first positive test in Dunn County in November.

Overall, deer harvest numbers were down for the 2019 nine day gun-deer season. DNR Natural Resources Area Supervisor Jess Carstens said there were several possible reasons for the decline in number of deer taken, including the later than usual season and less-than-ideal hunting conditions throughout the season.

From a CWD testing perspective in Eau Claire, Buffalo, Chippewa, Dunn, Pepin and Trempealeau counties — the six counties within a 10-mile radius of where a CWD positive wild deer was discovered in 2018 — the DNR has sampled 1,782 deer for testing so far this year, up from 1,663 in 2018.

“There’s a very strong interest in hunters getting their deer tested,” Carstens said. “We had excellent turnout for sample submissions.”

The Chippewa Valley CWD Advisory Team recommended in July that hunters in six west-central Wisconsin towns be required to have their deer tested for CWD during the entire nine-day gun deer season. The DNR announced in September it would implement the recommendations, but then the Natural Resources Board overturned that decision Oct. 2 and made testing voluntary rather than mandatory in the area.

In the surveillance area around where first CWD-positive deer was detected — including the towns of Rock Creek, Brunswick, Washington, Albany, Drammen and Pleasant Valley in Eau Claire, Dunn and Pepin counties — samples dropped from 238 in 2018 to 167 in 2019.

“In that area we wanted the samples and needed the samples most, we saw a decrease,” Carstens said.

CWD is caused by an abnormal protein called a prion, which causes brain degeneration in infected animals and leads to extreme weight loss, abnormal behavior and loss of bodily functions.

While there has never been a documented case of a human contracting CWD, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises people not to eat meat from an animal that tests positive. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services recommends that venison from deer harvested in CWD affected areas not be consumed or distributed to others until test results are known to be negative.

“I sat down with professionals to start to understand what the disease really is. When you learn all of that, it’s scary,” said State Sen. Jeff Smith, D-Eau Claire. “Just because we haven’t seen it pass from animals to humans is really beside the point. It passes from animal to animal.

“We’re probably in a position where we have to make hard decisions about whether we’re ready to put in the effort to stop the spread or are we willing to take the risk?”

According to DNR Wildlife Biologist Tami Ryan, research in the southwestern part of the state where CWD was first detected may be beginning to pay off, and more testing in west-central Wisconsin is key to helping researchers get a handle on the disease. The future of deer hunting in Wisconsin could depend on it, Ryan said.

“That research is starting to show that deer with CWD are dying faster and at a steeper rate,” Ryan said. “And we know from areas out West where the disease exists that it is affecting deer populations to the point where concern is it’s going to reduce that resource and limit your opportunities.

“It may not be something we’re going to experience in our lifetime, but it could affect hunting and that resource in the future. CWD is a generational issue. It’s something that, if you want your children and grandchildren to experience something that you value so much in your lifetime, it’s important to understand.”

Maple Hill Farm in Ladysmith will hold a lambing open house on the farm in February.