Tera Johnson on Cheeseballs and Pitfalls of the Dairy Industry

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It’s almost a full-time job keeping up with all the National Food Days. That’s why, once again, we at Change Food have got you covered: Today is National Cheeseball Day.

For us, the first person who comes to mind is Tera JohnsonWe think of Tera because she is changing food from Wisconsin, the cheese-production hub of the nation. But Tera’s influence reaches far beyond balls of cheese; she is the founder and director of the Food Finance Institute (FFI) at the University of Wisconsin Extension, and of tera’s®whey.

What has she been up to since Change Food Fest 2016, you ask? Well, the usual.

Tera Johnson on “The Profitability Transformation” at Change Food Fest 2016.

Tera’s been throwing her energy into the financial side of the good food movement, working to empower blossoming food and farm companies through FFI. She steadies the ever-shifting ground beneath their feet, and allows businesses to adapt to the changing agricultural market.

But Tera is an educator and an advocator, and right now she’s concerned with exactly why these agricultural businesses need to adapt – Because they do, she says. Every single one of them.

Effective this week, Tera explains, Canada will mimic the  “America First” mentality and greatly domesticize its dairy industry. The direct consequences (don’t get us started on the indirect) for small-scale United States dairy farmers are catastrophic: Currently, 15% of milk produced in Wisconsin and New York (yes, New York) is shipped to Canada.

Cranberry nut cheeseballs made with cream cheese, goat or feta cheese, parsley, cranberries and chopped pecans.

Tera’s ambition is to engage, to be a voice which connects our rural communities in Wisconsin with our urban-minded New Yorkers. “There is a sense in rural communities,” she observes, “That people in cities really don’t care.”

Desperately, Tera wants cosmopolitans to understand the difference and the reasoning behind a $4.99 gallon of local milk versus the $1.99 conventional. She wants consumers everywhere to understand that what happens globally in commodity agricultural produces a ripple effect, and touches us all locally.

Tera is also a phenomenal public speaker; As we know from the Change Food Fest 2016, that’s one way she effectively chips away at the rural urban divide. Rural families approach her often, “We have to get you to speak,” they tell her, “Because there’s nothing positive going on. We’re so tired of hearing the negative stuff about shrinking, dying communities. Schools are closing…”

When agriculture suffers, rural communities shrivel. But Tera Johnson’s infectious rapport envisions a different national dialogue, one which values empathy, cooperation and shared prosperity. “We get the people we have in Washington because we ignored rural communities,” she urges, “We have to pay attention to their suffering.”

How do we make the connections? Let’s take New York. The Empire State, unlike Wisconsin, focuses on more perishable dairy products like yogurt, instead of cheese. Since global dairy prices remained low over the past few years, the only way to profit was to sell more milk, to produce more milk. Supply exceeded demand and time-crunched farmers, without the luxury that aging cheese provides, ended up dumping milk. Here’s an instance where it’s completely appropriate to cry over spilled milk.

Tera witnesses the insurmountable pressure that severe market changes, like Canada’s domestic milk plan, put on small, independent producers; the system’s industrial powerhouses alienate the family farmers, and then they are financially forced to alienate us, consumers on a budget.

We said it once and we’ll say it again: Tera is an effective educator and a passionate advocator. For the average consumer hoping to better the system, she lays out a path toward agricultural revival.

Dairy cows at Cornell Cooperative in Dryden, NY. Image by Sandy Repp.

First, understand that America First is a toxic mindset. All farmers are affected by instability in the international market and are reliant on symbiotic relations.

Second, connect the dots. Help people grasp why the $4.99 gallon of milk is worth buying.

Third, collaborate. Increase visibility by developing a supply chain between Brooklyn and a specific set of upstate farms. (Tera cites Niman Ranch Meats and Organic Valley as examples of resilient support systems for small-scale farmers in the great big market.)

Back in November at the Fest, Tera closed her talk with these energizing words: “It’s your turn. I want you all to go out and have a conversation […] You can teach people what to do. You can help them.”

It’s up to you, but Change Food and Tera Johnson are here to support you.


Change Food is currently planning the Change Food Fest 2018, with a focus on the rural and urban divide.  Stay tuned for more articles delving into this issue as we prepare for next year’s event.

Carly Brand is studying Sustainable Urban Nutrition at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She looks to Change Food for future generations and loves to hear your perspectives at carlybrand11@gmail.com.

Change Food® works toward a healthier food system for people, animals & the planet.  Learn more about Plant Eat Share – planting food in public spaces. For free.