Wisconsin Farmers Union

Photo by Wisconsin Farmers Union

Let Us Reason Together.

The phrase has inspired the work of Wisconsin Farmers Union (WFU) for nearly a century. It encapsulates the efforts happening even today across the countryside as farmers, foodies, and advocates organize to keep family farms on the land and reform a broken American food system.

WFU believes that family farms and strong local food systems are the foundation for thriving and vibrant communities. These communities, in turn, are vital to the health, security, and economic well-being of our entire state and national economy.

But WFU isn’t just for farmers or rural Wisconsinites. With 29 chapters across the state, the grassroots, nonpartisan organization bridges rural and urban, conventional and organic, and young and old. The result has been a big-tent atmosphere that challenges the status quo and advocates for fair policies that protect our farms, land, water, and communities.

Photograph provided by Wisconsin Farmers Union

True to Our Roots

WFU’s roots run deep. In November 1929, as the Great Depression and winter tightened their grips on the Midwest, a group of foresighted farmers gathered in Menomonie to convene the first WFU convention. The Farmers Union Herald reported that 285 delegates attended, and the event was “a thrilling experience … with not a moment of relaxation except during hours of scanty slumber.” These determined farmers banded together to face challenges that are strikingly similar to many we still see today: lack of fair prices, corporate greed, land and market access struggles, and the dismantling of cooperative rights.

The organization born out of that gathering has spent nearly the last century advocating for family farmers in Wisconsin through their work in education, legislation, and cooperation. This January 31 to February 2, WFU will host its 89th State Convention in Rothschild, and just as in those days, hundreds of members will gather to reflect on and organize around the future of family-farm agriculture.

Much of WFU’s early work was in the development of cooperatives that enabled farmers to earn a fair price for their goods as well as collaboratively purchase supplies at more affordable prices. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, members donated funds and labor to help build the rustic cabins and lodge at Kamp Kenwood. Nestled in the forest on the shores of Lake Wissota, the camp, still owned by WFU today, welcomes hundreds of youth each summer for camps focused on the values of cooperatives and social justice.

That cooperative spirit remains woven into WFU’s work today. The organization founded the Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative, a farmer-led cooperative that is committed to building an economically sustainable local food network. WFU has also partnered on a project to make solar panels more affordable for its farmer-members who want to invest in renewable energy.

Photograph provided by Wisconsin Farmers Union

One of WFU’s newest cooperative ventures is support of the South Central Wisconsin Hemp Cooperative, a producer-led cooperative of organic farmers, activists, and community leaders who are assembling resources, community, and infrastructure around the new opportunity to grow hemp here in the state. Once a historic crop in Wisconsin, hemp is grown for its medicinal and fiber capabilities.

Hemp is just one way that WFU members are rethinking the future of farming in Wisconsin. It has also organized the Midwest CSA Conference, which draws hundreds of farmers and food activists from across the country for farmer-led sessions on community-supported agriculture and the role this model can play in reshaping local food systems. Over the winter months, WFU will host several regional meetings for those interested in the CSA movement.

It’s been inspiring to see WFU members building on the excitement around local food with farm-to-table events, farm tours, and engaging speakers at chapter meetings. Pockets of energy have been bubbling up in regions across the state, with several new WFU chapters forming in recent years, including South Central (spanning several counties south of Madison), Lake to Bay (eastern Wisconsin), Ashland-Bayfield, and Iowa-Grant.

Photograph provided by Wisconsin Farmers Union

Underlying WFU’s work to inject energy into these niche opportunities is a recognition that the model for modern-day agriculture is broken. After several consecutive years of bottomed-out milk prices due to overproduction, Wisconsin lost 691 dairy herds in 2018. Meanwhile, farmers have also been challenged by extreme weather conditions and unpredictable markets for their commodity crops. Monopolization is impacting livestock farmers, who are at the mercy of a market where 85 percent of U.S. beef processing is controlled by four companies. The U.S. agriculture economy is being artificially propped up by subsidies, but in reality, even billions of dollars in subsidies aren’t stopping the crippling of the American family farmer.

That’s why WFU’s work heavily leans toward educating on issues and advocating for policy and structural reform for fair prices for family farmers and a safe and stable food system for consumers. In addition to a core staff in its Chippewa Falls headquarters, WFU has several staff members working in Madison on legislative issues. The organization also has a strong focus on the health of our lands and water and recently hired a watershed coordinator who is working with farmer-led watershed projects in western Wisconsin to reduce runoff and implement practices to improve the health of the Mississippi River watershed.

But WFU recognizes that the important work of advocating for family farmers and stronger communities cannot be done alone. Every voice is needed to speak up and help shape the policies that will guide agriculture into the future.

Danielle Endvick is communications director for Wisconsin Farmers Union, a grassroots organization committed to enhancing the quality of life for farmers, rural communities, and all people.