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Reviving the Rural Spirit of Cooperation

Farmer-Labor Solidarity Pledge looks toward bridge-building for a better tomorrow

By Charlie Mitchell, WFU Farmer-Labor Solidarity Organizer

Farmers are no strangers to crisis—but this year, the crises keep piling up. Most of us are immobilized in our homes and on our farms, dread-filled and agitated. Others go to work in novel conditions, often at risk of getting sick. Our democracy is stagnant, with a legislature that has largely failed to act in the interest of the people it is supposed to serve. We’ve seen Midwesterners shot and killed in public and national uprisings to stop the racial violence. The world is getting hotter and more chaotic. 

It feels like a structure has given out, one that secured our parents and grandparents, if they were born here. A scaffold that kept school and healthcare affordable, helped small businesses and farms compete, protected workers’ guarded from severe exploitation, and gave us a stronger voice. In the isolation of coronavirus, the absence of these protections feels more acute than ever. Those of us who are workers need fair wages. Those of us who are employers would like to pay more. Tens of millions of Americans are hungry.

And then there’s the election. Politics these days make us feel alone and divided. If our neighbor sees things differently than us, we don’t even want to begin a conversation, for fear of ruining friendships. With a virus and attacks on the post office, even the simple act of voting feels iffy. 

But Wisconsin Farmers Union isn’t sitting idle. Our family farm organization is getting involved, and we’re doing it our way. WFU doesn’t try to swing voters off of a certain party or candidate. We’ve known for decades that precious few candidates can be counted on to act in the interest of working farmers and people, no matter their party affiliation.

Instead, we talk about the issues. Milk prices that never seem to rise for long, bogged below the cost of production. Same with corn. Agribusiness has consolidated, leaving few places to sell our milk, grain, and beans, and slaughter our hogs and cattle. If we grow vegetables, it’s unlikely that the big box stores will be buying. We have to create our own markets. Money seems to be draining from rural communities like water through the storm drains, flowing to distant cities and executive bank accounts. Then it cycles from the lobbying budgets of large corporations back through our political system, which is why few elected officials work to represent our interests, rather than wealthy donors.

It’s bad—but on every issue, there’s a future we can look forward to, if we work hard to win it. We can redraw district maps in 2021 on a non-partisan basis to elect leaders who are accountable to voters; we can continue to advocate for the enforcement of antitrust laws to open new pathways in our farm system; the case for supply management is stronger than ever, and so is the political will. With the deadly reality of climate change so painfully obvious, we can get to work on that, too. In the remaining two months before this election, we can make critical progress on these issues. We can rebuild the fabric that held us in place.  

But this year more than ever, we can’t do it alone. Farmers have a long history of banding with unions and other groups to take on progressive causes, and that history is in need of repetition. Cooperation is in our bones. 

Just as a healthy farm system is the basis of a thriving society, farms can’t stay alive without a living wage across the whole economy. Farmers have long fought for “parity,” a price on grain or milk that provides an economic return that is on par with the broader economy. Now workers and farmers have been plunged so deep into the hole, together, that only by helping each other can we climb out. When we advocate for policies that improve the working and living conditions of everyone, our farm communities grow stronger, too.

The agribusiness monopolies that profit on trading and processing our grain and milk have taken more than their fair share from farmers, and they’ve exploited workers that haul, pack, and ring up that produce. We know that to hold these corporations accountable, we need a functioning democracy. 

So, we’re building bridges—with unions, progressive organizations, faith groups, nonprofit coalitions, and anyone who shares our goals and values—to fight for a better Wisconsin.

How will we do that? First, by having conversations and then building on common ground and shared interests. We’re going to be making more noise, about the need for rural broadband, for all workers to have a voice, and to protect our schools, dairy and farmworkers, families, small businesses, and more. 

Together, we can build bridges to bring about the change that we know we need. I encourage you to take our Farmer Labor Solidarity Pledge, and join the effort to win a bettertomorrow for family farmers and workers.

See you out there.

Through his work as Farmer-Labor Solidarity Organizer for Wisconsin Farmers Union, Charlie Mitchell is developing grassroots power through unity among farm and labor groups. Learn more at

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