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Rural America Needs Champions

by Darin Von Ruden, Wisconsin Farmers Union President

This past winter, not long before COVID-19 shifted so many things in our lives, I found myself sitting across from a friend at a coffee shop, debating the biggest problems facing rural America. At their root, many of those issues kept coming back to the same point, big money that is stifling the average American's voice and controlling what happens on Capitol Hill – and a lack of leaders willing to stand up to it.

Wealth inequality can be felt starkly in our rural areas and it fits into the bigger picture in many of the long overdue discussions happening around the country on racial inequality, fair wages, climate, monopolization of our food and more.

In November of 2019, Bloomberg reported the richest 1 percent of Americans were drawing nearer to holding as much wealth as the middle and upper-middle classes combined. Meanwhile, the report noted, the bottom 50 percent of Americans carried 35.7 percent of liabilities in the U.S. and a mere 6.1 percent of assets.

Where does that leave America's family farmers and working class? Fighting for pennies.

I for one am tired of seeing soaring bonuses for executives and companies reporting record profits year-after-year while workers and farmers have maintained status quo salaries for the last 30 years.

In its infancy in the early 1900s, Farmers Union recognized the value of banding together family farmers and laborers, and we're pleased to be bringing some element of that back with work centered around farmer-labor solidarity and the common values and needs of the working class.

The Black Lives Matter movement and the many inequities we’ve seen in 2020 have also brought the wage gap and wealth disparity front and center.

How do we stand together to make life better for all people? How do we band together for the improvement of our country in an atmosphere that has become increasingly polarized?

For starters, we need our political parties to work together. When we have thousands of family farms going out of business across the country and people living in poverty, petty political squabbles and party lines seem insignificant. Rumblings in my neck of the woods indicate that folks are ready for change. Yet, time after time, we put a vast majority of incumbents back into positions, despite their stalemates and shenanigans.

Rural America is hurting. For that matter, many of our urban areas are, too. Now, maybe more than ever, we need champions who are willing to stand up to the status quo — champions in our legislature, but also champions in our communities. Champions like you and me.

The time is ripe for champions to step forward, whether it be as an educated and engaged voter at the polling booth or as an advocate for better policy for rural America. In these times, being a champion might even mean just speaking truth to your values, friends, or even, maybe more importantly, being a listening ear in these times when tensions are fraught and deep listening is so sorely needed.

The forces we're up against – from dark money in politics to monopolization in so much of our economy – make it clear that this work will not be easy. But throughout history, champions have risen above the politics to speak up on the values and issues that matter. Let’s join together in taking that first step.

Von Ruden dairy farms in Westby and is president of Wisconsin Farmers Union, a grassroots family farm organization that is committed to enhancing the quality of life for family farmers, rural communities and all people through education, legislation, and cooperation.

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