Stronger Together: Small business owners, family farmers join forces on roundtables
When it comes to the political arena, the voices of family farmers and other small business owners too often are drowned out by the clamor of special interests. A series of candidate roundtables co-hosted by Main Street Alliance (MSA) and Wisconsin Farmers Union (WFU) in late October sought to remedy that.
The events honed in on the issues that matter in the Wisconsin countryside and on Main Street. Business owners and farmers heard candidates' stances on issues that affect us all, both rural and urban, like healthcare, the caring economy, capital access, tax fairness, and monopoly power.
The series kicked off Oct. 24th at Becket's Restaurant in Oshkosh with Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes set to debate Senator Ron Johnson in the highly contested US Senate race. Unfortunately, despite repeated invitations, RoJo was a no-show.
Lt. Gov. Barnes touched on the issues farmers and small business owners face around affordable childcare and connected it to his own upbringing in a two working parent house in Milwaukee.
A farmer on the panel asked Barnes about market concentration. “We’ve seen what happens as a result of monopolization,” Barnes replied. “One blip in the supply chain and it all goes to hell. If you’ve got four firms creating eight percent of the market, that’s a problem.”
When asked if he would support growth management in the dairy sector, Barnes said that there was potential for better days ahead of us. He spoke in favor of transparency in labeling and redefining the “Product of USA” label before circling back and adding, “but I absolutely support a growth management program.”
Barnes spoke favorably about existing work that has been done by Senators Booker, Klobuchar, and … to bust up big tech and address monopoly power and indicated he would like to throw his weight behind that effort.
He also shared the story of a farmer -- met on his Barnes for Barns campaign -- who racked up huge medical costs after a family emergency and stressed how our current healthcare system can prove punishing for average Americans.
In that vein, Barnes came out in strong support of universal healthcare for all. Though he acknowledged the support might not be there yet in DC, he emphasized the importance of continuing to send people to Congress who support universal healthcare.
A vow on antitrust
The following evening, Senator Brad Pfaff addressed MSA and WFU members at The Root Note in La Crosse. Derrick Van Orden was also invited but did not attend.
When posed with a question how he would handle the increasing consolidation seen in the pharmaceutical, technology, and agriculture sectors, Pfaff vowed that he would do all in his power to bolster antitrust enforcement efforts, noting, "Without a doubt, we have to break up these monopolistic practices that are taking place."
Pfaff went so far as to harken back to President Teddy Roosevelt's work on trust busting, saying, "We need to make sure that we not only walk softly but we also carry a big stick."
In a pledge to do all that he could to help farmers succeed, Pfaff also gave a nod to the cooperative movement. "We know how to go about helping farmers and small business owners succeed," he said. "Wisconsin and the Midwest are home to the cooperative movement — let's get back to that … We need to provide opportunities where our family farmers and communities can go after their own ideas and not take such a top-down approach."
Pfaff grew up on a dairy farm and recalls that his family was very involved in the cooperative movement, with him joining his father at co-op meetings early on in his childhood. But he notes that the co-ops of yesterday and those of today are not always one and the same.
"We have some co-ops in this country that are acting like large corporations," he said. "I would call out those operators, without a doubt, if you give me an opportunity to represent you."
Eau Claire County Farmers Union member Paul Adams, who was pushed out of business when the organic dairy market collapsed, questioned Pfaff's support for dairy growth management. In broaching the subject, Adams gave a heartfelt nod to several fellow dairy farmer neighbors who also are no longer in business and the loss of identity that he has felt in losing the farm, despite doing everything "right" according to the industry standards.
Pfaff acknowledged being all too familiar with the "squeeze on the small family farmer" and said it is past time to "put in place something that recognizes the uniqueness of a family farmer and ensure that if a farmer is putting that milk out there in a way that stewards the land and contributes to the community, they are rewarded with a fair price."
Pfaff indicated he would strive to serve on the agriculture committee in the work ahead on the 2023 Farm Bill, championing funding for regional markets, farm-to-market opportunities,
Pfaff also promised to work on improving rural emergency services, expanding broadband, Medicaid expansion and more affordable healthcare, and easing the transfer of a farm to the next generation or a beginning farmer. He stressed the importance of making sure that funding available through the Inflation Reduction Act reaches farmers through homegrown renewable energy initiatives.
“While agriculture provides $105 billion annually to our state economically, it’s what it means culturally that you can’t put a dollar and cent on,” he said.
Although election season is over, WFU and MSA will continue to collaborate to elevate the issues that matter to our members.
Wondering how you can join in WFU's efforts to improve life for family farmers and rural communities? Don't miss our Farm & Rural Lobby Day on January 18th in Madison! Sign up today at www.wisconsinfarmersunion.com.