At this year’s state convention, the assembled body of delegates worked through our policy in fine fashion. As is often the case, there was some disagreement here and there, but through dialogue on the policy floor and sidebar conversations, we were able to get through everything relatively smoothly. Still, this year was a little unique because we were presented with a couple of issues that are still plagued by misguided controversy in the public arena. Those issues were industrial hemp and medical marijuana.
Hemp should be a no-brainer for farmers, and we used to grow a lot of it in Wisconsin, too. In fact, many farmers still have a hempseed setting on their grain drills! So, of the two issues, medical marijuana was probably the one that made people feel more uncomfortable. That is understandable given how our country has talked about drugs, carried out decades-long drug wars, and even had campaigns for school-age children like the “Just Say No Club” in the 80s, which I participated in as a kid. Heck, I was even a Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) counselor in high school. If anyone should feel uncomfortable with marijuana, it’s me. Of course, marijuana’s notoriety goes back further than my lifetime, and attitudes toward marijuana were a lot more rigid then than they are now. Regardless, my point is that our delegates are made up of a wide variety of people, and each of us has our own experience and understanding of just what marijuana is. That our policy discussions, state convention, and other events provide us with opportunities to share our points of view and to learn from one another is a real testament to our organization and our willingness as members of that organization to step outside of our bubbles in order to better understand one another as well as the issues of the day.
And let’s be honest. Marijuana is far from the only issue where we’ve had disagreement that was in dire need of dialogue and educating our members. It’s also not the only issue where some members have had strong, maybe even moral, objections to something. Antibiotics use, GMOs, wolf management, the definition of a family farm, pesticide use, herbicide use, and a few others immediately come to mind. That’s just what has come up in my first few years as a member, and we made it through our policy discussion on each of them and arrived at the end with the best positions for our organization. Was there still some disagreement? Sure there was! Nonetheless, our members knew that what we had arrived at made sense even if it might not have satisfied their personal feelings 100% on the matter.
Having said that, it’s worth pointing out that many of those members then go out into the world and lobby on behalf of our organization and its members with policy positions that don’t affect their own operations, might clash with their own farming philosophy, and may actually be something they disagree with. Why do they do it? It’s because they believe in our grassroots and member-driven organization, they support our fight for family farm agriculture, and they find immense value in the democratic process we maintain. They know that we always distill from each other the best contributions to each of our policies and we are better served because of that. If we didn’t want to be a strong voice for all of agriculture and beyond, we wouldn’t keep showing up. Our diversity here in Wisconsin and nationally is also our strength! No other farming organization has policy that reminds one of tempering steel. No other farming organization seeks to represent as wide a swath of humanity and farmers as we. This is what makes us stronger, and it’s what makes people like me feel so passionate about who we are and what we do.
Now, I led with marijuana because of how contentious it often is. Granted, our delegates passed our policy on medical marijuana with a majority bordering on unanimous, but there was still some disagreement. In the end, we ended up with a member-generated and supported policy that gives us a seat at the table during policy discussions on this issue, and it also shows the outside world that we are ready and willing to engage the current, sometimes more difficult-to-navigate issues. That’s important because we don’t want to get caught without a policy position for something being discussed at the Capitol that can have an effect on our members and our state in general. In fact, we should be leading the discussion whenever possible and establishing ourselves as the go-to organization for the best ideas. Yes, frustrating political realities often won’t find value in the best ideas, but we shouldn’t let that stop us. The value will become self-evident, eventually, and when it does we will be there.
Legalizing medical marijuana for patients who can be better served by it than by other, more physically and psychologically taxing and addictive medications is one of those ideas. Giving our veterans a better option than the over-prescribed, morphine-like, and highly destructive opioids that have scourged the VA system and wrecked rural and urban communities alike is, at this point, one of the more decent things we can do. Providing therapeutic relief for children whose seizures can be treated with a medicinal extract from a plant that is grown in the dirt not only highlights our compassion as an organization but it serves as yet another example of how farmers play such an incredibly important role in people’s lives by growing the food, fuel, fiber and medicine they need. Adding anti-corporate control language and requiring a medical prescription shows that we are interested in working within the system of laws and regulations that we hold in high regard while also making sure that those systems work for us all! It’s Farmers Union in a nutshell.
Lo and behold, a little over a week after we adopted our medical marijuana policy, one of our members and farmer-veterans, Steve Acheson, was giving testimony at the Capitol along with democratic senators who are bringing a bill forward for legalizing medical marijuana. Then, after hearing the testimonies that day, the Speaker of the Assembly, Robin Vos, indicated that he was interested in the bill and may actually support it. Imagine if we didn’t have a policy position with all of this activity going on. Imagine if we couldn’t support one of our own members who himself is representing a lot of veterans in our state. Imagine a world where the current legislature took a more progressive stance than us on an issue that would undoubtedly affect farmers, our members, our veterans, and our fellow Wisconsinites. In fact, as I’m sitting here writing this, the news is saying that the Senate is expected to pass a bill supporting the legalization and medicinal use of a marijuana extract—Cannibidiol oil or CBD—and they are going to pass it today!
By now, you can probably see where I’m going with this. No matter what the issue is, we are going to have a spectrum of opinion on it. If it’s a contentious issue, there will be some of us who disagree on what’s best, and it will be our personal politics, beliefs, or opinions that drive that. There is nothing wrong with that, either, unless it gets in the way of our organization being able to speak to the issue when it matters most. Even if we disagreed with something unanimously, we should still think of ways to shape our policy so that it doesn’t box us out of the conversation. In other words, it stands to reason that even if you disagree with something or someone on a particular issue, that you would want to remain a part of the conversation as it evolved so that you could ensure that you still had input on whatever the final outcome is. An outcome, I might add, that is going to be generated by those with the power to create it. If we hamstring ourselves by limiting our engagement on the issues or by letting our personal politics get in the way, those outcomes are going to become a part of our reality and we will have had no say in how that came to be. It would seem like most people interested in guiding and informing powerbrokers and policymakers to the best policy outcomes would view this as a negative. I certainly would.
So what’s the moral of the story? For one, I believe that our future isn’t only in addressing the issues of agriculture. Our future is in all of those things in our lives that are connected to agriculture, farmers, consumers, and citizens of our state and country in general. We will remain a strong, grassroots organization by engaging in these areas and pursuing partners who we’ve probably never included under our umbrella because they weren’t “Ag enough.” Don’t get me wrong. We are, at our core, an organization focused on agriculture. The reality we are confronted with, though, is that in the past, there were far more of us to guide this organization. Now, each year we have fewer and fewer of us (farmers) in our state and across the nation. There are other people out there in the world, who aren’t farmers, but they are standing up for what’s right in many areas related—directly and indirectly—to agriculture, and we should stand with them. They need our help, and we need theirs. As we all know, there is strength in numbers. So, we must re-think how we approach society and instead of maintaining a narrow agricultural focus on the issues, we should have a constructive position on everything that is connected to us as farmers, veterans, consumers, citizens, and so on down the line. After all, we are rural America! In conclusion, I want to remind you that we have a tagline on all of our promotional materials, at our events, and in pretty much everything we do.
We say it all of the time because it’s true, “Farmers Union isn’t just for farmers”, and our policies shouldn’t be, either.